Staying with the pack.
The underground racing scene works in mysterious ways. One minute, you're cruising around town as carefree as can be, and the next you're screeching at a stop sign, slamming on the gas and careening around at twice the legal speed limit. It's fast, it's sudden and it serves up the adrenaline that many racers out there live for.
EA brings the experience home again for the second installment of the Need For Speed Underground series. The game has had its insides tuned up a bit since we last explored it. Some parts have been swapped out, a few more chrome items have been added for flavor and a couple of key features have been upgraded. Change is usually good, but just because something can be done, it doesn't always mean it should be done.
So what's the verdict on EA's new ride? Well, it's not bad, but it ain't a trophy winner.
The biggest upgrade in NFS: Underground 2 is the free-roaming style of play. Rather than just bouncing you between different sections of the city like its predecessor, the game allows you to roam a sizable city in search of the perfect ride and the means to get it. You'll participate in various organized events as well as a few impromptu exercises while hunting down hidden tuner shops throughout the city.
This open-ended setup acts as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allows you to explore a huge city at will. Performance, graphics, specialty shops and more are scattered all over the place. You can even take part in hidden underground races for extra coin. It's a good move for the series and makes it all feel more realistic.
The downside is that it can take a while to get where you want to go. Sometimes the shop or race event you're looking for is nowhere near your location and you'll need to cruise across town to get there. This isn't so bad during the first few hours of the game since you'll be hunting down hidden shops along the way, but after you've found them all, the excessive travel time can be a drag. The game could have benefited from a "jump" feature, perhaps even allowing you to warp to select points in the city, but as it stands, you'll just have to deal with the commute.
Another new feature in Underground 2 is the Race Breaker. Cars outfitted with a nitrous kit will regain spent N2O by performing impressive racing techniques like drifting and drafting. This feature, used strategically, can mean the difference between victory and defeat (especially in Drag Races), making for some truly nail-biting finishes.
Speaking of Drag Races, they're back and as awesome as ever. These put you in a tight battle with a few other cars that test your reflexes, shifting ability and speed. The race may travel in a straight line, but obstacles will jump out in front of you without warning. Fast-paced and exciting, Drag Racing is still one of the game's best features.
Many of the other race types make a return. Tackle a few laps through sections of the city in Circuit, hit the point to point in Sprint and slide around tight corners in the Drift competition. The Knockout races from the original game have been replaced by Street X, where you'll race on a small, close-quarters drift track. Underground Racing League (URL) events let you race tournament-style on an enclosed track with no traffic involved.
It wouldn't be much of an underground racing game without plenty of performance tuning, and NFSU 2 thankfully lets you tweak suspension, engine, brakes, etc. endlessly. This time around, though, you can focus much more attention on the aesthetics of your ride. Body Shops are available for a large selection of kits, spoilers and wheels, Graphics Shops handle the paint and vinyls and specialized Customization shops will add a little extra flair with neons, audio/visual systems and custom doors. Each upgrade increases your 'Star' rating, which will earn you spots on magazine and DVD covers. This means you won't be really be able to cruise through the game with a sleeper car, but where's the fun in that?
NFSU 2 starts you off with the regular selection of low-end tuners like the ubiquitous Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla, but you'll gradually evolve to better rides like the Supra, G35 and Skyline. It takes a while for you to get out of your first ride, but as soon as you get a real car, the game really picks up. The addition of SUVs rounds out the choices, but most tuners will want to stick to the more typical four-wheeled rockets.
Regardless of your ride, the other cars will not show any mercy. The computer-controlled opponents are generally aggressive, shoving you out of the way and bumping you into spins, but sometimes they go a little haywire. The A.I. has a tendency to crash right off the bat, which can delay your start. A little more polish here would have helped tremendously.
The same can be said of the game's graphics, which are mostly good. The car models are done well and the expansive city is rendered in nice detail. Effects like the nitrous burst and the wet streets aren't as surprising this time around, but they still make the game pop. The predictable rain effect, however, is pretty pathetic, as it looks like the rain is only falling over your car. I also take issue with the aggravating lack of damage-modeling, which, after games likeBurnout 3, makes NFSU 2 look like a prude. The PC, PS2 and Xbox versions of the game all hold up with solid framerates, but the Gamecube version falls noticeably flat.
The purple box also fails to provide the online component available in every other version of the game. You can take on other gamers in any of the game's races or just cruise around and show off your ride in Free Run mode. Full ranking and matching makes the online experience a good one.
NFSU 2 features a pretty odd mix of tunes that skew mostly toward rock and techno, but you also get an odd track here and there like Snoop's remake of Riders on the Storm. The sound effects are fine, although the stock cars sound awfully burly.
I hope you don't mind being blitzkrieged with ads, because NFSU 2 is thick with sponsorships. Some of them make perfect sense (Bilstein Shocks and Auto Zone, for example), but ads for restaurants and financial planning groups takes the product placement to obnoxious lows. Since we're the ones who have to stare at the ads endlessly, how about at least cutting us in on all that cash coming in the back door, EA?
Cheap money-making schemes notwithstanding, Need for Speed Underground 2 does a pretty good job capturing the tuner scene with fast races and flashy cars. However, some lingering A.I. issues and the excessive time it takes just to get where you need to go keeps this ride from shifting to fifth.