Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Wii, PC - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
Once as sure a bet for the Christmas number one as the X-Factor winner's single, Need for Speed's successful run fell apart last year with Need for Speed: ProStreet. Whatever the motivation behind it, the series' switch from outlaw racer to legit arcade racing sim wasn't appreciated by the fans, and it's widely regarded as one of the weaker Need for Speeds. Unsurprisingly, then, Undercover is EA's attempt to return to past glories; the urban setting, street style and focus on the illegal underground are a direct throwback to the days of NFS: Carbon and the NFS: Underground games, while the visual style gives more than a nod to 2005's NFS: Most Wanted. Unfortunately, it's not up to the same sort of standard. Frankly, it doesn't even feel quite finished.
This time Need for Speed takes the route followed by many a TV programme or movie in which criminal activities are going to be made to look glamorous and exciting: the old undercover cop routine. In a series of video cut-scenes so miniscule that you suspect they were paying her by the second, Mission Impossible III's Maggie Q briefs you on your continuing efforts to infiltrate a gang of car thieves/underground racers, giving you all the excuse you need to join their ranks and cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to city property. The story isn't brilliant, but you can see what they developers were going for - a sort of Miami Vice meets The Fast and the Furious as directed by a Michael Bay or Tony Scott.
And you can see this influence in the visuals, which sidestep realism in favour of high-contrast, sun-washed imagery and lovingly modelled, over-polished vehicles that could have come straight from a car-porn magazine. Seen in stills taken at the right moment, NFS: Undercover is a beautiful racing game, and an almost perfect cocktail of the best style elements of Most Wanted and Carbon. The environment doesn't seem designed to be a living, breathing space like Burnout Paradise's Paradise City or NFS: Most Wanted's Rockport; it's more a canvas on which the game can paint its landscapes of headlight trails, speed blur and gleaming, pearlescent metal.
You can also see that this was a city designed to be explored. Like Most Wanted and Carbon, Undercover is an open world game. You cruise the streets looking for action, then join in races and police chases when the opportunity arises. Do enough to advance the plot, and you'll get a mysterious call from some potential friend or foe asking you to show off your skills or join them on a caper. The urban setting covers several centres linked by a series of highways, and while some of it is a little generic, you can see that the designers have engineered some areas for fun, with unfinished raised highways offering an enjoyable string of jumps, and loads of civic spaces and industrial facilities providing shortcuts. Credit where credit's due; the faults of Undercover aren't faults of laziness or a total lack of imagination.