Back in the days of NFS 2 and 3, the reality of NFS being an arcade racer series wasn't as apparent as it is today, after all, there really weren't any simulation street racers out to compare to. However, in today's race game market, the NFS series has shifted from a fantasy racer to an arcade racer, particularly with the previous Hot Pursuit 2. The reception to this hasn't always been very positive, NFS fans were highly critical of HP2 despite being a somewhat sturdy arcade racer. With that said, perhaps the main problem is the fans misunderstand what market the NFS series is trying to aim for, it seems the only real criticism that comes up are the strengths of a quality arcade racer. Can NFS: Underground finally put the series in its place, as the PC's leading arcade racing series?
NFS: Underground, being the new style NFS game it is, features some new modes never before seen in the series, and some old ones that fans will be familiar with. New to the series are the Drag and Drift modes, while the Circuit, Sprint, Lap Knockout and Free Run modes have been in the series for as long as I can remember. On top of this, you have a common "career" style mode called "Go Underground", which is basically a collection of all the above mentioned modes in a season scenario, where winning means unlocking goodies such as visual and performance upgrades, as well new tracks.
The generic Circuit, Sprint, Lap Knockout and Free Run modes are pretty self explanatory, all of these involve your basic style of racing, besides Free Run, where you can obviously do whatever the hell you want. These modes represent the classic NFS gameplay we've come to enjoy, and I can happily say that each of these are fun and fresh, when done in relatively small doses.
The Drag and Drift games modes are also reasonably self explanatory, but they are obviously tailored for the game that Underground is - an illegal underground racer. Drifting is when you control your car while your back wheels are not in control, if that makes any sense. What you basically have to do is slide around a tight cornered circuit, with no other active opponents, and earn point for the magnitude of your drifts. Sounds easy? Well not quite, even the slightest tap of a wall or barrier will automatically kill any points gained on any drift.
Drag mode is probably the premier mode in Underground, despite each drag being relatively quick. Every other mode allows you to choose from Automatic or Manual transmission, however Drag mode requires you use Manual transmission. The RPM counter is displayed down the left side of the screen, and any gear shift should be done while the ticker is green, otherwise you'll shift to quickly or over rev. What it comes down to is basically a modern high paced game of frogger, where you weave through traffic while attempting to gear shift perfectly, and even if you do that, sometimes you will still be blown out of the water. Expect to hit the "restart" option a few times in Drag mode.
However every game mode shares one common aspect, that being the location. Unlike the previous NFS games, where the gamer would be taken to almost every corner of the globe, Underground is based in the same city, with each track representing a collection of different streets throughout the city. Not only is this a very repetitive annoyance, but what makes it worse is the fact that almost every track shares identical streets at one stage or another. Throughout the game you will unlock "new" tracks, but these are almost always familiar, either because they have the same streets, or because they are old tracks in reverse. Whilst I will admit having this style of racing in a country scene would have been odd, I just wish there was a little more variation with the tracks included.
As you progress through the Underground mode, which is ultimately the mode you'll want to dedicate yourself to, you will begin to unlock visual and performance upgrades for your car, and even new cars themselves. It is amazing to see the amount of upgrades and cars included, everything from fully customizable body kits to weight reduction kits are available, with each category featuring loads of options. It takes a while to unlock these, so as you progress, you car's performance and looks will also.
I was hugely disappointed to see the absence of a Network play mode. The funny thing is, it is so expected for games to feature LAN support these days that I didn't even realise there was none in NFS:U until I had a few friends set up and ready to play, as you could imagine, I wasn't very popular after breaking the news. There is no excuse for this, I simply don't understand what they were thinking to not include Network play, perhaps there will be a future patch but that really isn't good enough.
Another disappointed is the absence of cops. Ok, the police thing has been done in the NFS series to the bone, but I just can't put my head around the idea of a police-less Need For Speed, it just doesn't comprehend. Lets not forget that the whole game is based on illegal street racing, I thought this type of racing would have had ample opportunity to portray, perhaps, a super police force with modded up cars of their own, but it seems the idea wasn't picked up on. Having other cars against you is one thing, but having to run away from something else at the same time is a totally different experience, and I feel it is something that should have been included.
With all this aside though, Underground is still a solid arcade racer. From my somewhat lengthy list of dislikes, it may be hard to image me really enjoying this game, but honestly, I did. Something about the game demands attention, and while it is repetitive in more than one aspect, I couldn't help but throw in a few quick races here and there even after finishing the Underground mode, and I did have fun doing it. When it comes down to it, isn't that what arcade racing is all out?
EA are known for their eye candy games, and NFS:U is no exception. To show off the ingame engine, EA have "glossed" things up; pretty much everything in the game that could have remotely possessed visual bliss does, from the cars to the track itself. The tracks & environments are particularly impressive, almost every surface has a nice reflective attribute, with the city scenery itself looking fantastic.
On top of the impressive in-game visuals, Underground also features a very powerful and robust visual upgrade system. While the visual upgrades to your car won't improve on your performance as such, you've got to look the part to be taken seriously, and Underground does a remarkable job in the quality of visual customizations. For example, every upgrade is generally available for any car once unlocked, and despite the fact every car has a different body shape, the upgrades seem to fit perfectly, like everything was remodeled to fit every car in the game precisely (which would seem impossible, due to the sheer amount of upgrades). With such unique visual variation on demand, I was expecting to see defects such as poor model clipping when using the upgrades, however I experienced nothing of the sort, no matter which upgrade, it seems to mould to every car's unique body.
If there is one gripe I have with the graphics, it is the lack of visual damage. It is fine for an arcade racer to not include performance impacting car damage, as that is a characteristic of a simulator, however visual damage is something I feel every racer shouldn't go without. Whilst cars do occasionally appear to have cracked glass, nothing else is visually portrayed onto the car, not even paint damage. When will we finally see real visual damage in a NFS game?
Underground controls like your usual arcade racer - that is, with very little realism. There is an option to turn off stability control, which tends to make things a little more challenging, however Underground will ultimately not be impressing fans of Nascar 2003 Racing Season, but obviously, it doesn't need to.
Underground is really one of those games that need a control pad with analog sticks, or better yet, a steering wheel. The keyboard is supported fully, however you'll certainly want analog control rather than digital control, as there are some very tight situations usually involving traffic which requires feather touches to the steering axis. Luckily, like any good arcade racer, the controls are very simply to learn, so if you must use the keyboard, you can atleast forget about having to learn unnecessary functions.
You can criticise the Need For Speed series all you want - sure the handling is not quite right, the speed is ridiculous and the crash damage is non existent, but the fact remains it is an arcade racer series, and Underground captures the essence of arcade racing almost perfectly. Although it would have been nice to see a little more track variety, network play and maybe atleast visual crash damage, there is no doubting that NFS: Underground is a fun and outrageous arcade racer, and with the almost total lack of competition out there, it is probably the PC's best. Simply put, NFS: Underground is here to satisfy all your surreal rev head needs. I have no doubt it will succeed, but I feel it will attract more new fans than it will satisfy old fans.