The Need for Speed series was really a one of a kind series in its prime. Although there was no shortage of competing titles, no other racer seemed to capture the surreal feeling that the NFS series achieved, it was the ultimate escapism racer series, where anyone could take an extremely expensive sport car and risk nothing on their way through a peaceful autumn drenched countryside at 300KM/H. However, as of late, the Need for Speed name has lent itself to a different kind of racer, where the peaceful countryside is replaced with a busy urban setting, and the Lamborgini Diablo is replaced by the Nissan Skyline. I am speaking, of course, about the city based competitive racing of NFS: Underground 2, the latest in the NFS series, which is in review today.
Unlike the original, which allowed you to choose races in a simple menu setup, NFS:U2 now features a fully scaled city to find your races in. These can range from scheduled events to spur of the moment "catch me if you can" style races which you can instigate with other drivers in the city. You must also drive to car dealerships, body shops, paint shops etc to modify your ride. This system is really the biggest improvement to the series when compared to the original, it adds a new dimension to the game and is executed rather well, the fact you have complete control on what to do next in most instances creates a very relaxed and easy going atmosphere, however this impression can wear thin at times, particularly when you must travel from one end of town to the other in succession a few times over.
Thanks to the very handy GPS setup featured in the game, however, you can easily go to any event in the city without constantly checking your map for its location, which at least makes those long trips from one end to the other hassle free. What happens is after you've set a point on the map for where you want to go, the game will place an arrow on top of your screen to point you in the right direction, however unlike many previous similar systems in other racers, the GPS in NFS:U2 navigates you on a street by street basis and doesn't just give you a vague idea of the location, so you know exactly which streets to take on your way. This makes the occasional lengthy trip to a new event very easy and trouble free, which is a relief as I can only imagine the disaster it would have been trying to get to an exact location on the other side of town with nothing more than a static map system, particularly considering how many streets and highways are featured in the city.
Although the choice of events is usually up to you, there is still a storyline in the game, portrayed in the form of a comic strip with voice overs. The main character besides your faceless self is Brooke Burke of "Wild On" fame (amongst other, er, stuff), who takes you under her wings into the world of competitive underground racing. The races themselves never usually relate to the actual storyline in any significant way, most of the time you're just trying to fulfill your sponsorship requirements so you can move up in the world, however upon the completion of a sponsorship contract the story will usually progress a little further. Unfortunately this doesn't work so well, because as you get further into the game, it can literally be hours at best before the next storyline advancement occurs, resulting in a high possibility of gamer's simply losing interest in the game altogether. On the plus side, however, it will give enthusiastic gamers an absolute bucketload load of gaming, but I honestly doubt most casual players will be enthusiastic enough to stake out the entire game.
Car modification is a main attraction to the Underground series, and NFS:U2 doesn't disappoint. Although not a whole lot was added as far as possible modifications go, some new key parts of you car can be souped up to create an even more unique ride, such as the sides of your car's body. The usual performance mods remain with only minimal improvement, however the original title was pretty comprehensive in this area so that was to be expected. The one thing which was added though is the ability to test your car's performance in various ways as well as far more performance tweaking, such as gear ratios. You can also expect to see a better range of cars, including some of the popular SUV's associated with car customization in the US, although these are hardly practical for actual racing so they do seem a little pointless.
Along with new modifications comes new race modes. The main inclusion is "Street-X", which is sort of like a close quarter rally with 3 other cars on a very tight track. This involves a lot of car to car contact, although there is no damage model to speak of, so contact is nothing to worry about. Another new mode includes downhill drifting, which as you may have guessed is a point to point downhill track where the main aim is to collect the most drifting points, dodging obstacles and traffic on the way. Both of these modes aren't overly impressive as they don't reallt differ from the other modes significantly.
As far as the actual racing goes, NFS:U2 feels like your usual arcade racer in the areas of handling and physics. In other words, using the walls to bounce off around corners is a sound strategy but this has always been a trait of the NFS series, Underground 2 or not. Also as mentioned above, don't expect to see any crash damage either; during a big crash the game will go into a slow motion mode and will show minor damage such as smashed windows, but such damage is simply reset as soon as the game goes back into the normal speed racing mode. This, again, has practically always been a trait of the NFS series so it is no surprise to see it remain.
Visually the title looks impressive in most regards; cars look sensational with extremely accurate modeling and the city is glistening in a orgy of neon light brought out by the constant night time setting, the only quirk experienced were the ground surfaces, which for some reason are rendered with extremely low resolution texturing, almost to the point where Need for Speed 1's roads would look better. This could possibly be a quirk with ATi Radeon chips as we didn't play the game on a Geforce, so placing the blame on EA may not be completely fair, not to mention it is a pretty trivial flaw anyway - who can really spot high resolution textured roads at 300KM/H ?
Underground 2 is a worthy addition to the series, providing a much more interesting nonlinear style of play. The only major problem that seems to surface is the fact you will need to devote quite some time and mental energy to complete this game, and often the gameplay just gets too stale in the time needed to even complete just a few races in one sitting. If you really like the franchise and like the concept of being able to freely drive where you want at almost any time, Underground 2 will be right up your alley, but otherwise, you may grow tired of the seemingly never ending story mode quickly. It is still a great game, but definitely one that could have been a little more compact in play time.