NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND: HANDS ON(Playstation 2 version)
'A sleeping giant awakens....' writes Simon Hutchinson
Universal have a lot to answer for with the Fast and the Furious movie series. Not only has it born a new breed of street racing fans, but game publishers and developers are also catching on. Need for Speed: Underground is the next game in the venerable franchise, but unlike previous games it will not focus on European exotics, it is firmly entrenched with Japanese exotics sometimes affectionately called 'rice mobiles'. I visited EA to check out the latest build, and left wanting more, more and more.
Need for Speed at a time was the premiere race car simulation, I remember playing the original at my friends house till all hours of the morning, but as time wore on it seemed to lose its magic touch. Underground seems to have the franchise back where it belongs, fun, fast and beautiful. The aim of Underground is to become the top street racer on the circuit. In the current build unfortunately the career mode known as 'Go Underground' is not available, but the word is that you will start off with a basic car and race and drag for money to buy after market parts. The modes that were available were drag, drift, circuit and tournament. These will form the crux of the game once it ships in mid November.
One of the more unique aspects of Need for Speed: Underground will be the drag racing section. Players will construct their car for a race and over a quarter mile or so of track will put the pedal to the metal. The unique aspect comes from the gear shifting. Automatic shift will not be allowed but there is a technical reason for this. During the drag mode, depending on how you shift will determine how fast the car accelerates. Gain a perfect shift and the car will rocket away but shift when redlining and not only will your car lose speed but you run a major risk of blowing your engine.
Circuit and Tournament mode are basically one and the same. Circuit is a street race but unlike drag,features long twisting turns and does allow an automatic shifter. Tournament mode is just numerous tracks raced together in a row to find the ultimate challenger and find who deserves the cash prizes. The drift section basically challenges racers to pull off the longest drifting turn to win the cash and free run allows players to drive a circuit as many times as they desire. This mode becomes incredibly useful because during the heat of the race (especially when the cars are doing 250km/hr+) it is hard to pick out upcoming corners.
In the current build the cars included the Ford Focus, Toyota Supra, Toyota Celica and Chrysler Neon. The final game will be shipping with 20 cars for players to customise to their hearts desire. Unlike other Need For Speeds, a car can be totally customised in both look and technical prowess. The current build seemed to feature a lot of money to play with so I was able to really customise the cars and gain some serious power. Options such as neon's, new headlights, mag wheels etc will improve the look of the vehicle whilst options such as lowering the car, more Nitrous Oxide or new fenders will increase the performance. Not only have EA allowed this, but they have licensed numerous after market parts from famous companies such as Momo. Chances are if they are big in the street racing scene, they will feature in this game.
Using licensed cars has restricted the damage model somewhat but that doesn't mean you can drive like a maniac. The more a car is customised, the easier it is to total. This is basically the difficulty ramping up once you start to build a really nice set of wheels. However hitting anything at speeds over200km/hr (except rival cars) is usually going to end your race. It is unknown at this stage if damage will cause you to fork over cash in the career mode. The cars look just like their real world models and the reflections and graphical effects featured are superb.
Possibly the biggest feature of Need for Speed: Underground will be just how fast the engine runs. This game is running at sixty frames per second and not once during my play testing did it drop below this. Also once you reach the higher speeds, the screen will start to shake and blur. This is when its time to flick that NoS switch and watch the world around you turn into a blur. An utmost level of concentration will be required when this occurs as it is almost impossible to pick out upcoming obstacles and corners. It feels very much like the pod race scene in Episode 1and this is of no coincidence. EA hired the special fx guru behind that scene for Underground and it has come off in a way no one could have ever imagined.
In the current build, four locations are featured with numerous tracks. You will be racing in downtown,near the airport, in drains and even in industrial areas. One thing that Underground is not going to feature is police, they wish to keep that exclusive to the High Stakes sub-franchise. The graphics are absolutely phenomenal even in the Playstation 2 build. Most, if not all races are set in the night time, and the lighting effects and reflections on the road really do have to be seen to be believed. The game also features some superb sound effects, with the most customised mobiles featuring the trademark hiss of a blow out valve and the gear changes triggering clutch noises etc.
As you can probably tell in my opinion this is going to be one of the best racing games of the year. EA seem to have really done their homework and so far the game is looking beyond any street racing fan's wildest dreams. I will be quite surprised if the final version doesn't make my top 10 of console games for 2003. It is scheduled to ship in mid November and will be available for all next generation consoles, GBA and PC. We will have more information on NFS Underground soon.