As racing game fans, it’s hard for us to either really love or really dislike Electronic Arts’ new Need For Speed Undercover ($10) for the iPod touch and iPhone. On one hand, EA has come up with a title that makes impressive use of these devices’ audio and visual capabilities, delivering a generally smooth 3-D car racing experience with highly detailed vehicles and streamlined controls. But on the other hand, though the gameplay wouldn’t be laughed off of a rival handheld device, it’s missing the special spark that distinguishes truly great games from merely fine to good ones, and doesn’t have a multiplayer mode. As such, Need For Speed Undercover will be of greatest interest to car and graphics fans who are willing to spend a premium price to see what their Apple devices can do with polygonal vehicle and city models, but will underwhelm others.
Though titles such as Namco’s Ridge Racer were achieving equally or more impressive feats on game consoles 15 years ago, it’s obvious that Electronic Arts pushed the iPhone to its edges during the Need For Speed development process. The game has a full Fast and Furious-like story, complete with missions that place you in real, licensed cars that can be purchased, upgraded, and stolen, plus fully filmed introduction and cut scene movies featuring professional actors, and an angsty rock soundtrack that plays during the levels. This all may be familiar enough to Sony PlayStation Portable gamers, but everything here has polish and obvious quality that distinguishes Need For Speed Undercover from the $2 and $5 racing titles that are far more common these days in the App Store. Between the cars, the music, and the levels, EA seems to have used its extended development time to show just what a $10 game on this platform should look, sound, and feel like.
Need For Speed’s greatest strength is its visuals. A tutorial mode teases you with a ride in a Porsche GT2—unlockable later—before you get dumped into your choice of far more humble rides, such that in-game characters soon wax on about the comparative greatness of second- and third-stage locked cars such as the Pontiac Solstice and Ford Mustang. Yet regardless of where they may fall in the automotive spectrum, EA’s graphics engine renders the 20 cars beautifully, and an in-game garage lets you customize everything from their colors and decals to their spoilers, body kits, acceleration characteristics and handling. To keep you from getting bored by your starter Mazda, Nissan or Pontiac Firebird, missions soon shift you temporarily into stolen cars for one-off deliveries to chop shops, a nice idea that’s undercut only by the very similar handling characteristics of the cars you’re transporting.
Like the cars, Need For Speed Undercover’s metro-styled city stages are impressive: from the buildings in the background to objects and other cars on the roads, EA hasn’t cut any major corners in delivering tracks that are visually interesting. Though you’ll often see backdrops repeating as you move from mission to mission, the presence of variable elements such as swooping police helicopters, surging police cars, oncoming and perpendicular traffic all work to keep your eyes focused on what’s different rather than what’s similar. Need For Speed divides the game into three different “sectors” of eight missions, and each sector has its own art that varies somewhat or entirely between missions; the themes all have an L.A. urban and semi-gritty suburban look. Due to the camera design, which tilts your perspective based on the way you’re holding the iPhone or iPod, it always feels like you’re getting a fresh view of the action, though a pinch to zoom in and out feature doesn’t make much of a visual difference.
Where the game suffers somewhat is in intensity, though EA has obviously tried to do as much as it can with the current iPhone OS platform. Every mission has you steer your car by tilting your iPhone or iPod to the left and right, drift with a speed penalty by rapidly jerking the device to one side during a turn, and nitro boost with a quick swipe up on the screen. Swiping down activates a brief slow-mo mode, and since the game auto-accelerates and constantly pushes you forwards, touching the screen activates your brakes. While each of these control elements is actually useful at some strategic point, and there’s a definite need to upgrade your vehicle to keep making progress—both a contrast with racers that never require you to brake or just expect you to keep the nitro running to win a race—there’s just something missing here that keeps Need For Speed from feeling like a full-fledged console or PSP-worthy racer.
We’d point to the action, which from the modest point bonuses for dangerous driving to the structure of levels feels like a very toned-down version of EA’s vaunted Burnout series. Missions vary from familiar “first to the checkpoint” to “outrun the police” to “take down this rival car” in theme, with occasional multi-lap eliminator races that feel like marathons. Unlike Burnout, which makes takedowns energetic and fun, Need For Speed’s are too often slow and labored, with extended chases that are less about cool high-speed collisions than wearing down the long lifebars of individual vehicles. The intrinsic excitement of a police chase, complete with wailing sirens and low-flying helicopters, is too often rendered boring by the need to merely evade these vehicles for a specified stretch of road rather than being able to cause any real pyrotechnics. It feels like Need For Speed is pulling its punches, and if we had to guess why, we’d suspect that the game’s less than completely smooth frame rate during multi-vehicle scenes is showing that the current-generation devices can’t handle too many high-polygon cars, background graphics, and intense speeds at the same time. Similarly, the cumulative demands of the graphics engine, the rock soundtrack, and sound effects may explain why the game doesn’t have any sort of multiplayer mode; the iPhone and iPod touch might just not have enough horsepower left to manage networking given everything else they’re being pushed to do here.
Whatever the reasons may be, Need For Speed Undercover’s omissions are a shame. It has the looks and the sounds to make a positive first impression, and in a checklist sense, it offers enough things to do and little aesthetic frills to generally justify its asking price. But unlike EA’s similarly premium Tiger Woods PGA Tour, a smart, fun title that pushed the iPhone and iPod touch forward in golfing gameplay and depth, Need For Speed Undercover doesn’t feel totally satisfying—it’s a game with cool graphics that will occupy your time while you wait for something better to come along. Those looking for simple car racing action or an excuse to see the raw audiovisual capabilities of Apple’s devices will find this title worthwhile; others might be better served to hold off for a price drop or the inevitably better EA follow-up.
Company and Price
Company: Electronic Arts
Title: Need For Speed Undercover
Compatible: iPhone/3G, iPod touch/2G