It’s a testament to just how good this holiday release schedule is when the sequel to one of the top selling racing games of all time is overshadowed. Need for Speed Underground has returned with a vengeance offering more cars, more racing modes and, yes, more stereotypically wet pavement for your racing pleasure. The sex appeal is overloaded as well with lovely digital model, Brooke Burke, and a host of throbbing engines to suit any?racing appetite.
Even if you weren’t a fan of the first Need for Speed Underground, the sequel changes the formula around significantly. Sure, the game boasts a fun, arcade-style quick race mode, and the ever-popular online and LAN racing modes; but the real changes lie in the heart of the game – its campaign mode.
The campaign is stretched over the fictitious city of Bayview. Imagine if urban planners went nuts and decided to shuffle Chicago, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, and then shoved their favorite architectural elements into Blade Runner’s LA. It’s a surprisingly cohesive city that provides a massive variety of racing opportunities. Borrowing a bit from that other highly anticipated sequel, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, your campaign mode consists primarily of exploring each of the five districts of Bayview and completing missions, err races. Many of the distractions of San Andreas, including obnoxious pedestrians and ******* flying missions, are mercifully absent; stripping NFSU2 into the lean racer that it was clearly meant to be.
EA keeps the entire focus of this title on the racing itself with only the necessary forays into car customization and decoration necessary to keep your bank account and car in tiptop speed demon form. Every side aspect of the game links back to the core element in a beautiful logic missing from so many games as of late. For example, you win a race and get the money to add a new spoiler and some decals; those improvements make your image and reputation go up, so in turn you can appear on magazines and get more money, and then upgrade your car to compete in faster and more furious races. It’s a simplified example, but one that shows just how well thought through the progression of the campaign mode is.
Of course, the campaign itself would be worthless if the actual racing mechanics in NFSU2 weren’t well tuned. Even playing with a keyboard the controls for your car are tight, if still a bit wild and arcade-like. There is a real sense of speed and danger as you fly past oncoming traffic, particularly on the freeway. You can also execute a fun variety of powerslides and hand-break turns that would make your driving instructor roll over in his grave (Did you kill your instructor? – Ed).
The only bizarre element of game play in the racing is the Nitrous Oxide
(NOS) meter. As you pull off certain cool tricks you gain nitrous. Conversely if you do something stupid and crash you lose nitrous. Now, hitting the NOS is fun for short bursts of extreme speed, but the weird meter makes no sense in a game that is so logical in other respects.
This also brings us to one aspect of Need for Speed Underground 2 that you may or may not care for. Unlike some recent EA racers, there is absolutely no damage sustained to your car no matter how often you crash. Other than losing a little nitrous and possibly your place in the race there is no excuse to not ram into that obnoxious milk truck cutting you off on your way to Beacon Hill. You’re even rewarded with some pretty cut scenes for your efforts.
Speaking of pretty, the game is gorgeous on the PC, at least the backgrounds are some of the best seen on any recent racer. EA has thrown in all the bells and whistles of reflecting neon, water effects, captivating sunsets, anything you can think of to make a city gorgeous at night. It’s a beautiful, vacuous adult playground stripped of all human elements and yours to explore freely in your car.
The same cannot be said for the cars on the street, however. Many of the low-res models you pass seem jarring, and even your car seems slightly blocky compared to the lushness of the background. The blocky trucks you pass are particularly horrid. You’d swear a carton of milk on wheels was rolling by.
At least your blocky car friends are accompanied by some pretty nifty sound effects. Engines start, sputter, and roar with a mechanical ferocity. You can hear tires squeal and rubber burn. As for the in-game music, well, the very best thing about that is that you can turn it off. The mix of hip-hop, techno, and angry white man whining music certainly offers variety, but may not be to everyone’s taste. To the developer’s credit they have accounted for this and you can arrange or eliminate any tracks you find offensive. (Ooh, that Snoop Dog cover of the Doors gets to go bye-bye!) It’s extreme fun to mute all the sound and blast some Flight of the Valkyries or obscure Swedish EBM while careening through city streets – though this may also cause your roommates some concern.
The game looks nice and is fun at its heart, but EA decided to load the game with depth and variety to keep players coming back for more. Some of this works and some of it is just plain silly. For starters, there are a ton of different types of races; from the addictive and blisteringly fun Drag Racing to the ridiculous and, at times, frustrating Drift race. Most of the racing types are built from established models and are pretty self explanatory, but Drift and Outrun warrant a little more explanation. The cumbersome Drift races are basically a ?points’ contest where you have to try and get the most kudos by shaking your car’s rear end while still making it across the finish line in a set time. Outrun, however, is a fun game of cat and mouse where you pick up the attentions of another racer on the street and then have to lose him in the warren of the city districts.
Another addition to the racing elements is the inclusion of SUVs. While they may add to the bling-bling factor of the game and provide a little variety; in practice these gas-guzzling soccer mom tanks handle like baboons?with two club feet. Seriously, one or two races in these clunkers would test even the most die-hard racing fanatic. The only good thing about them is the giddy delight they inspire as you run over little girlie cars in the street – if you can even hit them.
Last but not least NFSU2 contains a dizzying array of customization parts. You need to familiarize yourself with suspensions, gearboxes, intakes, and engines to make your car worthy of taking on the giants in the later races. For those with a more artistic bent, you can spend hours tricking out your Celica with adorable flower decals, lavender headlights and a little RPM gauge that looks frighteningly like Pochacco?or maybe you could actually style a car that’s tasteful. No matter which route you choose to take, it provides a fun break from the racing action and gets you more image points to boot.
In a gaming season plagued by same-old-same-old sequels, Need for Speed Underground 2 is a rare title that changes up the formula and still manages to stay fun. When you combine its lasting pick up appeal with a surprisingly well thought out campaign mode, you have a racing game that provides depth without sacrificing the over the top action of an arcade game. All in all, you could do far worse this holiday than picking up a copy for a little yuletide diversion.