Need for Speed Undercover: Check Under the Hood

Posted: May 6, 2009 in Racer

For the past 8 months, the EA PR machine has done a tremendous job to build buzz and hype for Need for Speed Undercover. It’s been a long and for many, frustrating myriad of delays for the gaming community who were finally rewarded this week with its release. Rarely does hype ever meet the reality especially in the video game world where an impressionable audience are ripe for the picking.

Has NFSU lived up the hype? The answer is yes and no. If you’re looking for an arcade racer set in urban environments, NFSU is unequivocally the #1 console-quality game now available on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform. NFSU has established a new standard when it comes to the use of video, graphics and animation techniques. Devs developing future arcade racers for iTunes would be wise to learn some of the techniques used in NFSU. However, if you’re expecting a simulation racer with racing physics and mechanics, NFSU will certainly fall short considering the use of auto-acceleration and the absence of pedals and brakes. Having said that, NFSU is the top-of-the-line, impressive arcade racer that many have been waiting for.

While secondary and not particularly deep, the storyline behind NFSU is that you’re an undercover agent trying to infiltrate several factions and end a smuggling operation. To infiltrate the operation, you must win favor within the three syndicates in the tri-city area via the underground street racing circuit. Each of the story missions is accompanied by a quick intro where Maggie Q (she should win an Oscar), your handler, will tell you how to penetrate the syndicates. Better yet, if you’re like me, she is the main reason I even care about the story.

Visually, the level of 3D detail in NFSU is an astounding mix of shades, textures, and high-quality graphics presented in the highest possible definition for the platform that rivals the PSP. The soundtrack is high energy (although it can be grating after a while), which adds significantly to the atmosphere, but it tends to drown out the engine sounds as you’re zooming down the roadway. One oversight is the lack of a calibration setting, which should have been included.

In terms of the controls, they’re intuitive and relatively easy to learn. NFSU uses tilt-control steering combined with touch controls such as tapping to brake, swiping down for Speed Breaker to reduce speed (which honestly I hardly if ever use—more on that later), and swiping up for Nitro which is your speed boost. Slipstream is a nice little feature where you can pick up speed by drafting behind other vehicles, and you also have drifting for the turns. Slipstream and drift are important as you will win and lose many times based on how well you master them. I will add that while the accelerometer controls are good, they can be difficult to control with much accuracy on their own, which in theory is why Speed Breaker comes in handy for your more precision racing needs. The problem I notice is that my cars will auto-brake on corners.

Within NFSU, there are 24 missions (8 races per borough) with Sunset Hills being the default. You unlock to the next borough once you complete the missions in the preceding borough. Also, NFSU has 8 race modes mostly consisting of street races, sprints and of course, cop takeouts where you ram or find other ways (you’ll find them) to knock out a specific number of cop cars within a time limit. NFSU only has a career mode, and there isn’t quick race mode, which hopefully can be added in an update. Also, NFSU does not have free roam functionality, which isn’t a big deal for an arcade racer but something to consider if that’s a big deal for you. If you want free roam, I suggest you play Need for Speed: Carbon on the Wii.

For whatever reason, the cop takeouts weren’t particularly difficult and in many ways seemed to be on the easy, at least easier than what you would find in Days of Thunder (believe me, I’m not comparing NFSU to DoT but I’m making a point). Still the experience provides a good level of excitement. Each time you win a race, you earn what matters most to street racers—cash (as well as performance and style points based on manuevers)—that like a real street racer, you can spend to either upgrade/customize your ride to improve on acceleration and handling. Style points are earned based on how close you drive other vehicles and how much you beat competitors by. Keep in mind that the style points are what unlock new cars so that you can purchase them with your cash.

Performance upgrades include Boost, Speed, Acceleration and Handling and in terms of customizing your car, you can choose from various paint jobs, wheels, spoilers, and just like a real street racer, the obligatory and overdone auto body art.

Since this is NFSU, the variety of cars matters almost as much as the game itself, and NFSU doesn’t disappoint in that department. Your default car is the Nissan 240SX (S13), and I’ve included a list of the other cars at the end of this post.

In terms of gameplay, NFSU offers some interesting visual effects such as the sweeping camera angles which for example, turn as you turn. The controls initially take some getting used to, and the sweeping camera can be disorienting when you’re swerving or making a hard turn. One of the things I noticed is that the AI of competing cars can be lacking especially in the first set of races. I had several races where I was behind, and the front running cars would either spinout or crash into oncoming traffic. I’m sure this happens in reality with real street races, but then again, what do I know. The tracks are not that complicated in design, but of course, there are many things happening around you.

One of the biggest issues with many racers is the feeling of speed or the lack of it. You won’t have that problem with NFSU because zipping and zooming, weaving and bobbing like there’s no tomorrow. Nitro works well, but on my iPod Touch, I noticed a lag or jarring effect when this activated, and in a few instances, there is lag in the graphics. My guess is this probably more pronounced and more frequent on the iPhone and its slower processor. In a game such as NFSU where it relies on frame rate, this can be a minor nuisance. The play of NFSU can be pretty entertaining since everything is more or less fair game because you crash or ram anything, you can swerve out of control, and even spin out which when combined with the sweeping camera has quite an effect. I find ramming competing cars to be one of the best parts of NFSU, and of course winning is nice too.

To set people’s expectations, here are some things that NFSU doesn’t have. In terms of replayability, once you complete the 24 missions, the main thing left is to go back and improve your time and gain style points to further upgrade, customize and unlock cars. Personally, the customization doesn’t really appeal to me as much, and I would’ve preferred more missions so you’ll want to factor that in your buying decision. I’ve heard rumblings about multiplayer, but honestly, it’s not a big deal for me.

Has NFSU lived up the hype? While it’s not perfect, NFSU is easily the best arcade racer on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform. However, competition is on its way, but having Maggie Q on your side can only help.

**List of Cars**
Pontiac Firebird
Mazda Mazdaspeed3
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Pontiac Solstice GXP
Mazda RX-8
Ford Mustang GT
Chrysler Hemi 300C SRT8
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Nissan 370Z (Z34)
Dodge Viper SRT10
Nissan GT-R (R35)
Ford 67 Mustang
Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG
Ford GT
Lamborghini Gallardo
Porsche 911 GT2
Porsche Carrera GT
Pagani Zonda F


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