We told you so. Although it took about four months longer than we all thought it would — prompting many iPhone gamers to despair — Need For Speed Undercover finally made it to the App Store.
While this game has lingered a little too long in development to have a truly revolutionary impact on the platform, it’s still a wicked ride.
Need For Speed Undercover is a lightning-fast arcade racer that is in close touch with its console heritage. The gameplay’s been adjusted for the casual nature of the iPhone platform, though. You simply tilt to steer, tilt more to drift, touch the screen to brake, and do nothing to accelerate (it’s automatic). Simple touch gestures handle nitro boost and “speedbreaker,” the game’s slow-motion mode.
This simplicity isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it’s a breeze to learn how to play, and the controls never stand in the way of enjoying the high-octane gameplay–but it might turn off those looking for a more technical racing experience.
Also, you can’t adjust the sensitivity of the controls, or use an alternate touch layout. We found the default tuning to be a little stiff for our taste.
Unlike many other racing games, Need For Speed Undercover is purely a single-player experience. You’re playing through the Story Mode whether you like it or not. This isn’t a problem gameplay-wise, because there are a lot of different kinds of races and missions to savor.
These include two-car duels, four-car elimination races, cop chases, and combat missions, among others. It’s a sizable scenario that stretches across three cities, and there’s a definite increase in difficulty as you go along. It’ll keep most players busy for 3 to 5 hours.
The story itself we could have done without, though. Yes, full-motion video is cool, but watching C-list actors struggle to hold a fake conversation with the camera is pretty goofy, especially when they’re spouting nonsense about crooked cops and chop-shop gangs.
The game’s stable of licensed cars is the real story here, anyway. In addition to looking really good, these cars a lot of fun to tune up and customize using cash earned on missions. You can add useful stuff like nitro capacity and handling packages… or you can waste money painting your ride hot pink and jacking it up on hydraulics. It won’t intimidate the locals, but it’s pretty hilarious.
Need For Speed Undercover handily outruns the competition in terms of presentation. The car models are very smooth compared to other racing games, and there’s a lot of detail in the blighted urban landscapes you’re powering through. You can see individual fronds on the palm trees lining the roads.
Clever use of speed lines and camera tilting help to impart a blistering sense of velocity and knife-edge handling, especially when engaging nitro boost. There’s a bit of a framerate chug when a bunch of vehicles hit the screen at once or a new song loads up, but it doesn’t last long.
All in all, these graphics are much closer to fully mature, console-quality work than other iPhone racers. The sound’s not quite as much of a strong point, but still good. The game’s handful of rock tunes fit the subject nicely; the tire squeals and crashes sound a little anemic to our ear, but they’re serviceable.
The straight dope on Need For Speed Undercover is that it started out really good, and it grew on us the further we got. Ten dollars is a lot to ask for an iPhone game, but this game blurs the already faltering line between iPhone gaming and the portable consoles, rendering the difference as indistinguishable as a road sign seen at 200 MPH. We shudder to think the stir this game would have caused if it had come out in January, as originally scheduled, but it is still well worth owning in May.