The Need For Speed series has always been defined by exotic cars, striking locales, and high speed arcade racing. Curious, then, was Electronic Artsí decision to defy the first two rules of making a new Need For Speed game with their latest, Underground. Ditching dream cars in favor of 4-cylinder imports, and abandoning the classic variety in locales, Underground takes racing in another direction. Into the seamy gut of illegal street racing, Underground takes would-be gear nuts on an exciting ride, and while the game is marked by flaws it has little trouble in giving thrills.
Undergroundís most evident departure from Need For Speed past is the extraordinary visual style that permeates the game. Bright lights highlight the pseudo-San Francisco landscape, with neon signs, street lamps, and trailing tail lights giving the scene a decidedly urban-Asia flavor. To add to the style, the game sports a unique blur effect. The blurring enhances the already quick sense of speed, especially in the drag mode where the shaking camera infuses the race with intensity. The car models themselves are accurate and smooth, and especially appealing once you start packing on visual upgrades to grow your reputation.
Also new to Need For Speed Underground is the simple - but versatile - vehicle customization. Progressing through the career mode, various performance upgrades and body modifications become available. The performance upgrades are basic, with no fine tuning options. Itís definitely no Gran Turismo, but Undergroundís upgrades serve to gradually raise the driving difficulty as the racing gets faster and more intense.
The other half of Undergroundís vehicle customization is tacking on body upgrades. And while muscle car fans will undoubtedly scoff at the smell of rice, itís actually a lot of fun customizing the look of cars. There are options to switch out front and rear bumpers, side skirts, and spoilers, and dozens of ways to paint a car. There are also hundreds of different vinyl designs to add a personal touch to cars. All the effort to design a custom ride isnít simply for show, either. In boosting the rice-factor of a car, a reputation meter increases, which acts as a multiplier for style points that are earned during races. Itís a good way of tying in the customization with something that actually matters in the game, though it often limits player creativity as certain parts increase the reputation meter more than others-despite what part actually looks better on a particular car.
And while customizing a unique ride can occupy a lot of time, itís the racing thatís in the spotlight here. Make no mistake about it, Undergroundís physics and handling take racing in a decidedly arcadey direction. While racing lines and controlled drifting can help nab wins, racing rarely boils down to more than holding the gas and pointing the car in the right direction. The simple driving makes for a forgiving learning curve, and more technical driving doesnít really become applicable until late in the game when the cars are faster and more powerful. Even then, simplicity rules, and the main difficulty in Need For Speed Underground also becomes the gameís biggest flaw.
Iím not exactly sure what makes this appealing to developers, but time and time again they find it necessary to mar their racing games with random environmental traffic. In Underground the traffic is particularly offensive, as itís often unavoidable no matter how aware the driver is. Blind corners and hilltops peaks are often riddled with traffic that isnít visible until after it has already become a nightmare. Luckily, the traffic isnít terrible in all of the races and is, in most cases, bearable, though fits of insanity are sure to break down the most seasoned players at times.
Another problem with Underground is the severe rubber band AI. Throughout most of the gameís career mode, the elastic AI wonít be much of a problem, though in later races the AI seems intent on ruining any good time. No matter how good a player may be, itís typical to see a five second lead drop to nothing as the AI opponents move with the speed of Hermes. It makes winning a race not so much a challenge of skill but rather of luck, as it all boils down to the last lap-even in six lap races, itís not worth having a lead until the last lap as the AI will most certainly catch up and take that lead if given enough time to do so. Without properly rewarding skillful racing with a valuable lead, racing in Undergroundís career mode feels often stale, and always frustrating.
Thereís one other issue of Undergroundís game design that may raise some concern in players. All of the circuit and sprint race courses are crafted from a single city map, which means that courses often borrow sections of the road from other tracks. It can get repetitive. New courses often end up being just different routes through the same sections of the fictitious city landscape, and dťjŗ vu takes hold. The repetitive race courses arenít a terminal problem by any means-considering the jubilation the gameís high speeds induce- but could definitely have been remedied with some diversity.
Luckily, a few extras help keep Need For Speed Underground awesomely fun. To add variety to the racing, Underground introduces a couple of new and interesting play modes. The gameís drift competitions pose a unique challenge of skill, giving players wide courses on which to display their drifting techniques. Linking drifts between hairpin turns is satisfying, and the scoring system keeps it spicy, encouraging a fast paced run through the course while pulling off the best stunts.
Undergroundís drag racing mode also helps to keep racing fresh, and is not at all as dull as the idea may sound. Drag racing tests the timing of shifting gears, rewarding absolute perfect shifts with faster acceleration, and punishing bad shifts with a hit to the RPMs. Traffic is also an obstacle in the one-mile drag races, and itís generally more welcome here than in other races. Whatís most impressive is how these added race types donít feel merely tacked-on-theyíre fully fleshed out gameplay modes that actually add a lot to Need For Speed Underground.
Despite the radical changes, veteran Need For Speed fans should have little worry when approaching Underground. At its heart, the game is blood-and-guts arcade racing done well. Itís far from perfect, but players itching for a new set of streets to smoke should give Need For Speed Underground a run.
· · · MarkRyan