The Need for Speed series has been around since early 1995, when the original Need for Speed was released for the 3DO. I loved that game; it was the first time I ever thought I knew what it would be like to drive a Corvette, or a Porsche. Having each car handle differently and like their real world counterpart was a new concept at the time. Since then I have enjoyed many hours with subsequent sequels and new versions of the game. Despite the occasional dud (*cough* Porsche Unleashed *cough*), most every game in the series has been rock solid and a blast to play, especially those developed by EA themselves. Yet, the main reason the series has continued to thrive is due to EA?s ability to evolve with the times and to change with the gaming culture. And that is just what they have done with Need for Speed Underground
Need For Speed Underground slams the ?Fast and the Furious? style street racing scene into your living room with its beautiful graphics, tight arcade style controls, and plethora of customizable options for your car. Underground takes you late into the night, into the illegal world of street racing. Here, your goals are no longer to outrun the cops or to win the pink slip of your opponent?s car. No, here you are racing for style, prestige, and money. Given the illegal nature of street racing, you ironically won?t have to contend with any cops in the new game, but there will still be meticulously placed traffic in all the ?wrong? places that you will have to contend with. Your goal will be to earn the respect of the underground by becoming the most popular and fastest underground racer there is. You do this by customizing your car by adding all kinds of visual and performance upgrades and by winning races.
The main mode of the game is the ?Underground? mode. In this mode your goal is to play through a career of 111 races/challenges, while at the same time earning style points to unlock a host of new visual styles, and cars to use. After you pass a little driving test involving a high performance car already loaded with NOS, you?ll get to start from scratch with your own unaltered vehicle. You start by picking a vehicle like Dodge Neon, a Honda Civic or a Pugeot 206. Then you?ll be able to enter your car into different types of races to win money, style points and special prizes. At times you will have a choice as to which race you want to enter, but a lot of the game uses more of a story to force you into a particular race that you must win to move on. In reality the game is quite linear, because each race must eventually be won so even if you choose to race the ?Drag? race before the ?Circuit? race, you will still end up racing both. Eventually, you will trick-out your car with ground effects, headlight covers, racing graphics, nitrous and much more. All of these things will help you be the fastest, smoothest, most popular driver in the ?Underground?.
The racing in the game breaks into six main areas: Circuit, Drag, Knock Out, Sprint, Drift, and Tournament. The Circuit race is the usual race mode where you will take on three opponents for a set number of laps through the city streets. Knock Out is a lot like a Circuit race, but here, the last place driver of each lap is eliminated. Drag racing is one of the more interesting races to play. Tires squeal as you and your opponents explode off the line. Timing shifts is rather simple, but as you gain more and more speed, the city deteriorates around you into a blur of shaking color. Oncoming traffic, jumps, medians and other objects will litter the street, but at high speeds the cars response will be poor at best so precision is the key. One mistake and you?ll total your car and be left in the dust. In contrast, the Drift mode concentrates more on style than high speed. These races are set on short, tight turning tracks and require a sustained mixture of power sliding and speed in order to beat your opponents. Sprints are just races from point A to point B. Some are races against opponents, but some are called ?Time Trials? and are just races against the clock. Finally there are tournaments. If you have enough reputation from upgrading your car?s visual appearance then you will be able to enter a tournament. These are a series of races where your final position at the end of each race earns you tournament points. The winner of the tournament will have the most tournament points from the best average overall finish.
After each race you will be awarded style points based on your performance. You get points for power sliding, airtime, close calls with on coming traffic, and completing sections of the race without hitting anything. Win or loose, these style points will be added to your style bar, which when filled, will unlock some new piece of visual modification. The more you are able to customize your car, the more you increase your reputation multiplier. This multiplier is an indication of how cool you?ve tricked out your car and will add to the number of style points you earn each race. Things like neon lighting, window tint, and headlight covers will all add to your reputation.
When you do actually win a race event, you will get to bring home a little bling for your troubles. The amount of money you earn depends on difficulty level you choose to play. In a nice addition to the gameplay, you can control the difficulty of the game on a race-by-race basis. If you are having a hard time beating one of the races, you can turn down the difficulty a notch in order to give yourself a better chance. Doing so, however, has an impact on how much money you will win. The harder the challenge the more money you will make if you win. As tempting as it might sound to play all of the races on hard to have money to spend freely, you really don?t have to. There isn?t much of a difference in payout between two difficulty levels, and there is only so much you can buy. You can do just fine beating the game on the normal setting.
You will use the money you earn to either upgrade your car?s performance or your reputation by customizing the car?s looks. If you want to increase the performance then you will buy upgrades such as exhaust systems, turbo kits or nitrous boosts. Those afraid of simulation need not worry. All of the upgrades are plug and play, and nothing needs to be tuned or tweaked to get maximum benefit. The upgrades will have an effect on different attributes: acceleration, top speed, or handling. If you are going for cool looks then you will want to buy some visual mods such as a spoiler, new hood, or maybe some manufacture?s graphics. As previously mentioned, these will increase your reputation which will allow you to accumulate more skill points faster which will allow you to unlock new items faster. Certain upgrades will be unlocked as you reach certain milestones or only available from beating certain races. These upgrades will unlock better levels of upgrades, which will keep you competitive in your career.
The controls of the game, are very similar to past Need For Speed games. The cars all have slightly different handling aspects, but each one is easy to pick up and play. Realism takes a back seat so that you can fly around the tracks as if you were a seasoned veteran. Unfortunately this can be a bit annoying. First, crashing into a wall at 100 mph does nothing to your car. Damage is a non-factor in this game. All that happens is that you loose some ground to the leaders. That might also mean something if the computer didn?t incorporate the ?rubber band? AI, or what Underground calls ?catch up? play. In career mode, this is turned on and there is no option to turn it off. If you just enter a ?quick race? then you will get the ability to turn it on or off as well as to set the traffic level. This kind of AI seems to make the game frustrating for two reasons. First, for circuit play, it basically makes all the laps except the last, meaningless. After crashing into a wall, getting turned around backwards, and getting stopped by an oncoming car, I could still catch up to the pack by the end of the lap. Likewise, you can carry a 6 second lead into the last few corners of the race, but dare not make a single mistake. Just graze a wall, and you can watch that little icon on your map screen, start to make up ground at amazing speeds. In just a couple corners, they will be by you for the victory. Basically the game turns into last lap perfection in order to win. It?s frustrating, but not unbeatable.
One of the best reasons to get the PS2 version of Underground is the fact that it has online play. You can enter either ranked games or exhibition games online. If you choose to play in a ranked game then you have to use one of your cars. If you play in an unranked game, then you have the freedom to use a car that is already highly customized. There are also two online modes to race in. You can either race someone head to head or you can join a race with three other players. Either way, it is a good way to spend some time with friends or to try to prove that you are the best.
The main draw to the game though, would probably be the graphics. It?s one of the few games that allow you to fully customize your ride to your hearts desire with real name brands like Enkei, Audiobahn, Stillen, and StreetGlow. With extremely detailed car models and a large number of modification possibilities, you never have had so much control over how beautiful and personalized your car looks. The environments look almost just as good. Since all of the racing takes place at night, lighting plays a huge role. Street lamps light the road as well as your headlights. But you?re going to have to look closely for that curb or the entrance to the fast approaching turn that might be hidden in the shadows. If you are having a real hard time seeing, or too easy of a time seeing, the game gives you a calibration screen that will help you calibrate the correct level of brightness that your TV should be set at.
Unfortunately, one area where the graphics do not shine is with the damage modeling. As in there isn?t any. So your pretty little headlights will stay on no matter how hard you hit that wall or oncoming car. And your car will never loose its luster or shine because of dirt or a scratch. Also, in some areas, you will encounter the oh-so annoying invisible wall. If you try to take a corner to close you may make an unpleasant jarring stop.
Another strong graphical feature is how the game simulates speed. By using a combination of blurring as well as a slight shaking of the screen, you can almost feel the wind rushing through your hair as you race down the streets. These effects play strongly in drag racing and with the use of nitrous. The game also has a cinematic feel to it, as there are a few cut scenes that help push you along in your career. The character models for these cut scenes are not the best, as they look like last year?s technology, but it is a good addition that adds a little more to the immersion into the game. There is also a cinematic slow motion effect. If you happen to hit a jump, or run full speed into an on coming car, the gameplay will enter slow motion and you will get a slightly more dramatic angle of the event. I thought this was cool, and it is totally customizable to happen as much as you want from the options screen.
The sound in the game is another strong point. From the crowds cheering at the line to the roars of the engines ready to fire down the course, all the ambient sounds of squealing tires and scraping metal sound great. The soundtrack of the game also couldn?t be better. Using the now famous ?EA Games Trax?, there are 26 songs of R&B, Hip Hop, Techno, and Rock from groups like Fuel, The Crystal Method, Rob Zombie, Static-X, and Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz. Some of the songs you may have heard on the group?s albums, like Rancid?s ?Out of Control?, but others are exclusives like Nate Dog?s ?Keep It Coming?. This is one game that I like to crank up the sound, as I get ready for a bass thumping, heart pumping good time. There isn?t a bad song in the bunch either. However, if you find that you don?t like the music as much as I do, the game gives you the ability to customize where each song will play. You can choose to have a song play on menus, during races, both or not at all. And finally for those of you who have invested in good sound systems, the game does support THX surround sound as an additional bonus.
EA continues the tradition of releasing quality arcade style racers with Need For Speed Underground. The improved visuals and the awesome ability to trick out your car, gives car enthusiasts and street racer wannabes another dimension of realism that the series is known to do. The smooth arcade controls and the long entertaining career mode, is only blemished by a few invisible walls, a lack of damage modeling and tired rubber band AI. The music is excellent and the inclusion of online play for the PS2 version adds almost unlimited replayibality. Underground is a quality game that should be on any racers shelf.
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