NFS Undercover: I love you, but I hate you

I picked up NFS Undercover because I harbor a secret addiction to arcade-esque driving games. I’ve previously played Carbon and Pro Street and felt their strengths outweighed their weaknesses, so I was looking forward to Undercover.

It’s a beautiful game. The graphics are crisp, the lighting at times does a great job of catching the dawn/dusk tones, and it’s actually fun to just drive around, something that the previous two games were lacking. The car handling feels right; the differences between vehicles is clear and exposes the player’s handling issues quite quickly. The music selection is superb and brings the right mood to the events.

Plot in driving games generally seems to be an irrelevance, an excuse to chain races together. While that’s still true in the NFS games, the developers still make an effort to put some direction on that vector. Sadly, Undercover lacks Tahmoh Penikett, but there are a fair number of cut scenes that try to build a story out of the street events.

The plot-driven races are much more interesting than Carbon’s, which consisted of canyon racing with bosses at each stage. Undercover will have you stealing cars, running courier missions, and taking out enforcers, as well as the usual race against a boss. It’s not a huge amount of variety, but it makes the races more engaging and keeps things interesting.

There is, as usual for the NFS series, a huge variety of cars- American, Japanese, and European which, when combined with Undercover’s huge assortment of kit changes (body, paint, and so forth), makes it easy to make the player’s car unique. The usual trend of three levels of performance enhancement in broad areas (engine, suspension, etc) continues.

Much as I love playing Undercover, I find myself gritting my teeth at times. The player can’t sell cars. You can buy as many as you’d like and keep them in your garage, but you can’t sell them. Scrap them if you’d like, but you’ll never see a dime back from it. The sole exception to the no-sell rule seems to be the player’s starting car, which is of course not worth much.

Continuing the car ownership focus, the player pays full price for every car, from run-of-the-mill to exotic. Let me be clear here- I’m not looking to walk onto the lot and haggle down a guy in a plaid blazer. It’s just annoying that, in a game which involves stealing cars, the player needs to pay full price. Why not buy a hot car or, possibly, steal one myself?

Once you save up and buy that fantasy vehicle you’ve had your eye on, you won’t even be able to drive it in every mission. In courier missions, for example, the player is told to drive from point A to point B as quickly as possible, typically avoiding police and criminals along the way. Fine, no problem, that’s why I bought a Gallardo. When the mission starts, however, I’m driving a POS Chevy with no pickup and sloppy handling. Why? Never explained.

NFS Carbon had gangs; they worked as teams during races to make sure that one of them finished first. This was nice, quasi-realistic and brought a bit of strategy into picking partners. This mechanic doesn’t really fit Undercover’s design, so I understand why it’s not in there. Someone should’ve adjusted the AI a bit to compensate. Race competitors will swerve to hit you, pin you against a wall, and generally sacrifice themselves to make sure you don’t finish. Cute, but annoying; they won’t be finishing either.

In Carbon, your grid position varied somewhat. In every race in Undercover, you will start last. No matter what. In every road duel or “outrun” race, your opponent will be ahead of you and moving faster. This started out as a welcome challenge, but it gets old quickly. Combined with the sacrifice collisions of the other cars ahead of you in the grid, can make races frustrating to start. Once you’ve pumped up your car’s acceleration, it’s positively frustrating because you can’t take advantage of that pickup.

Speaking of pickup- Undercover uses an explicit levelling system. You earn experience points for risky or skillful moves during a race. Your level is a factor in plot advancement as well as the races open to you. This is nicely done; it’s fun to figure out how to game the system and you always know where you stand. When you “dominate” a race or advance a level, Undercover gives you a bonus in any one of a large number of mechanical categories, such as braking, suspension, transmission and acceleration. You may also earn bonuses in point collection, cash received, or reputation.

It’s not clear how the mechanical bonuses (expressed as a percentage) affect the gameplay. What does +8% suspension mean for me? Do I corner 8% more sharply? I know what suspension is, and I know what 8% is, but I have no idea how the one affects the other. This could’ve been translated into a more abstract reward system.

Undercover is what I’d consider an arcade racing game; damage has little (if any) effect on gameplay. You can total your car, but it’s tough at beginning speeds. For missions where damage is important- such as theft- it’s displayed as a bar which decrements no matter what part of the car is struck.
That’s appropriate, no problem there. Other drivers, however, are homicidal. Not just the police, from whom I’ve come to expect this in the NFS games. Other racers, as I’ve mentioned above, love to swipe and pin you. OK, it’s an arcade game.

The daily commuters, who are generally just moving obstacles in the NFS games, are homicidal in Undercover. They will swerve into the player’s car and zig zag unpredictably if they see you coming. If struck, commuters will immediately go into the same smash & pin mindset as other racers: swerving into you, going broadside against you, and going out of their way to strike the car. I wouldn’t expect this from a soccer mom on the way home in her minivan. Thankfully, there are no Progressive vans to be seen, which were like unto a plague of locusts in Carbon.

These are minor gripes and, to be clear, gameplay complaints. Technically, the game succeeds and is a blast to play. I think a mixture of night and day races would better show off the engine, though. I’m not sure players have to alternate between the extremees of Carbon’s all-night events and Undercover’s always-daylight races. There’s an Alaska reference in there somewhere, I’m sure.

If you skipped NFS:Most Wanted, go grab a copy from the bin and give it a try. In my opinion, the NFS series hit its second peak with that game (the first being Porsche Unleashed), and it’s been on a downward trajectory ever since. I would rank Most Wanted as second only to the very first NFS.

Admittedly, I haven’t given Undercover a lot of time yet, but the changes they’ve made seem to amount to backward steps. Even the driving model, arcade as it is, feels less refined than it was in either Carbon or MW. I also recall reading that the lack of customization options was a response to the changing tastes of gamers. I have to wonder if the focus groups were having some fun with the developers.