Written by: Rik

Date posted: May 5, 2017

You'll be jumping through that concrete cylinder. Or hitting it, depending on how things go.

You’ll be jumping through that concrete cylinder. Or hitting it, depending on how things go.

After the triumph that was Most Wanted, Need for Speed: Carbon showed signs of a series that was running out of ideas. In an attempt to shake things up a bit, the racing was taken off the streets and onto the track in Need for Speed: Pro Street. It’s a game I would have been perfectly happy to try but, having been foiled once by an eBay copy that didn’t include a serial key, I then found the game refusing to work on my Win 8.1 machine. To be frank, there was more faffing around than I was willing to undertake in order to try a game that wasn’t particularly well received.

Indeed, EA openly admitted their disappointment with Pro Street, and with Undercover beat a hasty return to the city-based mayhem of Black Box’s earlier efforts. You can hardly blame them, I suppose, although even Most Wanted’s most fervent supporters would probably suggest that just rehashing that successful recipe one more time wouldn’t be sufficient. We do have a twist, of sorts, in that this time you’re not a filthy street racer, but a cop, forced to go undercover (Undercover!) on behalf of the Department of Unusually Long-Winded and Expensive Resolution of Crime. It sounds unconventional, but driving around in fast cars all day smashing up scenery, causing accidents, and leading traffic officers on wild goose chases is the only way to find out more about the people who do crime and somehow stop them.

The video cut scenes feature the moderately-famous Maggie Q as Inspector Chase Linh, your handler on the case. She spends the bulk of her time hanging around in a hotel room looking at a laptop and sending you urgent voice messages about how you need to do much more racing to help solve the bad crimes. What this means in practice is that there are certain story-based missions which you have to complete in order to move things along. In the meantime, you are given a shit car and the opportunity to enter a variety of street races in order to earn money, boost your reputation and make further progress.

Once again, you can use use the marked 'pursuit breakers' to put obstacles in the way of chasing police cars, or AI opponents.

Once again, you can use use the marked ‘pursuit breakers’ to put obstacles in the way of chasing police cars, or AI opponents.

The structure of the races will be largely familiar to anyone who’s played NFS since Underground: Circuit is lap-based racing against opponents, Sprint is point to point against opponents, and Checkpoint is a race against the clock. New this time is Highway Battle, which involves weaving through heavy traffic while trying to get ahead of a single opponent and stay there, until you get a certain distance between you or the timer runs out, and is actually quite good. Also new is Outrun, which is similar, except you have free reign to race all over the city until one of you stays ahead for a certain period of time, and is not so good, mainly because your opponents often do something stupid and get stuck on the scenery while you race away to victory. Success in races ups your Wheelman level, unlocking more races and providing you with an array of baffling and largely meaningless performance bonuses.

Let’s deal with the story bits first. From a gameplay perspective, it usually means you’re placed in a mystery car, in a whole heap of police trouble, with the need to get somewhere, possibly having to lose the police, avoid damage or meet a set time limit along the way. To be honest, this kind of stuff belongs in a GTA or Driver game, not Need for Speed, and those games do it better. There are various missions that require you to ‘take out’ (ie smash off the road) other cars, which seems to be borrowed from EA’s other big racing franchise, Burnout, but they’re just dreadful: instead of a high speed knockout it soon descends into tedious low-speed three point turns and half-hearted collisions. The missions also frequently end far too abruptly, with little fanfare. At one point I ended one by reaching the agreed checkpoint in time, but then accidentally crashed into a petrol station, at which point I was given a brief message of acknowledgment before being left to manoeuvre myself out of the rubble.

I may have retrospectively imbued previous NFS video sequences with a camp, knowing quality that they perhaps didn’t possess, but certainly my memory of Carbon was that things were heading in that direction. Here, the more serious tone taken lends the impression that any comic elements are largely unintentional. As we mentioned, Maggie Q is in a hotel room the whole time, possibly because she was just in town for the day and didn’t want to leave; the low level bosses all look like they’ve escaped from a Maroon 5 concert; higher up, there’s “G-Mac”, not played by ex-Leeds and Scotland midfielder Gary McCallister, but by a chap who used to be in The Shield. He looks like an actor on his day off, and I suppose he might well be. Elsewhere you have singer Christina Milian (From AM to PM, remember that?) popping up as the innocent who’s very confused about everything and just needs to be saved by a big strong man who is good at driving.

Yes, that car certainly has been delivered in good condition. Just a couple of scratches, they'll buff right out.

Yes, that car certainly has been delivered in good condition. Just a couple of scratches, they’ll buff right out.

The dialogue is occasionally very silly: I’d like to believe that lines such as “Word on the street is, you’ve got skills” were written with tongue in cheek, because if not, it means someone genuinely gave it some thought and considered that this was a perfectly fine thing to include in a script. Also, in addition to missions ending abruptly, there’s also not a huge amount of effort put into explaining exactly how your latest race and police chase helped progress the investigation, other than some vague voicemail encouragement from Maggie.

But you can take such things with a pinch of salt, and the story missions are hardly representative of the whole game. Unfortunately, though, the actual racing bits don’t stand up either. For a start, the whole thing is far too easy. Most will sail through early events on the first go, without being troubled by other racers. It’s so routine that occasionally you forget that you’re in a race and think you’re just cruising around the city for a laugh, like when Midtown Madness first came out and the prospect of racing around an open city was vaguely novel. At times, my mind started to wander, to the extent that I created a whole subplot about my character being a shellsuit-wearing oddball called The European, who would only drive German cars and spoke with an accent of indeterminate origin.

Things do eventually get tougher, but at that point the cars have become ludicrously fast with incredibly forgiving handling, and the whole thing just feels vaguely surreal. It reminded me very much of the failings of Black Box’s NFS swansong, The Run, a promising concept undermined by someone going, shall we make it necessary to drive flat out at all times? No, don’t worry about the handling. Just make the cars go really fast, that’ll do.

These tedious smashing bits are a low point.

These tedious smashing bits are a low point.

There are also weird anomalies, such as the occasionally-impossible Master Events, in which AI opponents can be known to take an impregnable 20 second lead soon after the start, or races thar are easier to win with your crap old car than your newly-acquired and upgraded one. The latter case made me suspicious of upgrading at all, at which point I realised that you don’t really need to spend any money on cars because the game gives you a free one at various points in the story. This is in the guise of winning an opponent’s ‘pink slip’, although this doesn’t, bizarrely, give you their souped-up ride, but a stock version of it, straight from the showroom.

The original Need for Speed may be a distant memory, but it attempted to engender some sense of appreciation for, and attachment to, the cars you were driving. Even in Underground, where the pseudo-sim elements and the dashboard view were long gone, there was something about all that ludicrous customisation that went some way towards making you feel like your car was something you owned (All hail TigerCar etc). In Most Wanted, I kept at least two top spec cars in the garage towards the end of the game, to manage heat levels and guard against having one impounded. Here, there are lots of cars but they seem interchangeable. There’s very little reason to buy or customise a car that you don’t win, unless you have a particular desire for one that isn’t available this way. But there’s nothing about a car, other than its role as your avatar, that makes you favour it over another that would do exactly the same job. It should be part of any decent racing game, really: none of the available vehicles should tick all the boxes (performance, handling etc) so you should have to make a choice according to your preferences. Here, any of them will get the job done.

On the positive side…there’s a large city, and the visuals capture the sun-drenched feeling of, say, the Miami or the L.A of early Fast and Furious films (although on occasion the sun really is too bright and actually has you reaching for some sunglasses before you realise this won’t actually help). The Highway Battle events, as already mentioned, are good, tense slices of head-to-head racing. Many of the other races have marked and unmarked shortcuts, mastery of which could have been interesting, had the action itself been more challenging. The damage modelling is more detailed. And there’s some level of excitement during police chases (although nothing close to the white knuckle tension of Most Wanted).

Having a bit of a lark about at the petrol station.

Having a bit of a lark about at the petrol station.

But, other than a brief sweet spot using a Tier 3 car at Wheelman level 11, I found that the driving was pretty unsatisfying. Black Box’s first effort, Underground, for all its silly posturing, was at least about something: there was a style, overwhelming you with sound and colour, while you immersed yourself in claustrophobic inner city racing, squeezing through gaps, making tight turns and desperately trying to avoid a mistake that would inevitably cost you the race. Undercover has certainly got sharper visuals, but the setting is unfocused and the racing is comparatively pedestrian. Even the soundtrack is missing any memorable songs this time around, although there’s some NIN shoehorned in there. On top of all that, there are bugs and glitches galore. The game crashed on me frequently, often reverting to 640×480 and minimum detail when I restarted. One mission refused to start altogether until I Googled a workaround.

One of the advantages of looking back at games after the event is that, although you may miss out on all the new game hype and excitement, any anger and disappointment is likely to be less severe. And I rarely think much about the person who paid 40 quid when it first came out. This time, though, I do see why someone who bought this at the time might have been a bit cheesed off, and I can also understand the terrible reviews (3/10 in Edge, although that was for the PS3 version which apparently had even more performance issues). With time, you can be a bit more forgiving, but there’s no escaping the fact that Undercover is a little bit rubbish, really. Black Box deserve great credit for rescuing the franchise, but this was a sure sign their time was almost up. In a desperate bid to return to a winning formula, they haven’t delivered more of the same, but something that’s worse. There’s something here for fans of lightweight arcade racers, and those interested in the history of the series, but otherwise there’s little reason for anyone else to check it out.