We've seen a lot of racing games this year, and EA has already published one of the best arcade racing titles ever made in Burnout 3. A few short months later, they pull out their next big racing game. Promising a massive city to drive around in, an incredibly lengthy single player campaign and online play, have they done enough to surpass the brilliant Burnout 3 from Criterion? Make no mistake, Need for Speed Underground 2 make is the best racing game based on the underground racing seen ever made and possibly the racing game of the year.
The whole ethos behind Need for Speed Underground 2 is taking a stock car, with low power and building it up to be a machine to be proud of in both looks and speed and thus the game completely revolves around these two factors. In terms of modes, it is a little lacking with only single races and the career mode available offline and of course the online play but once you discover just how big the career mode is, the lack of modes is soon forgotten. Once you unlock more cars and tracks in the career mode you can modify them with parts and have one off races which gives a reason to unlock more cars, something which is not always the case in the single player campaign.
The career mode is set in the sprawling metropolis of Bayview, a fictional city set on the West Coast of the United States where the racing is hot. The storyline behind the game is played in a first person perspective. The characters talk directly towards you, except amongst themselves when a comic book style is shown. The story basically tasks you with working your way up from a nobody to becoming the best street racer in Bayview and thus stop the take over of the racing scene. One problem we found with the story is that it starts with a flurry of scenes, and then slows down. There will be points where three or four hours of gameplay will be required before the next scene takes place. Brooke Burke features in the game, only in voice and a artists impression of her. Cynically you might say the story was only included so she could be part of the game but it does push the game along somewhat.
There is a variety of race types in the game ranging from drag racing to legal street racing and before the career mode comes to a climax you will have encountered them all. Some of the more unique racing on offer is Street X, basically motocross with cars, drifting tasks you with skidding around corners both on legal tracks and the open road (crazy!) and drag racing with oncoming traffic. The rest of the game is made up of typical races around the streets of Bayview such as circuit and sprint. The racing is fast and furious and once you get up to the higher levels of modification you will easily be reaching 300km/hr+.
How you find the races is perhaps what makes this game so great. EA have constructed a gigantic city which is divided into five blocks. As you reach higher status, the parts of the city will unlock until you have a city of a size which will have you playing for quite a while. The career mode takes over fifteen hours to complete which for a racing game is quite an achievement. Finding the races in the city is easy. Icons are placed around the city and you choose which style you want to race next before enabling a GPS computer system which guides you to the icon. There are also side missions such as getting your car on magazines (including Hot4s from Australia) and DVD covers.
The racing is only half of the game however with the other half making your car look beautiful, although that's debatable. By the time we had reached a full ranking in terms of looks, it looked like someone had thrown up on it and added some scrap metal in our opinion but each to their own. You can add items such as neons, body kits, stereo systems (unfortunately it does not alter the level of sound or quality of music in the game) and other visual pieces. To unlock parts you sometimes have to find hidden stores in the city. These are usually easily found by various colour lights emanating from their driveway.
EA has licensed a lot of cars for this game and included the most famous tuner cars such as the Skyline GTR from Nissan and Evolution VIII from Mitsubishi as well as other cars including the Pontiac GTO which is the American version of the Australian Monaro from Holden. The cars take damage somewhat, but only in large crashes and it disappears instantly once the crash is over. The crash sequences are highly impressive as the game goes into a bullet time style slow down, and you can see just how detailed the cars are; the light from the headlights follows the car showing dynamic lighting at work.
As mentioned before the city of Bayview is incredibly huge. There are so many places to race and like a real world city it is divided into areas; Industrial, mountainous, rich (Bayview has a 'copy' of the Hollywood sign from California), Inner city and Casino strip among other areas. This really adds to the game and gives the city character. The racing is also affected by this. In the mountains you will find winding roads which make racing harder and on top of this you have to deal with sporadic traffic.
Visually the game is really quite stunning on the Xbox especially at high speed where a motion blur effect comes into play. You will learn the city like the back of your hand and use visual cues to get to places after a few hours of play. One disappointment is that the story plays out in a comic book format and not real time cut scenes. The sound effects are excellent and there is definite distinction between not only each car, but each level of engine you can put in the car at the mod shops. Multiplayer is also well represented in the game with online and offline modes.
Need for Speed Underground 2 is one of the best racing games released this year and is definitely on the level of Burnout 3 when it comes to its impressive side. The online play and continuous customization of the cars will have players coming back for more time and time again.