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Need for Speed: Undercover
Score: 78%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Black Box Games
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1, 2 - 8 (Online)
Genre: Racing (Arcade)/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
The developers of Need for Speed: Undercover took an interesting route with their video sequences; while most games these days take advantage of the fact that we can make hyper-realistic looking computer graphics and use computer-generated graphics in their video sequences, Need for Speed: Undercover actually uses filmed sequences. It looks good, and has an artistic style that might leave you wondering if you were watching computer graphics or filmed video, but it works for the game.

The action sequences, with the car racing down the road, are computer-generated, but looks nearly movie quality, while using the in-game engine. As a result, when you transition from watching an action sequence to being in control of the car for the first time, you may be taken by surprise, as I was.

The car models look nice, are of real-world cars, and can actually take damage. You have the ability to paint the car, modify the body with aftermarket pieces and apply decals, all simliar to Forza games, but the vinyl isn't shown to online opponents, so I leave it up to you to determine if it's worth it, and, in addition to this, they nickle and dime you to death with the modifications, so I found this aspect to be more annoying than anything else.

The music, on the other hand, is great. Pumping tunes for racing around the city are used, but with some more Rap edge to them in a way that seems befitting to the city. The cars' sound effects sound pretty good to me as well, but it's not like I have a fleet of exotic, highly-tuned racing machines in my garage so that I can go compare engine sounds or anything. Mainly, the sound does its job of allowing you to more readily accept the fiction that is the game in front of you and then, for the most part, steps aside and lets you concentrate on the game at hand.

There are quite a variety of gameplay modes to choose from in Need for Speed: Undercover. Some of these are straight-up races, either point-to-point or checkpoint-based. Others are one-on-one races where you have to remain in the lead for a certain amount of time or pull a certain distance ahead of your opponent. These have a bit of an interesting twist in that there is no set path, so if you're in the lead, you decide where the race takes you, but if you're following your opponent, you have to be careful not to take a wrong turn, or it can all be over really quick.

Underground uses a real-world interface; just drive around the map and you'll be alerted to missions in your local area. If you are impatient, hitting the (Select) button will pop up a mission that is needed to advance the storyline, and pressing (Up) on the D-pad will take you to a map interface that shows all currently available missions, and indicates the missions that are needed to progress with flashing icons. These features allow you to quickly jump into missions, rather than having to drive to the locations in which they exist.

All of the "missions" in Need for Speed: Underground take the form of races of one sort or another. Some of the races are simply to prove that you have mad skillz, so you can attract the attention of low-lifes, while other missions have you racking up damage to the state by banging up police cruisers and proving that you have the mad skillz to evade the police. The over-arching goal, of course, is that you prove yourself to be the baddest of the bad so that the criminal element will accept you as not just one of their own, but one of the best wheelmen around.

To this end, you not only are expected to win events, you're expected to dominate the events, coming in way ahead or exceeding your stated goals. This may be why the difficulty is, in general, lower than I expected.

One thing that bugged me about the way the races worked is the fact that you are kept "on course" by strategically placed barriers that look like concrete construction barriers. This would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that the "traffic" can drive stright through them... and the traffic doesn't modify their normal (scripted) routes simply because you're racing. What this means is that you'll plan to go past a car in-between it and a construction barrier only to have the car suddenly turn into (and through) the barrier, directly in front of you, causing you to crash into it suddenly - and possibly costing you the current race. This could have been handled in several other ways, either by having the traffic stay on the course as if the construction was real, or by indicating on-screen that the barriers were only observed by the racers by making it look like a heads-up display or similar... the way that Undercover handles it simply catches me off-guard from time to time and tends to be really annoying when it does.

I was quite surprised to find that the difficulty in Need for Speed: Undercover was all over the place. The first several races with the default car were laughably easy - often to the point that I was wondering if I was going the right way, as no opponents remained on the map behind me. This all ended abruptly when I came up against a "mini-boss"... the first race that actually advanced the story, I suppose. This race was much harder, requiring me to have to restart the race around six times. I would say that, at six times, that would make it a little harder than the level of difficulty I would have expected, but not by much. Upon winning this race, however, I got to choose from a list of seven pink slips, so I added a new and much more capable car to my garage. Again, the difficulty got much, much easier. Having the new, faster car definitely played a part in it, but anytime you finish a race over eleven seconds in the lead... you're not dealing with cars in the same class. Or, well, something's off.

One thing behind this amount of ease may be that you're trying to make a name for yourself and you're not just expected to "win" the races - you're expected to "dominate" them. At any rate, it seems like you're racing by yourself, at times. Generally, I found that dominating events was usually very easy, with the occasional difficult job here and there.

Game Mechanics:
I've liked Need for Speed games since way back in the day, on the Commodore 64. I've played most of them, over the years, and I feel fairly safe in saying that Need for Speed: Undercover is the prettiest Need for Speed game yet. The visuals are great and the feel of speeding down the city streets is well done, but there are some design decisions that I simply don't understand.

First, you would think that Need for Speed: Undercover was given away for free with the number of ways the game whores itself out for cold, hard cash. It's rare that you see a game that charges you on a per-layer basis for adding vinyl graphics to your car, but I don't think I've ever seen another game that actually gives you the option to purchase upgrades for your car with cash, via the PlayStation Store. If you find that you're low on in-game cash, you can use the PlayStation Store option to buy the upgrades for your in-game vehicles. I thought that was the reason for playing the game... to earn more money to buy more upgrades to do better in more races. Besides this, the difficulty makes it very easy to simply wait until you've got enough winnings to buy the upgrades you want. Really... This has to be aimed at extremely impatient gamers with more dollars than sense.

Secondly, the fact that the vinyl graphics you shell out in-game (or grade "A" American) cash for don't display when you're playing against online opponents. This is spelled out to you before you start adding graphics, but this is the one way that players can set themselves apart, express themselves artistically and introduce a sense of personality into the game... well, it would have been, anyway.

All-in-all, Need for Speed: Undercover is a good game, but one that seems to suffer a bit from balancing issues and an aggressive add-on sales model (via PlayStation Store). You shouldn't ever need to actually use cash to buy upgrades, however, unless you're wanting to buy all of the cars in the game or you're really impatient. If you're looking for a great looking game to show off to your friends, Need for Speed: Underground is about as good as you're going to get with a racing game, to date. The gameplay isn't overly challenging or groundbreaking, but it's fun enough, with a nice dose of realism. If you're in the market for a new racing game for your PS3, I would recommend this one, as long as you're not the tweaking type who wants to show their creativity online.

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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