Need for Speed Undercover

Guilty secrets are great. Not only do they make us feel a little bit naughty - we're guilty after all - but they also give us power, because we know something somebody else doesn't. And few secrets are guiltier or more pleasurable than bad movies.

Blackberry off, tub of ice cream in hand and Adam Sadler in another hilarious low-budget comedy on the screen, and we're almost as happy as Chuck - when he married Larry, in fact.

Less pleasurable, however, are games based on bad movies. Especially sequels of sequels that were originally based on bad movies. So whatever you think about The Fast and the Furious, surely even EA must have realised it's now time to move its underground racing series onto some other sub-theme of street racing/car pimping.

Still, developer EA Black Box does its best to bait and switch us when it comes to Need for Speed Undercover on the DS. For example, the first thing that strikes you when you switch it on - before you've seen an actual automobile - is the sound and music.

Setting your ears tingling is the chunky audio of car engines set alongside a fantastic soundtrack featuring music from The Prodigy and Amon Tobin among others. The choice of music promises much for the actual game - thrilling, beat-ridden tunes with catchy squelch synths and rousing rhythms.

If you're into electronic beats and breaks, the music should get you ready to dive in to a race immediately, so it makes sense there's handy Race Now option available from the main menu. In this mode, after configuring variables - race type, course, laps and opponents - you're thrown straight in to a quick no risk race.

But that's where the wheels fall off.

Simply put, the experience of driving is lacking: the handling is boring; there's no nuance; and you'll be in first place, which means a boring cruise to the finish line every single time. This isn't a simulation, sure, but the driving lacks any of the exaggerated character you'd expect from an arcade game or a movie that features sideways action at almost every turn.

The game makes little effort when it comes to the DS either. There's nothing for the touchscreen, with D-pad controlling steering, and other buttons taking care of acceleration, braking and nitrous.

The nitrous is initially exciting, giving your wheels an illicit burst of speed when you most need it. On later stages though, its thrill is sapped by the fact you'll end up saving it for last minute speed bursts or quick starts after crashes.

And crash you will. The problem is that the camera angles available, paired with the blocky graphics, give you a very poor view of the road ahead. This makes it tough to anticipate exactly how to judge corners or take advantage of unmarked routes.

It's particularly frustrating to identify a possible shortcut only to drive smack bang in to a wall instead, making you feel less like Steve McQueen in Bullitt and more like Robin Willliams in RV.

There are plenty of multiplayer modes, including single cart, multi-cart and online, but the game has really been designed around its Career mode.

As you successfully complete races and earn cash, the new gear you need to pimp your ride is unlocked in the garage. There are new cars to purchase, engines, rims and even decals to add that extra bit of polish. Of particular note is a decal designer, allowing you to stick your own sloppy-looking designs to your expensive new ride.

Also in this mode, nestled between a selection of ill-rendered static images masquerading as narrative cut-scenes, are a selection of different races including Knockouts and Sprints.

The Knockout races prove to be quite boring: it feels like going for a quiet drive in a city that has just been evacuated because something terribly exciting occurred a little earlier that day. The Sprints, on the other hand, are much more immediate. One lap, start to finish, these are punchy and competitive and provide the game's best experience of street-racing.

So Need for Speed Undercover has some reasonable ideas - most of them robbed blind from movies such as The Fast and The Furious and Gone in Sixty Seconds - and some decent tunes. Unfortunately however, where it matters - the actual driving experience - it's badly flawed. Anyone looking for a racer with longevity and depth will end up disappointed.

(No screenshots of the DS version are available - sorry about the packshot.)

Need for Speed Undercover

Need for Speed Undercover should be a thrilling no-holds-barred ride but the wheels fall off early on