EA Games' vaunted Need for Speed series, which first hit the gas in 1995 on the 3DO platform, continues with the multi-platform release of Need for Speed: Underground. As the title suggests, players are embroiled in the shadowy world of illicit street racing. Players will enlist in various underground events held on city streets at dusk. While battling rivals in drag races or more conventional pursuits, players can earn cash used to purchase an assortment of vehicle modifications. Over 20 licensed cars are available to tweak and customize from such manufacturers as Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Suburu, among others. Developed by the same team responsible for 2002's Hot Pursuit 2, the game also features official parts from Bilstein, Audiobahn, Dazz Motorsport, and other providers.
Need for Speed Underground taps into that pop culture darling du jour: illegal street racing. It's a perfect subject for a game: the speed and attitude can be exaggerated, but no laws are broken and no innocent lives are endangered. Need for Speed Underground hits some bumps in the road, but for the most part it's an exciting racing game with an immersive career mode, beautiful presentation, and insane sense of speed.
Need for Speed Underground nicely bridges the gap between realism and turbo-charged arcade action, with the emphasis on the action. The physics take lots of liberties with reality, so serious sim fans may want to look elsewhere. Nevertheless, you'll still need some finesse to win; just mashing the accelerator won't cut it.
The real challenge in Underground isn't the subtleties of driving, but of being able to react with lightning-quick reflexes. When you're blasting through city streets at night, dodging construction zones and trucks, choosing which fork in the road to take, and trying to draft the race leader, you'll be wiping sweat from your brow. The sense of speed is thrilling, particularly in the drag racing mode, which makes you feel like you've just been launched down a busy city street on the back of a Saturn V rocket. This all could have backfired badly and come across as totally cartoony, but amazingly, it doesn't: it just feels like you've entered a world where extreme speed and danger are parts of everyday life.
In fact, a sense of danger is another thing Underground manages well. Not many racing games actually make you feel the adrenaline rush of driving on the edge. In Underground, particularly during your first few races, you sure get that sensation: it feels like one little slip-up will do you in. (In actuality, the game's cars can't be damaged and your alter-ego, of course, can't die, but you sure can ruin your lap times by barreling into a guard rail or a taxi.)
As addictive as Underground's racing is, you'll run into some frustrating problems. Showing its console roots, the PC interface is a bit clumsy: you have to use the "backspace" key instead of the usual "escape" to move back up a menu level, and we had a hard time configuring our controller. You only get three camera views -- two of them very similar -- and the game changes your view whenever you play a certain race mode. There's no replay system, something you expect from almost any racing game today. AI drivers tend to play bumper-cars too much. Worst of all, you spend all your time on the same handful of courses or minor variations on them in the same city; it's a real shame they're not more varied in both look and layout. You can only hope EA will release some free expansion packs like Epic and Digital Extremes have done for the Unreal Tournament series.
Also, while the relaxed physics and lack of damage modeling make the game accessible and fun, they nevertheless rob the driving of the subtlety and depth you'd find in a serious sim. Fortunately, Underground more than makes up for that by giving you plenty of depth in other areas. For one thing, you get a number of different race modes. You'll test your skills in multi-lap circuit races, sprint races that take you from point A to point B, drift races that test your powersliding skills, drag races that test your shifting accuracy, and more.
You can play these in a quick race mode, but the heart of the game is the extensive Underground career mode, with over one hundred individual races and multi-race series. You start out as a nobody on the street racing scene, and accept challenges from fellow drivers in order to rise up the ranks. Voiceovers and occasional cutscenes bring the racing scene -- or at least the Hollywood version of it -- to life, adding a little bit of role-playing to the game. Underground also sports multiplayer racing that pits you against players of both the PC and PS2 versions of the game. To play, you'll need to use a problematic auto-patching system; we couldn't get it to work until (at EA's suggestion) we completely shut down our firewall, which seems like a poor solution. You're then forced to register with EA before playing. On top of that, we experienced problems even connecting to the clunky matchmaking service. These hassles dampened any enthusiasm we might have had for the multiplayer, which turned out to be merely adequate, anyway. For instance, there's no AI traffic to dodge, which is a major part of the single-player game, and opponents' cars have a tendency to warp down the track because of lag.
One of the neatest things about Underground is that racing isn't just about winning, but about winning with style. You earn style points for drafting other racers, catching air, nearly missing casual motorists, powersliding, and performing other dramatic feats. Points are deducted for smashing into innocent drivers, though. The more victories and style points you earn, the more tracks, cars, and items you unlock or can purchase. The more you modify your car's appearance with new items, the greater your reputation score, which acts as a multiplier to boost your style points even higher at the end of each race.
Underground is filled with real-world cars from Honda, Mitsubishi, Mazda, and others, plus tons of licensed performance parts and style mods. Playing this game makes you feel like you've just won a shopping spree at a giant auto parts store, and you'll eagerly win races just to access and install cool new items. To trick out your car and boost your reputation multiplier, you can create different paint schemes, apply manufacturer decals, add neon lighting beneath your car, put on some stylish rims, attach a sleek-looking spoiler, and a whole lot more. To boost your car's performance, you can upgrade your engine, drivetrain, and brakes, for example. These are ultimately rather pointless, though, since the AI cars always seem to roughly match yours, no matter what. Amazingly, there's no way to actually tune your car, something you expect from nearly any racing game; it's a huge, inexplicable omission here, considering the focus on car culture and modification. Even the most basic garage options would have added an extra layer of depth and fun.
Still, it's a lot of fun to visually modify your car, thanks in part to the beautiful graphics that bring all the details to life. The character animations are equally stylish, with girls strutting out in front of the cars to signal the start of each race. The courses look beautiful (if much too similar): the nighttime, rain-soaked city is awash in the glow of neon shop signs, hundreds of little windows in towering skyscrapers, and blinking lights on construction warning signs. The THX-certified audio is just as good, with powerful sound effects and a topnotch collection of rap and rock tunes by big-name groups.
Need for Speed Underground has a few major faults that can't be ignored, like the lack of replays and tuning options, multiplayer hassles, and particularly the limited, repetitive courses. Even with those problems, however, it's still a great racing game -- its addictive career mode should keep you busy for a long time, the gorgeous presentation really draws you into the racing scene, and the racing itself will definitely get your adrenaline pumping.
People who downloaded Need for Speed: Underground have also downloaded:
Need for Speed Underground 2, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Need for Speed: Carbon, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, Need for Speed 3: Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed 5: Porsche Unleashed, Need for Speed: High Stakes, Need For Speed 2 Special Edition
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