Shift into the down low.
The Need For Speed series is known for its exotic cars, extreme speed, and often-breathtaking international locations. EA has always been ready and willing to tamper with the details of this potent elixir, varying upgrades, limiting vehicles, intensifying traffic, altering physics, and increasing or decreasing police presence from game to game. The latest incarnation of the series, Need for Speed: Underground, marks a complete revamp of the main ingredients and the result is a solid and unique arcade racer.
Single, Two-Player and even online racing modes (on the PC and PS2, at least) are available, but the main feature of NFS: Underground is the "Underground' mode itself. You don't have to delve deeper than your first race to see what's different about this game.
Underground is basically an illegal street racer career mode consisting of a whopping 111 race events, including Circuit races, point-to-point Sprints, Knock-Out, Drag races, and Drift competitions. You begin the game with a small choice of upgradeable tuner cars like the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Dodge Neon, and Peugeot 206 GTI. Though your chosen vehicle begins as basically a dud, you are offered a bevy of upgrades to customize and personalize your ride making it as unique as possible.
Unfortunately, most of the upgrades are cosmetic " different headlamps, neons for the underside, a different type of hood, vinyl patterns, decals, etc. There are performance upgrades available, but these are offered in an assortment of packages and are not a mix and match affair. While they do add speed and alter handling, don't expect the level of customization displayed in Need For Speed Motor City or Gran Turismo.
Another unfortunate aspect of the customizations is that they are unlockable as well as available for purchase. You can't add a particular feature to your car just because you can afford it - you'll have to unlock it first, and you will be unlocking far more vinyl patterns than anything else. This puts a sad and confining limitation on customization; if you've earned the cash to purchase an upgrade, you should be able to just buy it. No one down at Kragen's is going to talk you out of a new exhaust pipe for you car if you have the cash to pay for it.
Thankfully, as a consolation prize, you can switch vehicles at almost any point in the game and most of your upgrades will carry over. You won't have to start again from scratch.
NFS: Underground is an arcade-style racer, complete with huge red arrows set up in front of buildings indicating the direction you should be heading and a reset feature which kicks in immediately if you happen to miss a turn and plunge beyond the designated track. The learning curve has less of a bend than an iron rail, so this is definitely ready for any newbie to jump on and play to their heart's content.
In turn, the vehicles handle like arcade cars and, while they certainly are not weightless, in collision they do twist, flip and spin much more than they would in real life, even possessing a tendency to bounce back on the track. This makes it possible to crash and still finish the race in first place, which provides a nice chaos factor without tons of frustration. There is no damage modeling on the cars, which can be a bit disconcerting after an insane collision, but cars do not take operational damage, so you'll never have to worry about the engine exploding and you'll never have to coax your wounded vehicle to limp across a finish line.
Drag racing and Drift competitions are what really set this game apart from its predecessors. Drag races pit the player against not one, but three other vehicles, your own shifting ability, oncoming civilian traffic and varying road hazards and jumps. Unlike Test Drive, it takes more than just shifting gears at the right moments; you will also have to change lanes to avoid whatever is thrown in front of you and opponent vehicles are about as friendly about letting you merge as commuters stuck in bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. This manages to be frustrating and fun in equal parts and is a great addition to the game.
The Drift challenges pit you and your ride against a short track with a myriad of turns and grades you on how well you can ride a curve without slowing down to a crawl or banking into a wall. This, like Drag racing, takes more than a little skill and a whole lot of patience and is definitely one of the high points of the game.
Sprint and Circuit races are a weak spot for NFS: Underground. Unlike other NFS games which had players going up against as many as seven other vehicles, here there are a piddling three opponents and, aside from sheer opportunism, there is nothing remarkable about them. They are not particularly aggressive or considerably better drivers; they're just as likely to plow into unwary cross traffic as you are " and that can be a good thing. There just aren't enough of them.
All four version of NFS: Underground feature superb graphics. The cars are crisp and detailed and the lighting effects are first rate, with an abundance of sparks, motion blur, light trails and lens flares. The Xbox is obviously the smoothest of the consoles with the Gamecube and PS2 placing second and third, respectively, but none will disappoint.
Although there's plenty of shine and polish to this game, the glitter of these effects are wasted on the most boring tracks on record. These are all night tracks, all in the same "metropolitan" location, and all of them are shorter than Emmanuel Lewis in a pair of flats. Dispensing with often stunning, international and fantasy tracks, NFS: Underground has opted to present the tracks as various streets in one small city. This quickly becomes as redundant as driving around the block about 150 times and is a pure travesty when compared to the tracks in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 or any of the previous NFS games.
For that matter, NFS: Underground has dispensed with exotics and faraway locales to focus on the illegal street racing scene (i.e., "The Fast and the Furious" or just about any other Vin Diesel movie set on planet Earth). And what would illegal street racing be without cops on your tailpipe? Well, it would probably be very much like this game, since there's nary a pig to be seen. All of the coppers in Underground have apparently converged on the local Krispy Kreme for a cruller convention so you'll never have an impromptu meeting with Officer Friendly no matter how much road you manage to tear up. And that's just a shame.
The PS2 and PC versions of NFS: Underground also have online capability. Players can race up to three other online opponents using their saved car from their single-player game or a default bucket. Of course, you're not racing for pinks since you can't own more than one car at a time, but you can race for online ranking recognition. And although there is no voice-support, PS2 and PC players can battle it out against one another, a nice touch which definitely broadens the field.
NFS: Underground is an uneven mixture of gorgeous graphics, upgradeable street racing vehicles, variety of race modes, unique customization, lack of opposition, repetitive tracks, and no law enforcement presence. Somehow they have even managed to get rid of the replays all together. The additions and subtractions seem so random, it's almost as if they picked this game's elements out of a hat. But the game still manages to be involving and fun, although not quite as engrossing as NFS:HP2. It's surely worthy of gracing any racing aficionado's collection; the various events and practically endless cosmetic customizations should keep this one out of the trade-in stack for some time to come.