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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Need for Speed: Undercover (Playstation 3)

EA's Need for Speed series is back on the chase with NFS: Underground for the PS3. It returns to the familiar formula of high-speed police chases through an expansive urban environment as players try and evade capture from the local cops. The new 'heroic driving' system allows you to pull off cool moves such as drifting and spins easily. Underground's open-ended urban locations include some impressively rendered locations, extreme lighting effects like glare and reflections plus realistic car models. An impressive online mode adds cops and robbers modes, and is also loads of fun. Look inside and discover why Need for Speed: Underground marks a pleasing return to form for this long-running franchise.

Players who wondered why Need For Speed seemed to go completely off the track with last year's somewhat disappointing ProStreet should be happy to know that the chase is back on, while the realistic, but dull track racing and decal-heavy is gone. Instead, EA seems to have gone back to their roots, and Undercover more closely resembles NFS: Most Wanted & Carbon. It's open-ended city environment is huge and expansive, giving players plenty of room to explore. The police are back on your trail this time, as you play an undercover detective looking to infiltrate a street racing gang. While you are technically on the right side of the law, you have to drive convincingly enough to earn the trust of the street gangs. You can do this initially by winning races against them, with circuit, track and sprint courses available to play. As you defeat your opponents and win races, you'll earn points that are added to your driving abilities, such as increased engine and braking. It's an interesting system that allows you to level up through winning, automatically improving your performance. You start off with a fairly low-key, basic vehicle but can win more by collecting pink slips. These sports cars perform impressively, but you need to be careful and not get yourself busted, or else they'll disappear from your garage just as quickly. While the initial stages limit your vehicles, many more can be unlocked as you progress through the game. There are more than 50 available in all, most of which are high-end sports cars from manufacturers such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan. Each of the in-game vehicles looks spectacular, with photo-realistic modeling that is especially visible at close-range. The game's physics model isn't quite as authentic, but it's still fun to drive these screaming monsters around.

NFS: Undercover's gameplay is solidly entertaining and the basics should be instantly familiar for NFS veterans, especially those who played Carbon or Most Wanted. Its still an action packed racer, though with more emphasis on flashy moves and mechanics with fewer nods to realism than in previous titles. This is largely due to the new game's 'heroic driving' engine which lets you perform special moves such as drifting, burnouts and massive spinouts effortlessly and performing these moves adds to your driver's abilities. Driving is quite intense especially as you race through the game's massive levels, weaving in and out of traffic, make sharp turns and perform massive jumps to evade your pursuers. This makes for some fairly exciting and dramatic racing action . The controls are fairly simple with surprisingly responsive handling. Underground makes it much easier to perform these stunts and it makes the driving almost instantly accessible. While your initial impressions of the game might be underwhelming, you have to wait until you get the higher-octane vehicles in order to fully experience just how intense the gameplay can get. The later missions are more complicated, as you move from simply racing to avoiding capture in a stolen vehicle to collecting and learning the secrets of your opponents to get yourself into even more elaborate missions.

Unfortunately, your cool driving skills won't go un-noticed by the police, who will quickly spot you out and begin chasing you immediately. You have to evade them, but it isn't that simple, since they now have helicopters to help them locate your vehicle and will set up road-blocks to impeded your progress. The cops are much more aggressive than in previous games and the longer a chase goes on, and the more damage you inflict, the harder they'll chase you. The police will follow you for quite a distance if you don't know the shortcuts, but you have several techniques to make your escape. You can use your nitro-boost add-ons to create a burst of speed, or use the slowdown to help you weave through traffic. In addition, there are a several 'chase-breakers' on each course. Driving through one of these causes a huge event, such as a collapsing scaffold, that will stop or impede an officer's attempts to arrest you. These add to Undercover's cinematic feel and make for some pretty dramatic chase sequences that will send your heart pounding in a real hurry and give you a real sense of imminent danger.

Most of the action takes place in the city streets and roads and players have a remarkable amount of freedom in where they can go. Players can choose to race through the streets and explore the game's many different locations, or can go right into the menu system and play through the story. Using the in-game GPS, players can select which race or mission they want to complete and are instantly taken to that location, which is a nice change of pace from some of the previous games where you had to drive to each race. Once you get to your location, you'll find that there's a good variety of missions ranging from standard races against other street vehicles which can take the form of highway battle, sprint, circuit, outrun and checkpoint races variations. These are all fairly self-explanatory, with the out-run and battle race modes offering some particularly steep challenges. In addition there are more mission-oriented modes. One of the biggest additions this time around, and probably the coolest, is Cost-to-State mode where you have to rack up a certain level of damage and avoid capture before the timer runs out. Driving and performing one of these tasks is hard enough, trying to both simultaneously ratchets up the difficulty and intensity to a great degree and makes for some fairly intense sequences that offer some challenging gameplay. These new modes and additions keep the gameplay from becoming stale while adding to the game's outlaw feel.

One of the most impressive things about NFS: Undercover is the way it melds real actors and video with pre-rendered sequences. Featuring the famous actress Maggie O. as your contact and a variety of other actors playing supporting roles, this approach is highly effective in bringing the missions and game world to life. It helps to make the characters feel more real, flesh and blood but doesn't detract from the on-street gameplay. Frequent voice-overs and listening to intercepted chatter on the cops' radios is more than candy, it can give you an idea of what they're thinking during chases while also letting the street gangs think you're on their side. Once you get on the street, you'll find a very impressive-looking and open ended city to explore. The interconnected highways and streets make for a very coherent and realistic experience with the fictional metropolis serving as a fantastic place to race. There are loads of hidden sections, short-cuts and jumps to find and the scenery is great as well. NFS Undercover's visuals also feature some impressive effects such as sun-glare, realistic reflections and screen-blurring that give the action a cinematic feel. Unfortunately, there are moments where the game's graphics engine undermines the stylish presentation significantly. On the Playstation 3, there are numerous points where the action pauses and seems to choke. It's not a big deal, but it does tend to become annoying after awhile. Another problem occurred when other vehicles, specifically police cars came in to ram us, causing distracting glitches where their cars would disappear and re-emerge suddenly. Camera angles could also shift uncontrollably as well at points, causing crashes unnecessarily. These unpolished elements take the experience down a notch in the visuals, and mar what is an otherwise solid game.

While the graphics engine probably could have used a tune-up, the overall impression of NFS: Undercover doesn't really suffer when you take a look at the larger picture. Some of its elements will be familiar to gamers, and what it really does is take the series back to many of the things, such as the intense yet entertaining car-chases, that have been lost in some of the recent installments. NFS: Undercover delivers an intense driving experience and has a decent gameplay mechanic, and its streamlined arcade approach makes for an engaging and accessible game. It's not a deep sim, and it obviously doesn't try to be, but Undercover is still, despite some visual glitches here and there, a solid installment that brings the series back on the right track.   - Michael Palisano

Grade: B

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