As Good Queen Bess noted in her review of the original Need for Speed in 1601, in-between denouncing its vinyl-clad carriages and under-horse neon as Godlessness, if not a plot by villainous Spaniards, this is a series with legs. She meant wheels - and she was right. These days, the yearly refresh has become as much a part of Christmas as Die Hard reruns or that nasty annual bout of conjunctivitis.
Undercover, the latest attempt, will be the twelfth entry in the series, and while the gruelling design schedule and the need for a fresh spin each time suggests that it's inevitable that at some point Need for Speed will launch its chromed and alloyed heroes into space (that actually sounds sort of enjoyable), or blast them back into the realm of fantasy for a Lord of the Rings crossover (that doesn't - and anyway, the Hobbits wouldn't be able to reach the pedals), for the time being, the street-racing series is staying earthbound. The twist this time is crime, and the results so far are actually very promising: the series may be getting on, but Undercover is looking anything but creaky.
This year's game places an undue amount of focus on its story - that story being that you're an undercover cop who's pretty much exclusively car-bound (which suggests the obligatory interrogation room scene is going to require some dazzling parallel parking). As the narrative kicks off, you're recruited by - who else? - a sexful federal agent who needs you to pass yourself off as someone who drives around really fast, doing lots of damage and pulling off crazy stunts, to get in with a bunch of criminals who drive around really fast, doing lots of damage and pulling off crazy stunts, and also crimes. As you can see, it's an extremely compelling plot.
EA is playing up the filmic aspects of the narrative, too. The fed is played by Maggie Q, whose work, I must admit, has passed me by until this point, but who has the kind of sprightly, enigmatic name that means most people probably fancy her before they've even laid eyes on her - I certainly did. The cut-scenes are the work of nameless "Hollywood talent", and at least look fairly brooding and cinematic - lots of mood lighting and shadows. It's hard to tell what the scripting and performances are like, as the associate producer running the demo found the console wars restaged in small-scale form as he tried, with no noticeable success, to get Windows Vista to interact with the Sony TV, meaning there was no sound during this part of the presentation. When Q's scenes are intercut with footage taken directly from the game engine, however, the overall success is a little easier to judge: slick as it undeniably is, you can't help but feel there's a hint of Knightmare to the whole affair.
Although the associate producer was keen to stress this was the most "evolutionary leap" the series has ever made, in reality, Undercover is hardly turning Need for Speed into a full-scale RTS in which you send battalions of neon-orange Mazdas into battle against giant mechanical dinosaurs. This still has all the spins, tricks and racing you expect - but, promisingly, it also harks back to the days of Hot Pursuit. In short, getting chased by the cops is a big part of the agenda this time around, and a much longer development time than most series entries suggests the game will be far more polished in its implementation, while also allowing the people who make it to occasionally get out of the office and see curiosities like their families and the sky.
More good news: open-world racing is back, with the game's Tri-City Bay setting made up of four different regions, three different cities, and over 160 km of drivable track. Another pleasant ramification of this design is that the police force are known as the TCBPD, which hopefully means they'll take such a long time announcing their presence over megaphones, you'll be in a different state by the time they get around to asking you to step out of your car with your hands up.
Events are accessed from an overworld map, and alongside general screwing around on the streets, you can take on races, specific challenges, and story missions, known as jobs. Sitting down with the game for a few hours gave me a chance to try out a handful of modes, and what's immediately apparent is that, despite overly-reflective roadways which can occasionally give you the impression you're driving down some kind of mirror-ball disco highway designed by Earth, Wind and Fire, the game looks lovely. The landscape is filled with gently rolling So-Cal hills and shapely stucco buildings, and magic hour lighting fills the screen with a smoggy golden haze, giving Undercover an instantly recognisable identity. "We're a phototropic species - we respond instinctively to nice lights," explains associate producer Jesse Abney. That's true, Jesse - and it was nice of you to mention it.
Car models are more beautiful than ever this year, and procedural damage provides a pleasant alternative to looking at the same old crack in the windscreen over and over again. A series strength, the game's audio makes everything on screen almost twice as effective, with throaty engine roars and sharp squeals from the brakes when you try to avoid an oncoming bus.
And the car handling is gently improved on this outing, with a greater sense of connection between wheel and road. Slotting myself into a Highway Battle - where the task is to get a certain distance ahead of another car - the gameplay pieces all fall into place. Hurtling down a busy dual carriageway at an altogether unnecessary speed, like Burnout, the game asks you to use the traffic strategically. Cars signal as they change lanes, allowing you to manipulate events with a little careful shunting, and if you time things just right, it's possible to keep your rival clogged behind vans three cars behind you, while you weave in and out of pick-ups and lorries. Debris, such as bumpers and bonnets, also plays a strategic role in holding your enemy at bay, and things take on an altogether different level of complexity when a police car is thrown into the mix: now you have to keep ahead of your opponent, take as many risks as you can, but still avoid alerting the cops.
Moving onto a job gives a sense of how the story element is going to work. It seems that the villains I'm trying to get in with don't think that I'm a big enough criminal, so I have to prove them wrong by stealing a cop car. The problem is, the cops like their cars, and want this one back. Cue an open-world escape and evade, with at least six cruisers in pursuit from the word go.
While damage is purely cosmetic in most modes, in missions like this, you'll fail if you can't keep your car in nice shape. That's easier said than done, because the AI is the best I've ever seen in a Need for Speed game, with pursuers happy to ram you, eager to overtake and cut you off, or even arrange roadblocks further down the line. Helicopters alert other units to your presence as you approach, and fairly soon, you'll be wheel-deep in dust and blue bumpers. Helpful hints like "Don't Total the Car!" pop up on screen if you're taking too much damage (why can't real cars have this sort of feature?), and a bar at the bottom of the display shows you how far away from safety you are.
Inevitably, the solution lies with going off road, taking a country path for example, or busting through a set of chained gates, but it's only when I discover that the X button allows me to invoke judicious periods of bullet time where I can ram enemies through nearby barns that I start to make good my escape. Bullet time may hardly be a revolutionary feature, but it can almost always be relied upon for quick snorts of fun - use slo-mo to nudge a patrol car into a bridge section and you can't help but feel brilliant, even if the moment does have more to do with Criterion than Maggie Q and company.
Outside of the jobs, it was promisingly enjoyable just driving around, and, with a constant threat gauge to take into account, being spotted by random police cruisers provides regular adrenalin bursts as you struggle to ditch them in often inconvenient circumstances.
Alongside all this, there's the customisation options we've all come to expect from the series, along with an RPG levelling system - it automatically assigns points, sadly - feeding into "wheelman skills" and vehicle attributes such as the engine, suspension, and brakes. Multiplayer sounds intriguing, particularly the Cops and Robbers mode, which sees four versus four in a vehicular version of capture the flag. Most importantly, however, it really seems that the team have nailed the core experience. On the road with three cops on your tail, when you're micro-surgically timing the bullet time, the game feels a lot like a blend of the best parts of Hot Pursuit and Burnout 3. Whatever your opinion on Maggie Q, that can only be a good thing.