I took a brief look at the PlayStation 3 version of Need For Speed: Undercover when it came out, but dismissed it for its clumsy storytelling and especially the very dodgy framerate. I have now been playing the PC version and liking it much more than what seems suitable.
There’s a lot wrong with the game, chiefly the driving model is not satisfying and the technology is unstable – the framerate is all over the place as some places are smooth, yet the next corner might stutter, regardless of how low the resolution and graphics settings are. This was the issue with the console iterations, as well, so I guess it’s a problem with their engine. Oh, and it doesn’t render in widescreen, which seems just odd. You’d think that a car game would be crippled with these flaws.
EA Black Box is doing a lot of things right in Undercover and it makes me wish they had had a little more time to optimize and fine tune things. The game’s premise about an undercover cop taking on a street racing criminal league is prime videogame fodder – cliched, yes, but workable. They don’t try to make it be more than it is. You won’t get too excited and I suspect that was never the intention – it’s there as a framework to give some context to the racing. The live action video is just brainless and harmless enough to not offend with its low-brow cliches and music video aesthetics. Related to that, the soundtrack is more interesting than usual, mixing quite a bit of styles with cinematic, dynamic chase pieces when applicable.
What they’re doing with cinema conventions is very good. The pre-race and post-race cuts are well done, with the player thrown behind the wheel on the fly. Probably the best example of this is the introduction scene with a helicopter camera chase flowing into an interstate chase, but it’s all good throughout. A highlight are the interstate chases, where the camera is thrown into the bonnet view to good effect, regardless of what’s the player’s default camera preference.
Their environment is not very interesting, being a non-descript metropolis, yet they manage to put it to good use. There’s a sense of exploration as you find out and learn to use the various hiding spots, roadblocks and shortcuts. They mix up the gameplay with varied game modes all the time and you’re never doing quite the same thing over and over again.
The constant dynamic with the police lifts the racing gameplay above its level. It’s just fun to figure out ways to outrun them, including collapsing structures on chasing cops and hiding from choppers under bridges. The cops even bring more depth to your garage – as you commit crimes in a given vehicle, the cops are more likely to notice it and give it more of a chase. You should then either alter its appearance (yes, a reason for a new paintjob, custom rims and stickers) or let it cool off in the garage for a while and take another set of wheels.
Despite quite severe performance issues (granted, I’m playing on a laptop, but it’s very close to their “recommended” system, way above the “minimum”) and the slightly unpredictable, on-rails driving, I’m enjoying my time undercover.
Update: Editing the registry helped with the resolution, along with some of the performance issues. I also actually did not think of patching the game at first, as I’m so used to console games and Steam keeping me always up to date automatically. I’m not sure if the patching helped with the performance, but it did double the loading times. I also managed to make my system go bonkers upon the installation of new display drivers, which I then had to remove manually and hack to make them work (four hours, total). PC gaming, yeah… On the other hand, there’s a post I should write about the many joys of Plant Vs. Zombies.