It’s easy to be pessimistic about EA’s Need for Speed franchise. Considering the staggering number of titles to bear the brand name (this is the 12th game since the franchise’s inception in 1994), there have been precious few true classics. However, we admit to having the faintest degree of anticipation for Need for Speed Underground; not only does this game promise a vastly-improved driving experience, it also harks back to the highpoint of NFS: Most Wanted, which is arguably the best NFS game of recent memory.
As the title suggests you assume the role of a cop working undercover to catch nefarious bad guys who happen to like illegally racing fast sports cars. If you’ve witnessed the original Fast and the Furious movie then you’ll know exactly what to expect here; the plot is wafer-thin and almost entirely unappealing, but at least it provides an adequate backdrop for the gameplay, which is really all that matters.
As opposed to offering a race-by-race structure, Undercover boasts a free-roaming city. You can drive around and engage in various race situations, including standard circuit races, point-to-point events (like those seen in Burnout Paradise and Midnight Club) and highway dashes. The latter is particularly interesting as you’re simply tasked with racing your rival on a straight section of road, the caveat being that you have to avoid other traffic. By winning these events you can acquire money and upgrade your car.
Even though you’re a cop, your petrol-head activities naturally attract the attention of the law (it’s called Undercover for a reason), and it’s this aspect of the game that really appeals. Being forced to furiously outrun the long arm of the law makes for some particularly tense gameplay; the only drawback is that it makes the ‘racing’ portion of the game seem a little dull in comparison.
To assist you in your quest to bring down the evil racing syndicate you’re gifted with fancy abilities such as ‘Speed Breaker’ and ‘Nitro Boost’. The former allows you to slow down time, Matrix-style, which naturally gives you more opportunity to react when you’re involved in a heated car chase. The latter does exactly what you’d expect it to do – namely give your car a rocket up the posterior to boost its top speed and acceleration.
The DS version of Undercover does a pretty decent job of replicating the features of the home-console variants but predictably sacrifices have had to be made. The visuals aren’t stunning by at stretch of the imagination, and we can only presume this is because of the demand made on the DS by the free-roaming environments. There’s also a distinct lack of traffic in the game, which gives the city a rather empty feeling. Anyone that who has played any of the Burnout games will tell you, dodging in and out of unsuspecting road users is incredible fun, and that is absent here. A raft of multiplayer modes round off the package but even online events can’t buttress the seriously flagging Undercover experience.
The sad truth is that while the developer should be commended for keeping so much of the ‘next gen’ experience intact for this conversion, what they’ve come up with is essentially a rather sparse facsimile of an already underwhelming game. Undercover will no doubt shift a fair few copies on the DS but we’d rather EA concentrate on offering experiences that make use of the console’s unique features rather than pump out watered-down next-gen ports such as this.