As a general rule, racing games tend to leave me cold. My brother is the car buff and racing fan. I’ve enjoyed a few, like Gran Turismo, but I tend to give them a pass. Need for Speed Underground for the PS2 was another exception to the rule, mostly because of the RPG-type elements of customizing and upgrading your car, rather than the racing elements themselves. Oh, and I loved Mario Kart, but that doesn’t really apply here (Nintendo will probably never allow that dream to come true).
Need for Speed: Undercover, one of EA’s big iPhone releases for 2009, recently went live in the App Store, and I spent this past weekend being a hot shot street-racer. Well, a pretend hot shot, anyway. Those familiar with 2001’s The Fast and The Furious will recognize the plot basics in Need for Speed: Undercover. You’re an undercover (surprise!) cop, who’s trying to infiltrate the street racing world to recover some important stolen cars and/or arrest people. The story wasn’t exactly gripping enough for me to pay close attention to.
Developer EA took a cue from the Command & Conquer series in NFS: Undercover and decided to go with live-action cuts cenes instead of CG. That means cheesy acting seems even more cheesy, but it also means they hired a bunch of hot female actresses to trot around looking sexy for no good reason. Actually maybe that’s the reason I couldn’t follow the plot.
In-game graphics are pretty good, although I found that your car looks a lot better in the garage than it does on most of the tracks, depending on the lighting conditions. Maybe it has something to do with the custom paint job I applied to my ride, but it looked off in most of the races, though perfect in the shop. Other than that, the in-game tracks and other vehicles actually look very good on the iPhone’s small screen, and there is no noticeable lag or slowdown, even when you’re going at top speed or using your nitrous boost.
I’m a huge fan of collision damage on car models in racing games, and unfortunately, NFS: Undercover is missing those. Maybe it’s too much to ask for in an iPhone racing game, though. Other graphic effects, like when you enter slow-down precision steering mode, or when you trash an opponent car or encounter police cruisers, work well but can become annoying if you have to replay a level a number of times. An option to turn off at least the cruiser-spotting effects would be a nice addition.
Sound was a bit hit or miss for me, but my experience may not be representative. First, I thought it was odd that there was no music during the intro/opening. But then things were working fine for cinematics, so I assumed it was just a choice the devs made. When there was nothing playing in-game, I started to worry (before you ask, I installed from iTunes and reset prior to playing, so it shouldn’t have been install issues). Eventually, the audio did start working.
When it did, I sort of regretted that it had. The soundtrack is OK, but very limited, and hearing the same songs over and over quickly gets tiring. You can always opt to listen to your own iPhone music, though, making this sort of a non-issue. Although I think developers taking shortcuts on game soundtracks for the iPhone just because it has a music player built-in is a pretty lame cop-out.
NFS: Undercover is very reminiscent of Underground when it comes to gameplay, and that’s a good thing. You start off with $25,000 and three cars to choose from. Once you’ve made your purchase, you get down to racing. There are a variety of types of races, including Battle, Sprint, Hot Car and Takeout, so even players who don’t like the repetition of most racing games shouldn’t find this one too redundant.
Winning races wins you money, which you can then use to purchase new cars, or to outfit your current ride with performance and aesthetic upgrades. A new paint job, lowered suspension, huge shiny rims, and a lot more are available, with different custom equipment for each car. There’s also tons of cars to unlock, so you won’t lack for motivation, even when some of the races are a lot more challenging than most and have to be replayed over and over. If you ever get stuck, you can go back and re-run old races to build your bank and buy upgrades and/or better cars.
Car control during races is kept simple, which is ideal for the platform. Your engine is going full speed by default, and tapping the screen anywhere will apply your break. Swiping down enters the slowed-down improved control mode, and swiping up activates your nitrous. You turn by tilting your phone in either direction, and doing so with a quick jerk will let you drift around corners. I find that I never use the slow-mo mode, though other might find it handy. In general, handling is good, and doesn’t feel either too sensitive or too loose.
Despite not really being interested in the import car racing scene, or racing games in general, I really like Need for Speed: Undercover. It has good replay value, lots of unlockables, and customization that amounts to a leveling system. If you’ve passed on every other racing game for the iPhone and iPod Touch to date, this may be the one to get.