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.