The “illegal underground racing circuit” genre is getting another entry. A movie and a few TV shows come out, some interest is generated, and poof, here come a wave of games, most of which are horrible piles of junk. Need for Speed Underground 2 (NFSU2) is EA’s follow up to the very successful Need for Speed Underground. Fortunately it is not a horrible pile of junk. Unfortunately while very good, it’s not flawless.
The game is an arcade racer with a hint of simulation thrown in. There’s a large RPG element as you take your starter car, and race in an array of different race types to win money that you use to buy new cars, and car parts such as neon lights, stickers, improved engines, etc. Fans of the last game will be familiar, and impressed with the way the game has been handled. It’s more of an overhaul than an upgrade. This is good news, gaming companies (EA especially with their sports titles) seem to just rehash last year’s version, throw in one or two more things, and then release the game as a sequel. This is an actual sequel.
The biggest change from last year’s game is the free-form game play. Jumping on the bandwagon that “more freedom is better”, we are seeing more and more non-linear games. In general, this is a good thing. In NFSU2, it’s a little of both. Basically the city is divided up into different areas which open as you progress through the game. All total, the game has over 100 miles of road, including highways, which is a cool feature that I was looking forward to. So as you drive around the city, you find new shops in which you can tweak your car and add new parts.
The good in this system is that you can do things like race random opponents on your way around the city. The bad is that after an hour or two of the exploring, there’s not much use in it. It just seemed like they could have done a whole lot more with the exploration system. There are no pedestrians in the city, and the road population is sparse as well. I switched from exploring mode, to world mode after a few hours. World mode is more menu driven; you pick where you want to go, and you are there, no driving around, no wasting time on a freeway, etc. It’s nice to have the option to play the single player game either way.
Now would be a great time to mention the GPS system. Not only do you have a mini map in the corner (a-la Grand Theft Auto), but you can use the GPS menu to mark a destination that you are trying to get to. At this point, a giant arrow appears overhead telling you which way to go. This is great because it is very confusing in certain areas of the city. Especially when you jump onto a highway, you have to know which exit to get off at. The GPS system is very well thought out. Kudos EA for this feature.
There are a variety of races in NFSU2. You have your drifting race where you get points for sliding around, your single race on a pre-set course, your multiple race circuit, and your outrun race, which is my personal favorite.
Outrun races are cool because whoever has the lead sets the race route. After you get far enough away, you win the race, and collect your prize money. This is how the random encounters in the game are handled against other pimped out cars on the road. You drive near them, beep your horn and you are off.
I do have a few quibbles with the outrun system. When the race is tight, you may have the lead, or gain the lead, and make a drastic turn, when in reality your turn caused your opponent to take the lead. If you turned left, and he went right, you may have just made the fatal mistake. This didn’t happen enough for me to snap the game in half, but it happened quite a few times during my playing. Once you get some time invested, a mistake like that you cannot recover from, and your race is, for all intent and purposes, over.
The actual racing physics are well done. The cars handle differently based on the statistics of over 30 officially licensed cars. The downside of officially licensed cars is, of course, no car damage. I’ll jump up on my soapbox here and say that I’m tired of racing games without car damage. Officially licensed or not, I find that a game is much better if there is car damage. It’s too easy to cheat and smash into obstacles and other cars (especially around turns) during the race, and it can be very tempting, especially when you are losing a race to exploit that fact. Ok, I can stop ranting now.
In addition to all the official cars, there are tons of official mod parts. I have little to no interest in the car modding scene, so I won’t even try and pretend I know what any of this stuff does, or who is a better neon light company, but there are a ton of real-life companies in the game whose parts you can buy and install on your car.
The upgrading is a little cumbersome in that you have many different menus for different parts, and the decal section especially is a timely thing to browse through all the different styles. You can spend a lot of time in there looking for what you want. It’s nice to have the large amount of options, but it does add to the time it takes to find what you need. I liked the little touches, painting the car, for example, was amazingly easy, and I pimped out my car in the exact colors I wanted with no hassle at all.
The graphics overall in the game are a mixed bag. The cars themselves are a little light on the poly count. The cars look nice, but I felt that they could be a little more detailed. The cities are amazingly lifelike. Neon signs, wet pavement, the shine of the lights on your car, and off of the building windows, wow, this looks pretty good. You’ll be happy to know that you’re not ONLY racing on the dark wet pavement like you did in NFSU, there are different weather patterns, and different environments to race in.
The menus are laid out nicely, and I didn’t have much problem getting to where I was trying to go. The cut scenes are pretty poor. They make a big deal about Brook Burke being in the game, but she’s not, they use her voice, and they use a Max Payne-style graphic novel to tell a super-lame story in single player mode. The dialog is horrible. Brooke is stretching the limits of her feeble voice acting using forced slang at every opportunity imaginable. The content and inflections in the voice actors in general are bad, but I won’t take too many points away here, it is a mindless racing game, you aren’t buying it for its engaging storyline.
Something that’s bothering me more and more in gaming, however, is the blatant product placement. I found myself getting mad that I had to use my Cingular-brand phone to get my messages. I drove past all sorts of real stores such as Burger King in the city. It just seemed forced. They put a lot of effort into putting real-life product into the buildings, and billboards, yet there’s no population in the city, it didn’t really feel lived in. It just seemed like misplaced effort. I bet they needed the money from Burger King in order to sign that exclusive NFL deal, but that’s a sore-subject for a different article. Moving on…
The sounds were pretty well on, but the music was another mixed bag. In typical EA fashion they snag a bunch of well known songs, and after hearing Snoop Dogg’s remake of Riders on the Storm for the 10th time, you end up shutting off the music altogether. I’ve never been a fan of EA’s music licensing, and this game is no exception. As I said, the sounds in the game (music aside) are well done, and powerful enough to be believable.
I jumped online with my custom car, and raced in a few races against other real humans. You can race with up to six people total. Needless to say I got killed. My car, which I thought was really good, was nothing compared to all these other guy’s cars. It wasn’t even close, so I got frustrated, and didn’t spend too much time online. The time I did spend, I didn’t notice any game-altering lag, so that’s a good thing.
All in all, I enjoyed Need for Speed Unerground 2. Excellent customization options, solid racing controls, and the first two hours of exploration mode were the high points. It had some problems too in product placement, lack of car damage, and contrived dialog. Overall, the good far outweighed the bad. For me, it hasn’t dethroned Gran Turismo 3 A Spec, but it’s the best street racing game I’ve played. If you are a fan of NFSU, or street racing games in general I implore you to pick this title up.
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