Version tested: Xbox 360
Style over substance. Lowest common denominator. Appalling frame-rate. Cheesy cut-scenes. Flattened difficulty curve. BANG BANG. Sorry readers, the Need For Speed review generator escaped. Won't happen again. Once in a blue moon, EA actually gets things right, as anyone who ever played Hot Pursuit or Most Wanted will attest, and the fact that Undercover brings back some of the best ideas - namely the cop chases - from both of those titles bodes well for it not being another pile of Pimp My Ride nonsense.
This time, the predictably ludicrous premise is that you're an undercover cop 'going deep' with the Tri-State criminal underworld, gaining their trust and respect by having unintentionally amusing facial hair and driving competently. To do this, you dive into a series of jobs and race challenges and periodically face off against stern-faced individuals recovering from irony-bypass surgery. When you're not arching your eyebrows implausibly, you'll be mixing it with improbably-toned women who like the throb of well-tuned innuendo.
Silly story aside, on the surface Undercover has all the ingredients for a solid and enjoyable, albeit derivative openworld street-racing game. It's certainly varied, with all the modes you could ask for from standard Circuit races to solo checkpoint-based affairs, sprints and face-offs, where staying ahead of a rival for a set distance or amount of time is the aim.
Best of all, though, is the return of Most Wanted's most engaging mode. Pursuit events work just like they did before, and comprise Cop Take-Out, Cost To State and Escape. In Cop Take-Out you destroy a set number of police vehicles within a time limit, luring them into building sites and under bridges and other precarious structures before creating an instant roadblock. Cost To State works in the same way, but with overall collateral damage your primary concern, while Escape involves shaking the pursuing lawmen. All play out in similar fashion, which is to say destructive mayhem and tension.
The problem with all this, though, is that it's too easy. Really, pathetically easy. NFS games have always been easy, but Undercover is designed for stupid or intolerant people who must win every time. The extent to which the game debases itself to allow this is beyond parody, with nothing left to chance in awarding players that all-important first place. The super-elastic AI is designed to ensure that other racers slow down whenever you crash and rarely race their own race. And while we can accept arcade racing games giving us a bit of corner assist rather than punishing the player for every screw-up (Burnout's been doing it for years, for instance), Undercover takes the idea to ludicrous extremes, allowing you to plough your car directly into corners and bounce magically in the correct direction with barely any loss of speed. It's all so transparent that any potential excitement goes out of the window.
Because the handling model is so spectacularly forgiving, you hardly let go of the accelerator at all. As long as you steer in vaguely the right direction it's almost impossible to lose the first 50 events. Summoning the will to through such a tediously unchallenging game in the hope of better things is harder than anything.
We only bothered because the other NFS games often improve after a spell, and the same is true here. As things finally toughen up, they get more interesting. All the events below level 10 are an utter waste of time for anyone who has ever played a racing game - as long as you upgrade your car as much as possible you'll win at a canter - but with the arrival of level 10, races become longer, the AI starts competing, and you find yourself concentrating to achieve the same feats. It's taken ten hours to warm up, but the races become tense, exciting battles, weaving in and out of the traffic to get ahead. Even nonentities like Sprint, Checkpoint and Circuit races begin to realise their potential, and the in-game jobs offered are similarly perilous, as you dodge roadblocks and evade helicopters to reach your destination intact. Pursuits, too, become a test of resolve. Once SUVs and the Feds start getting involved, and helicopter patrols sweep the skies, it's like playing a different game altogether. Previous tactics go out of the window, and carefully plotting a route that takes into account Pursuit Breaker points and cooldown spots becomes all-important - just like it was in Most Wanted, in fact.
Sadly none of this can mask the woeful lack of optimisation, with frame-rate issues rife as the game struggles with the detail. Dig beneath this, though, and the orange-tinged, Burnout Paradise-influenced art style is the most fetching in a while for NFS. There are still a few questionable effects, like the fluffy smoke and oilslick roads, but the game's capable of arresting rural vistas and moments of quality.
Even the soundtrack's pretty decent, and there are other things to applaud as well, like the slick interface, and fast-travel to races and GPS event-selection. Restarting failed events is a piece of cake (unlike, say, Burnout Paradise), and even the customisation element is well-managed and not at all overbearing, with plenty of upgrade routes to sift through, but only if you fancy. Performance tinkering is only ever a couple of button presses away, with shortcut packages for those who just want to race. Online is also a pleasing diversion. The four-a-side team-based Cops and Robbers mode is a lot of fun, and involves one side picking up stolen cash while the other players chase them down, swapping sides for the next round.
Despite overwhelming condemnation from the wider world then, Undercover is eventually a reasonably decent game. It's just a shame it takes so long to get there, when a simple difficulty level could have jumped the tedium.
5 / 10