As you might have read in my teaser article, I was incredibly lucky to be able to attend two of EA’s community days last week, the second one being for EA Black Box’s Need for Speed Undercover. Settled in a big office building in downtown Vancouver, it was a really nice place, the offices where both Need for Speed and Skate were created. This was a different trip for me in a lot of ways.

Not only was this my first trip to Canada (yeah, it amazed me, too.) but it was the first time I attended a Community Day for a game that I didn’t know much about, and honestly was just a casual fan of. See, I haven’t really gotten into a Need for Speed game since Hot Pursuit 2. The series lost me when it became more about street racing and pimping out your car… I always thought the chase aspects of the earlier games were far more interesting from a gaming perspective than, say, caring whether your car could be solely built out of parts made out of carbon. I’d heard rumors that Undercover was a return to its roots, a more story-driven game that would take people back to where it all went right.

And if their presentation for Underground could go a long way towards making someone like me around to thinking that they have something special here… well, wouldn’t they?

The big change we already told you about, and you can see more in this trailer (on our brand new Youtube site!)

Yes, now there’s a story with real Hollywood actors and production values. Maggie Q and Christina Milian star and fill in the story in between missions.

The game this time will be open world once again, and all about what the developers are calling “action driving”. It’s not completely arcadey, but it’s far from realistic… the crashes and barrier hits are very forgiving. You’ll be driving around a world based on the Gulf Coast with quite a massive map, as you can see.

The game’s designer managed an 8 minute drive around the whole world, at top speed and without hitting any cars, so you can see how extensive it is. That’s 130k of track there with no loading… everything you can see you can drive to. Scattered around the world are events, which can be jumped to instantly if you just head to the map screen or simply driven to.

One thing that’s immediately obvious is the new look of the game. The game is lit like it’s magic hour (or happy hour, if you’re an online journalist who can’t wait to drink later… ahem) which has that beautiful, ethereal look to it. I asked what the thought was behind the look of the game and they said that basically it was a tradeoff. It would’ve taken so much longer to get the game to have a realistic day/night cycle, and they would rather have a specific, artistic look.

All of the film segments were shot with full knowledge of the look of the game. Just one look and it’s evident, they did their best to match the two portions of the game and make it feel like one, although of course the game section still looks like a video game. Hopefully it’ll all come together in the final product.

The big selling feature for this game (for me, anyway) is the fact that cop chases are back in full force. We’re talking high speed pursuits complete with spike strips, road blocks, and helicopters. We didn’t get a chance to see one of them in action but anything that’ll make it more like a Hot Pursuit title is good for me.

The other thing that’ll get even the most jaded of gamers excited was the fact that the physics of the cars have been completely overhauled. Containing their new “Heroic Driving Engine”, these are really some of the most realistic cars you’ve ever seen. Marc De Vellis, the physics designer (who happens to be a pro racer himself, and a heckua cool guy) went a long way towards demonstrating how much better the cars handle. Now, it’s incredibly easy to swing them around in any way you want, pulling off 360s and drifts with the greatest of ease. It was so much fun that we all spent a huge amount of time just trying out the handling, driving in circles and burn rubber off the tires, watching the chassis shift and tilt realistically to the turns, acceleration and brake.

There’s no more auto brake on the cars- let go of the acceleration and the car will coast, the engine will flutter, and it will eventually roll to a stop. There’s even new moves like a double tap on the brakes that will instantly throw the car into reverse… perfect for stopping and getting away from roadblocks. It feels intuitive and most of all fun- and the version we played was a month-old build that’s received bundles of tweaks and still continues to. But based on that build alone, this game is going to be a dream to control, which is a necessity when you’re trying to outrun cops and lose them down side streets. You’ve never played a racing game that’s controlled as well as this one… it’s really as simple as that.

At my request, I was allowed to try one of the missions out and see how everything comes together. The mission we were shown had you speeding a stolen car to a chop shop. I got through it on my first try by going insane and smashing the first cop cars to bits. Knocking the first few out of commission turned out to be a smart idea, as it was easy to keep an eye on my radar and stay out of the paths of any other cops. (If you’ve got a trail you can’t drop the car off, of course.) It was just a quick little mission but already showed how much promise the game has… the beginning was incredibly cinematic, throwing you right into the action straight from a cutscene. It showed your undercover cop driving through a plate glass window with a stolen car, spinning out onto the streets and then put you right in control, seamlessly. There’s damage but it’s mostly cosmetic (which is good when you’re a crazy driver like me) and you get points depending on both how much property damage you cause and how much style you have.

Another new game mode is the Highway Battle. It’s a race down a strip of highway, where you’ve got a time limit to get ahead of your opponent and stay there. Besides that you can also win by pulling so far ahead of them that they’ll never catch up. We all had a tournament to see who could get the best time on this, which I unfortunately didn’t win… a failed pit maneuver threw me off and while I still managed to get ahead of the guy, I won the race only via the time limit. It’s in this mode that the new music choices became apparent.

See, instead of the typically lame “EA Trax” nonsense from most of the games, here they’re trying something different. Musical samples will cue up in time to key events, as we saw during the time one of the guys failed that stolen cop mission. As the cops came around to cuff the character the music spooled out some Nine Inch Nails in time with it… it worked beautifully. Instead of wall-to-wall music you’ve got pieces that fit with the moment and try to make it more cinematic. Besides that each game mode will have its own specific sound. Highway Battle contains tribal drumming, one that made things pretty damn intense as you ducked and weaved between traffic. They actually hired two of Danny Elfman’s percussionists to work their magic here and the relentless pounding really makes the mode that much more exciting.
It’s a step in the right direction for the series, for any racing series, as a matter of fact. Because honestly, how much can you listen to the prepackaged music in a before you get sick of the damn thing and turn the music off (or your own custom soundtrack)? Not very long….

The engine sounds are also more realistic than ever before, which it should, because they got some of the WB team members who worked on Hellboy 2 and The Dark Knight to help record it.

There are a few things that did irk me about the game, though. For one thing there’s no split-screen mode, something that pissed me off about Burnout Paradise when friends came over and wanted to try it out. It’s something that more and more games are doing and I wish developers would start changing that, as it’s so much more fun to play in the same room with someone.

The magic hour thing looks nice but hopefully lens flare won’t rear its ugly head too much… it seemed like it happened a few times in the demo. Then of course there’s still the question of how the story and game will work together- will it feel like you’re playing in or alongside the story? We also didn’t get much info on the multiplayer just yet, but there
will be online modes available with an undetermined number of cars
playing at once. Let’s just hope there’s a cops and robbers mode.
But really, just from the physics of the cars and the return of cop chases alone, this is the first Need for Speed title I’ve been excited about since, well, ever. It’s also the first game in Black Box’s new 2-year development plan for the series, and the extra time and care put into the game really shows off.

We’ll see just how good everything works out when Need for Speed Undercover hits every game console known to man on November 18th.

I’d like to thank Ron and the rest of the EA crew for getting me out to their great studio to check this out! I had a blast and it’s always great to see how passionate the developers are about their games.