The Need for Speed goes back underground, to add more customization and role-playing-styled challenges to the long-running racing series. This follow-up steers players though the main drags and back-alleys of an interactive city, which is divided into five different neighborhoods. By seeking out street races and earning a reputation, players will be able to acquire faster, more powerful automobiles and extensive customization options. The game is designed to represent the "tuner lifestyle," and the main mode of play has virtual street racers exploring the city on their own, to find pick-up races and learn of the best places to get new parts. Need for Speed Underground 2 is hosted by Brooke Burke, known for her role on the E! Entertainment television network's Wild On series. The game features licensed automobiles from a number of manufacturers, including Ford, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
The sequel to Need for Speed Underground has big shoes to fill, and it does so admirably, with vastly improved graphics, new gameplay modes, and an improved interface. The graphics are the most obvious improvement. We only can describe them as truly awesome, even on lower settings. Lights on the bridge sparkle in the night sky, and mannequins in store windows catch your eye as you blaze past. Little things, such as pumping your hydraulics and bouncing down the avenue, make the experience even more fun. Racing is arcade style (it's awfully hard to destroy your car) and easy to learn, yet power drifting is an acquired skill that keeps the learning curve gradual, but long. The only knocks on this top-notch driving game are the ubiquitous product placements (a Cingular messaging system?), high system requirements, and large download size. Considering the depth and quality of Need for Speed Underground 2, though, most gamers can forgive those details.
In the last few months, the console racing scene has seen a number of giant releases that have been heralded by critics and fans alike. PC gamers haven't had anywhere near the same selection to choose from, which makes the release of Need for Speed Underground 2 that much more timely and important. EA's latest in the fledgeling spin-off series is another solid entry, even if it's not quite as polished as its predecessor. This may disappoint some fans of last year's best-selling title, initially. But gamers who give Need for Speed Underground 2 a solid chance will once again be entranced. As before, the game performs where it counts; yes, racing in Need for Speed Underground 2 feels excellent.
To start, the racing in Need for Speed Underground 2 is just as exhilarating in last year's effort. So what differentiates NSFU2 from its predecessor is largely its racing environment. Like last year, all races will be held on different tracks cut out of a single city's street layout. But this year, players are given access to the city between races as well. In fact, rather than choosing race events from a menu, in general the game requires players to explore the city to find hidden events and shops. New events are marked on the world map using color-coded icons which indicate which of the game's seven race types it represents: Circuit, Sprint, Drift, Drag, Outrun, Street X, and URL Race (Underground Racing League).
Once marked, gamers can choose to navigate to the race location using the mini-map or by activating the "GPS system." I found the latter to be a wonderful asset, especially when starting out, as it makes trips to and from unknown locations a breeze. When activated, an arrow appears atop the screen that points not to the final location, but rather in the direction of the fastest path to the destination. Anyone who's had experience navigating using a giant arrow in another racer knows just how difficult it can be. Fortunately, the GPS System in Need for Speed Underground 2 works flawlessly and should be used an example of the just how well such an indicator should function.
Many of Need for Speed Underground 2's successes and its faults are introduced as a result of this major change. It's worth noting that it is the game's open world that initially drew my attention. I'm a huge fan of Need for Speed Underground, though I'd quickly admit that the game wasn't without problems. The most major offense, in my opinion, was simply how alike each of the game's tracks feel.
Thankfully, due to the sheer size of Bayview -- the fictional urban setting in Need for Speed Underground 2 -- the same is not true of courses in Underground 2. The city is composed of five regions that each have a distinct feel and street layout. The downtown area, for example, is composed of short streets with loads of turns which offer a very technical racing experience reminiscent of the first Need for Speed Underground. The Jackson Heights area, rather, is hilly and contains winding roads which are similar to those in earlier Need for Speed games. There's an extensive freeway system that surrounds the entire city; in addition to offering the best way to travel from place to place, it and the nearby airport area provide the fastest places to race.
Those who were down on the lack of visual variety in the original Underground will be pleased to know that aside from offering unique and varied racing experiences, each area also has a distinctive look. In addition to offering a mix of races similar to those from Jackson Heights and the Downtown zones, Beacon Hill, for example, is reminiscent of Beverly Hills or the ritzy Rodeo Drive. Coal Harbor, then, is more industrial in appearance, as you could have probably guessed. Thankfully, each area is rendered marvelously and the resulting city is truly a marvel to behold. Don't believe me? Head up near the tower in Franklin Heights and check out the view. It's pretty stunning. Realizing that you could drive to anything you see in front of you is even more impressive.
It is clearly the popularity of open-ended, sandbox-style gameplay that has led EA to take the franchise in this direction. As mentioned, players will be required to scour the map to locate race events to engage in. But other than those events, a few scattered shops, and a few randomly placed cash pick-ups, there's little to do in the city beyond enjoy your ride through it. I am able to do just that. Sure, my primary goal when exploring may be to find some hidden shop I've been informed about. But secondarily, that extra exploration makes the environments more familiar and easier to navigate. This leads to more knowledge of the tracks while racing and thus better results afterwards.
While I appreciate the environment and cite it as the major reason I'd take a copy of Need for Speed Underground 2 over its predecessor, I can appreciate that many will be annoyed with much of the baggage the addition brings along for the ride. For example, race events seem to be scattered randomly through the environment with little thought given to why each icon has been placed where it has. It never seems like where I've driven to attend a race is where we end up racing, exactly. And because each event is simply marked with a stylized icon rather than a crowd modded cars and their owners, I never really feel like I'm participating in anything illegal or underground at all. Other than some scattered traffic and a few other tuner cars, the city is lifeless; there are no pedestrians roaming around at all, for example.
The decision to develop a more open game world is also likely the major reason that EA Canada made a point to inject more narrative elements into the game. While I'm quick to dismiss and ignore such additions if necessary, I don't doubt that others will find this to be a difficult feat given the quality of what's on display. I'll be blunt; the attempt at a coherent story is dreadful. Not only is the plot trite, but the dialogue is downright offensive in most cases. Brooke Burke's character Rachel is only tolerable when she's delivering the most specific pieces of information. ("Drive here to find this." "Enter this race.") Otherwise, she and the other characters deliver nearly unlistenable faux-street performances that'll even make white boys cringe. Unlike, say, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it's absolutely clear that the attempt to inject believable urban cultural themes has failed and the result is left feeling downright contrived. To be fair, the game was developed in Canada rather than in New York City. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any easier to listen to.
While I won't fault EA too much for it, I'll admit I'm not a fan of the licensed soundtrack the company has compiled for Need for Speed Underground 2. If you've played any of EA's games recently, you've got a good idea of what to expect here. And as is usually the case, EA's attempt to appeal to all has wrought a group of generally mediocre pop tracks that don't necessarily complement each other too well. Of course, everybody's got their own tastes and you'll probably either like it or you won't. I do find it obnoxious that the PC version lacks the ability to listen to custom soundtracks, as it feels as if this feature should be standard in PC racing games at this point. Then again, I'm just as capable of turning the music off completely and queueing up a few MP3s on a different device, so the problem is easily remedied.
The sound design is otherwise quite marvelous. The engines sound convincing and rough with much care taken to accurately recreate sound in the low-end of the aural spectrum. Gear changes are particularly well represented with believable clicks and whirs. Reverb is applied appropriately when vehicles enter tunnels or drive in narrow alleyways. If you have access to a surround setup, you'll be quite impressed by what Need for Speed Underground 2 has to offer.
Visually, Need for Speed Underground 2 is generally rather remarkable to look at. The same lighting effects and reflections that drew crowds after last year's release are back and look as stunning as before. The game world is rendered with greater fidelity this year, as well; this is likely due to the fact that in the first game the scenery simply needed to look suitable when moving by at great speeds. The addition of the open world simply requires that textures must be crisper and more realistic in appearance given the fact that gamers will be able to inspect the environment much more closely. The lighting and rain effects are also notably beautiful. And thankfully, the framerate remained consistent throughout my play. Those with high-end PCs are in for the biggest treat of all as Need for Speed Underground 2 is staggeringly beautiful with the settings cranked up to the max. The PC version is far better looking than any of its console counterparts, for those wondering which version to pick up.
The game doesn't quite have the blazing sense of speed that its predecessor did, except when cars are moving their absolute fastest. The PS2 version of Need for Speed Underground was the quickest of the bunch last year, due to the heavy reliance on blur effects. The other versions never quite felt as thrilling. In general, Need for Speed Underground 2 feels similar to the slower of last year's offerings. I found this to be disappointing initially, but easy to forgive given the scale and quality of the environment.
Of course, the most important aspect of any driving game is how enjoyable the racing element is. And like its predecessor, Need for Speed Underground 2 is entirely proficient in this regard. The game is easy to pick up and play but not so much so that enthusiasts will be turned off by a lack of subtlety. With little effort, players can familiarize themselves with Underground 2's controls and begin seriously competing in races. With extra patience and time, advanced techniques such as powerslides and handbrake-assisted 180 degree turns can be perfected.
Initially, I attempted to play with the default keyboard setup. While this is possible, it's definitely not optimal. I had better luck with a ten-button gamepad, as you'd expect. But for the optimal Need for Speed Underground 2 experience, I can't help but recommend the purchase of a force-feedback steering wheel. After plugging in my Logitech Driving Force wheel and a few moments of simple configuration, I was in arcade racing bliss. The tactile feedback is spot-on and I actually had an easier time winning races because of the increased precision. This is truly the way to play.
Circuit, Drag, Drift, and Sprint races have returned from last year's game nearly identically. But this year, three new race types have been included. Street X races are reminiscent of kart events given that they are raced on small technical courses that require absolute precision while driving as one mistake can cost a player the race. For all practical purposes, these are Drift events, minus the drifting. Given their pedigree, I was surprised to find them so enjoyable. Somewhat less so are the URL (Underground Racing League) races. These are general circuit events that are held on traditional race courses. The final event type is called Outrun. These races are triggered in the same fashion as those in the Tokyo Xtreme Racer series; when exploring the world map, it's possible to approach another vehicle from behind and request a challenge. Once the race begins, it's necessary to put a certain about of space between yourself and the foe before he does the same. What's most exciting about these races is that any path can be chosen through the city. It's here that exploration through the game world will pay off. This is clearly an exciting and appreciated feature that makes for some truly hectic, white-knuckled action.
In attempt to appeal to fans of simulation, Need for Speed Underground 2 offers much more in the way of performance upgrades for the vehicles. It's now possible to buy and tune individual components of vehicles in real-time. While not as thorough as, say, Gran Turismo 4, the additional customization is welcome as it allows cars to be tuned more precisely for different race types. Though, it should be noted that the extra depth is optional and untuned cars are still perfectly capable of winning races. Visual customizations return as well with the ability to buy individual components from different manufacturers in addition to the packages from last year's addition. To be blunt, there's more here. And thankfully, there's nothing wrong with more in this case.
Other than the GameCube edition, all other versions can be played online including the Xbox version. Although there's no cross-compatibility this year (PC and PS2 players could compete against each other last year), players looking for a compelling online racing experience will be pleased by what Underground 2 has to offer. Competition was constantly available in all modes, so gamers shouldn't have much problem locating a game in their mode of choice. When competing with six players, the true beauty of the racing engine is apparent and it's absolutely clear why Underground developed a fan base as quickly as it did.
Need for Speed Underground 2 isn't a perfect game, but is an excellent racer, with more to offer than its predecessor. The additional game modes, upgraded customization, and most-importantly the game's open world environment make it stand a clear step above its predecessor which was already a fantastic racer to begin with. While the previous game may be more polished, this edition aims higher and achieves more regardless of a few missteps.
People who downloaded Need for Speed Underground 2 have also downloaded:
Need for Speed: Underground, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Need for Speed: Carbon, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, Need for Speed 3: Hot Pursuit, Need for Speed: High Stakes, Need for Speed 5: Porsche Unleashed, Need For Speed 2 Special Edition
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