Only a year gone and Electronic Arts is already burning rubber with another Need for Speed title. Last year the publisher released Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, a fantastic racer on the PlayStation 2, but one not quite as polished on other platforms. Since developer Black Box was responsible for the slick PS2 iteration, EA recruited them to develop the next in the franchise.
Aptly titled Need for Speed Underground, it focuses on the custom kit and import car circuit. It is most commonly, and certainly not unfairly, compared to the theme featured in the popular The Fast and the Furious movies. So, it is a definite departure from the world of exotic cars and over-the-top police chases that the series was founded on. It broadens the NFS franchise, bringing a number of things to the starting line that other arcade racers have not. More than anything, it features a robust customization mode that is intricately sewn into a lengthy franchise-style single-player experience.
It's a world of gorgeous girls, rocket-fast racing, stunning graphics, and some of the most impressive vehicle customization ever created. Yes, we'd be crazy not to like it -- and so would you.
Need for Speed Underground borrows, instead of simulating, from the increasingly popular custom kit and import car scene. The days when Dodge Neons, VW Golfs, Subaru Imprezas and Mazda Miatas were just reminders you couldn't have a flashy sports car are gone; in the ever-growing circle of elite street racers, dedicated auto fanatics are turning the mid-range class of almost-sports-cars into decked out, eye-catching street rockets. The underground scene of backstreet, nighttime racers has evolved into a whole new industry. Companies like AEM, Enkei, Jackson Racing, HKS, and StreetGlow provide lines of custom upgrades for otherwise everyday cars -- like the Impreza -- so you can deck them out and turn them into your personalized street machine.
Black Box and EA have gone to great measures to capture this gritty, sometimes seedy underworld, partnering with the biggest product lines and major car manufacturers. It seems its goal was to create a racer that provided more vehicle customization than anything ever seen before, and to this extent it succeeded brilliantly. The flexible car customization mode offers up 20 different vehicles, not a huge number, but with all the different options the variety of personalized cars you can create is in the billions, according to EA. These "Customize Your Ride" options take center stage of the gameplay. Underground's single-player mode is intimately tied into unlocking new parts for your car -- both of the performance increasing and aesthetic variety.
The total gameplay experience is tuned into the 111-objective "Underground" mode. Like a story, it unfolds as your challengers message you via your in-car video display. There are a few FMV sequences now and then, but mostly it is just audio clips and animated heads that deliver your objectives. It works perfectly, however, and is presented seamlessly. To diversify gameplay from just being regular racing as we've seen it before, Black Box crafted a number of different race types -- essentially you have Race, Drift, and Drag. Race is actually broken up into a number of styles, including point-to-point (one long stretch of a track), circuit (multi-lap), and knockout (cars in last place are booted each lap; last car across the line wins). So, there's a respectable variety to mix up Underground's story mode.
It melds flawlessly with the theme and does a brilliant job of immersing you in the "Underground" world. Drag and Drift add a great deal of depth, too, because the physics and driving rules have been tweaked so much that they practically stand on their own. No racers have offered up such a complete, story-driven package. Set up almost like chapters, you usually hopscotch between the different styles of racing, then rinse and repeat. It's a bit formulaic in that way, but it works pretty well. Over the 111 objectives there are special challenges and rewards, like one-on-one challenges to increase your "Underground" ranking on the charts, magazine covers are earned often -- a very cool feature, and more often are new parts and body kits unlocked.
The racing mechanics themselves are all finely tuned, as they so often are in the NFS games, kind of realistically heavy but still adhering to a flexible arcade style. Deadly quick would also describe the sensation of speed. Part of this is thanks to the graphical prowess, but the pace of the tracks is balanced intelligently with the cars' top speeds. Black Box has cleverly integrated some of the elements Criterion's Burnout series introduced like points for near misses, drifts around corners, and overall your style of driving. Based on your performance you accumulate style points, which are basically experience points that earn you new custom parts, the aforementioned magazine covers, and even special pre-made top-end vehicles for use in the "Quick Race" arcade mode. It really is a nicely balanced and tightly wound single-player mode thanks to all these special touches.
For actual racing, traffic becomes an issue as you progress through Underground, which helps to heighten the intensity of racing, but at the same time it can become frustrating. You can't predict traffic and sometimes reaction skills simply won't save you. In a way this takes away from demonstrating your pure driving skills against the AI, which is bothersome at times. But, it forces you to be very cautious around corners later in the game -- petal to the metal simply won't apply. Fortunately, the CPU drivers are programmed extremely well. They fall victim to the same mistakes of nailing traffic head-on and when you try to take them on side-by-side they display aggressiveness. This is another area Black Box balanced well; if you make some mistakes by hitting traffic they won't blow you out of the water and take an uncompromising lead. It also adds to the realism. Many times have we trailed a lead car around the last corner only to see their car take a hit from oncoming traffic and go flying. This adds an intense amount of satisfaction to the racing.In other words, physically, the racing feels great; running AI off the roads, skillfully cutting corners, finding the shortcuts, and driving with some style is all very rewarding most of the time.
The motivation to play Need for Speed Underground, then, is to create the ultimate ride. You get satisfaction from winning races, but there are a few reasons it can become redundant. Firstly, you don't actually tune your car -- there is no setting gear ratios, traction, or anything of the sort that requires of choice. You unlock three levels of engines, turbos, nitro, transmissions, and so on. This is where the "Customize Your Ride" lacks a bit of oomph. No skill or decision making is required. Things like a new Nitrous package (one of the three levels) unlock when you complete a certain one of the 111-objectives. We were disappointed to discover this. It may make the gameplay easier to figure out, but given the incredible amount of aesthetic improvements we were really hoping that tuning would be a highlight of the gameplay. After all, a highlight of modifying these vehicles is being different.
So, by creating the ultimate ride we mean unlocking level-three parts of everything that makes your car faster and better to handle and then designing the aesthetics to your heart's content. Need for Speed Underground focuses sharply on this element, and it is honestly the biggest reason to play. The sheer amount of options is insane, and the implementation is staggering. We started with a crappy green Dodge Neon. It was slow, embarrassing to look at, and just flatly pitiful. But by investing several hours into the "Underground" mode we progressed through the three levels of body enhancements. The only difference with its three-level format is that is it not limited -- when you, say, reach level two of spoilers there are a handful of them and not just one. So it doesn't suffer from the predictability of the engine enhancements. Back to the point, within a few hours of improving our driving skills and proving them, we began to create an incredible looking vehicle. Our Dodge Neon was but a fading memory -- this was a prize, high-octane ride. We got it on covers of magazines, changed the paint jobs and vinyls; began to have a history of cars we once drove. This is why you play -- to be you and to create a truly custom ride that you probably couldn't afford in real life.
But there is a downside. The entirety of the experience is based entirely on wet, downtown metropolitan tracks. It's all bright lights, brick walls, and city traffic. This can make the "Underground" mode monotonous. And because racing can become monotonous, the quest to unlock all the awesome parts and create your stylin' ride is really difficult. We're completely fine with having to work to craft a dazzling ride, but the track designs, which often intersect, reverse, and overlap is not enough. We would have rather seen "Underground" mode travel the world -- race in the streets of Barcelona, Tokyo, some exotic areas that show actual daylight. Hell, the addition of a real-time weather system and time system, where you saw the sun rise or set, would have made Underground near perfect.
Maybe it's unrealistic to think any company could create so much only a year after the release of the last product, but the point is there is still some room for Need for Speed Underground to grow. Replays are another example of what's missing. For a racer, this puts a big dent in gameplay.
Perhaps we'll see a NFSU Underground Vol. 2 that will broaden the experience. Whatever the case, this is one of the best racers of the year and its customization innovations make it worth owning this holiday season.
If you're into the multiplayer scene, Need for Speed Underground is only two-player on all the platforms (if you don't take it online) and allows you to participate in all three styles of racing, including the fresh new Drag and Drift modes. There's an unfortunate catch, however: you cannot haul your customized ride over to a friend's house on a memory card and boot it up to go head-to-head. You both will only have access to the cars that are unlocked with the main profile. Only the online players get to tout their custom rides in multiplayer, it seems.
Despite some of the lacking variety or other things that are easy to nitpick over, Need for Speed Underground still comes highly recommended.
Underground follows in the footsteps of other EA products and supports online for both the PlayStation 2 and PC. In fact, like Final Fantasy XI you can play cross-platform. For a really in-depth explanation, check out this Insider feature on NFSU's online functionality. For an overview, there are a few things you should know.
With up to four-player support over the Race, Drift, and Drag modes, broadband users are pretty much the only ones that will be able to play -- for a racing game this fast there's too much lag otherwise. You are able to bring in your customized ride and stack it up against everyone else's. In fact, enough attention has been paid to online that there are a few special features you won't get otherwise. You can view others' cars before you choose to race them and EA even created a special matching tool that tells you what your chances of beating an opponent are. There are even magazine covers that you can only earn if you play online.
The dynamics of all the race modes changes because traffic is gone from the equation; plus, you'll be dealing with real human opponents so catch-up AI or predictable driving won't be found. This makes online a hugely worthwhile experience. From the detailed weekly leaderboards to the special reputation meter, where you will earn and lose reputation based on who and how you race, Underground's online is fantastic. The only catch is lag could be a problem. In our early tests we experienced some lag over our very high-speed office connections. For a racer, every millisecond behind you may be counts, so be aware results may vary.
Also, since you earn style points in online mode, it's actually a perfect break from single-player because you'll still unlock stuff to customize your ride.
There's no question that Need for Speed Underground is one of the most effectively beautiful racers out there. The reflection and lighting models that bounce a dizzying array of colors off of the puddle-ridden asphalt are jaw-dropping. One of the first platforms we saw Need for Speed Underground on was the PS2 and we thought it looked like a high-end Xbox title. As a PC game, if you've got high-end hardware you'll get amazing results.
A lot of this definitely owes itself to the programming talent at Black Box, and its previous experience demonstrated with Hot Pursuit 2. However, a really big element is the tricks it plays on your eye. EA hired an Oscar nominated visual effects expert to consult on the art and lighting. The result, as we're sure you'll agree, from the available screenshots and movies, is incredible. Seriously, the lighting from the vehicles, the amazingly well implemented texture work, and overall effect is dazzling.
Framerates are also much better than they are on the consoles if you have the right hardware. But, all you see are wet streets and nighttime lights -- it's like the engine was created to do one thing really well, but not stray from it. Nonetheless, it provides some serious eye candy.
Otherwise, car models are smooth and impressively detailed (especially as you upgrade them), and particle effects, especially during crashes, are quite beautiful. The physics allow for fantastic, exaggerated slow-motion crash sequences that sends sparks showering the street and the animation that results from it all is gorgeous. Sure, we could have used to see a real-time destruction model, but what is here is very pretty.
EA Trax strikes back. The publishers growing library of high-profile artists continues to impress. Bands and artists including the likes of Lil' Jon, Rancid, and Crystal Method offer up a huge range of styles from rock to rap. So, while it doesn't exactly try to craft a consistent mood for this "Underground" racing circuit, it does offer everyone something. Also, in usual EA Trax fashion it even has exclusive songs from artists like Petey Pablo written just for the game. Very impressive (even if songs written around game titles is a bit lame).
Meanwhile, sound effects are also very impressive. EA's experts took to the garage and mic'ed up real cars to get the library of effects. There's a lot of crisp metal-on-metal crash sounds, screeching tire effects, and when you Drag race the backfire of your turbo, grinding gears, and NOS sound fantastic. All of this is offered up in surround sound.
You won't be disappointed.
Need for Speed Undergound grabs you with its sky-high production, and hooks you into its impressively designed single-player mode. The beautiful visuals only heighten your desire to race. But the real kicker here, and the focus of the whole experience, is customizing your ride. If you're not into that element, don't go out and try to buy this as a stand-alone racer. You really have to be dedicated to the car creation, and you have to have the patience for it.
All I see for a title like Need for Speed Underground is room to grow. If this is the ground level, this is a fantastic start. EA could easily craft it into its "Big" series of games if it wanted to, and this would make more sense for the exclusion of a police chase mode -- that's probably the thing we missed most about Underground, as it's a definite side-project for the franchise.
I highly recommend this to racing fans that are into the customization element. Just be warned of the tracks monotony -- the diversity comes in the mind-bending amount of aesthetically different vehicles you can create. Multiplayer, especially Drag mode, is also really entertaining. And if you can get online with the PS2 or PC, you've got a lot of playtime ahead of you.
Review from IGN
Images from Google
Videos from YouTube