The easiest way to pretend you were part of the video game cognoscenti used to be namedrop a few obscure Japanese developers and badmouth EA. Times have changed though, and now the 'evil empire' actually cares what punters think about its games – even when it comes to franchises that are churned out on an annual basic such as Madden, FIFA, Tiger Woods and Need for Speed.
This attitude to detail has been less noticeable in the pocket gaming world, however, where the quality of EA's output tends to oscillate wildly from year to year. And with the release of Undercover, that's now certainly the case with Need for Speed (which, if we're going to get detailed, is a franchise that has been struggling on home console, too). Despite the same developer being continuously employed – EA's internal Black Box studio – this is one series that needs a complete overhaul.
But whatever the quality of the gameplay, the backstory has always been ropey, so ripping off The Fast and the Furious yet again, in Need for Speed Undercover you play as an undercover cop infiltrating a bunch of street racing smugglers. Some of the high quality (if cheesy) live action cut-scenes from the home console games are included on the PSP version, but most of the time you'll be advancing the plot by skipping through a few lines of mobile phone conversation that tell you what to do next.
Whether you're meant to be undercover or not, the game uses exactly the same structure as all street racers. You start out with a rickety old banger and slowly gain better rides by winning races and earning money.
Mysteriously the past couple of Need for Speed games removed the danger of being chased by police but thankfully that element is reintroduced here. Unfortunately, though, in order to make space, it seems EA has had to take out much the fun as well as any hint of realism. Despite clearly being designed as an arcade racer rather than a simulation, the vehicle handling is dreadful. It feels like you're controlling a shopping trolley rather than a high performance car – and given the unpredictable handling, one that's been haunting the bottom of a river bed for the last few months.
Luckily (or not), most races are so insultingly easy it doesn't really matter how the cars drive. You don't even need to brake most of the time, just let the often invisible boundary walls bounce you back onto the track. It's so arbitrary, in fact, that the few times you do actually lose a race, you feel like you've been cheated. This is especially true given the standard of your opposition, which is stupid enough to slam into oncoming vehicles on a regular basis but somehow can also magically outpace and outmanoeuvre you even when in exactly the same car. So much for the promised "intelligent new artificial intelligence mechanic that delivers a realistic and high-energy action driving experience".
There is at least some variety in the types of races, but oddly there's no open-world city which you can drive around and select them. There doesn't seem to be any technical reason for this since some of the race types, such as the Lead mode, allow you to drive anywhere you want. Presumably it's meant to enable quicker access for a portable game, but it only manages to rob the game of more personality.
As well as Lead, where you have to stay ahead of your opponents by at least 300 meters, the other race types include Circuit, Sprint and Point to Point races, together with the last man standing-style Eliminator events and the cheekily named Outrun where you have to… well, you can probably guess.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Need for Speed Undercover, however, is how weak it is in term of technical polish. Everything feels muddled and bland, and although some of the cars look okay – and real-world damage is included – almost everything else is so low res that it almost looks like a DS game at times.
For that reason then, as imperfect as they are, rival PSP racers Burnout Dominator and Midnight Club LA Remix are better alternatives. It's an unfortunate end of the 2008 road for Need for Speed, but this is one franchise that's in need of some drastic new direction. Still, we can be sure it will be back in 2009 for another try.