Overshadowed by the big three sequels this fall -- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
, Half-Life 2
, and Halo 2
-- the world's best selling game in 2003 really isn't something that should be ignored. Electronic Arts' Need for Speed Underground 2
is a huge makeover, improving on every aspect of last year's version by building an impressive level of depth in every facet of play.
An arcade racer by nature, NFSU2 expands into many new territories with a deep, complex progression system. It builds out an impressive customization mode, lacking in last year's model, and furthers its reach into America's trendy import tuner culture with the appropriate dialog, music, and the addition, of all things, SUVs. The result is a startling 40-plus hour game that's well composed, packed with aggresive AI, and is perhaps a little too big for its own good.
Presentation and Progression
Electronic Arts' massively expanded Need For Speed Underground 2 isn't a sequel in the normal sense of the word. Instead, it's a reinvention, derived from the open model made popular by Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series and racing-action games like Midtown Madness and Midnight Club. Comprised of a five-part city, the fictitious urban center known as Bayview is the imaginative ideal for midnight racing speedsters. It's open, large, and filled with a half dozen racing types.
Coal Harbor, City Core, Beacon Hill, Jackson Heights, and the Airport all provide distinct driving opportunities for players looking for the same kinds of racing variety presented in Need for Speed Underground -- only now, they're all tied into one thriving city. Beacon Hill, for instance, is superb for drifting, while City Core includes an impressive and extensive freeway system connecting together the whole city and giving gamers an excellent collection of drag racing and circuit courses to boot.
To get through the massive real estate of Bayview and to fulfill your destiny as an import tuning master, you'll need to do several things, the first of which is racing: Win races and you'll progress. But it's not just racing, it's the way you progress. The game encourages you to explore its many nuances, to become a part of the "lifestyle," and in many ways it rewards you for doing so. There are strategically placed stacks of cash waiting to be collected, a few shortcuts here and there -- though not nearly enough -- and glowing rings of color representing racing opportunities, garages, and more.
But if you get bored -- and you will because there isn't enough hidden stuff to keep your interest high -- you can drop out of the Career Mode's Explore mode and enter World Map. The difference is that Explore mode enables you to drive freely about the city looking for races, getting lost in Out Run races here, and being distracted by shops and garages there. The World Map presents the distilled version of Explore Mode, giving you a menu, a list of races to beat, and statistics.
I found this version of the Career mode interesting. It's a mode of great efficiency, skipping the audio chat and the random encounters, which to be honest become tedious. I say efficient because unlike the GTAseries where there are dozens of distractions, there are almost none in NFSU2. There are no civilians, there aren't that many secrets, and the shortcuts are lacking. It makes me think that EA had a hunch people might simply just want to race -- skipping the whole exploring business altogether. I know that once I found this mode I stopped exploring almost entirely. In that sense the huge city of Bayview is actually a big letdown.
The manner in which you must beat NFSU2 is original. It's based on winning races, earning cash, earning a reputation, and by modding the hell out of your ride. You earn money by winning races and lose money by losing races. You earn a reputation by winning races with a large margin between you and the second place opponent. The more better reputation you earn, the greater the breadth of sponsors you'll have, which means more free cars and more money. The more cash you have the more you can drop on your vehicle, which incidentally you shouldn't get too attached to because you'll eventually have -- or may want -- to trade it in. You can only fit five cars in your garage simultaneously.
Your ride is measured by a Visual Rating of 10 stars. The more detailed your ride, the higher the rating goes. Smartly, EA also tied in the visual rating to progression. For instance, you have to reach a certain star quota to be on the cover of a magazine which is a requirement of a sponsor. It's all intelligently connected.
If you just want to race, you'll find EA has plans for you to explore the import tuning culture one way or another; but it's worth it. Personally have little real-life interest in modding cars. Here, I was encouraged to have fun with it. While my first car was sleek and trim (foregoing anything garish and too time-consuming), my second car was flamboyant and colorful (OK, garish), and creating it was way more enjoyable.
Last, you progress by completing a level (which consists of the requirements of the sponsor and a few other races). There are five overall and each one ups the difficulty of AI, and the rewards of your sponsor always include a free car -- almost always faster and sleeker than the one you're driving.
EA has managed to create one of the best, most robust and efficient progression systems in this generation of racers -- even if the city itself feels like an empty shell. The details are lengthy, so I'll be semi-brief: You can use a GPS system to find the race you want, the D-pad is incredibly handy in showing a detailed map of races and garages, and the map's customizable and visually easy to use. Having played a lot of Gran Turismo 3 A-spec and many other menu-heavy racing games, this one comes up aces. Navigating this massive city and simply enabling you get to all the stats, races, and spots you need to get to is great. Too bad the city itself isn't all that interesting to explore. That, and I really wished there were more freeway exits. There were many times I was stuck on the freeway passing up a race spot but I couldn't get off the freeway.
Off To The Races
EA's 30-plus cars are good in some ways, bad in others. Several of the rides are quite desirable, including the new Ford Mustang and the Nissan 350Z. But you'll have to wait and earn those. And you'll have to seriously upgrade any vehicle to get a good sense of speed. That takes a while, too. The other vehicles are just plain average and it's a wonder anyone would want to drive them. Surely, some are classic mod specialties, but from a strict racing perspective, the Toyota Corolla? Eck. Anyway, you'll start with the lower ranking set and as you win, faster, more popular cars appear.
All of the cars in NFSU2 are licensed, from the Toyotas to the Nissans to the Hyundais and Cadillacs. While from an import tuner perspective, the addition of SUVs and trucks might be "kewl," driving these beasts is an exercise in misery, sluggishness, and horrific handling. You might want to "challenge" yourself with some of these, but you may also want to throw yourself off a cliff (and you can take your Cadillac Navigator with you).
There are a half dozen race types, giving NFSU2 superb breadth and depth. There's Out Run (a pick-up race in which you must ditch your opponent), Street X (rough closed-circuit technical races), Sprint (one long race), Circuits (multiple lap courses), Drag (top speed straightaway runs), Drift (point-based technique races centered on sliding), and Underground League, a set of random circuits.
The Street X races are a mixture of skill and excitement, wanton rage and sheer trial and error gameplay. The AI in Street X races is set to agro, which is fine, but they're cheap too. It's an all-out smash-'em-up derby, and sometimes the randomness goes your way, other times not. The same goes for the drag races. They are longer, have more stuff in them, and control with a more regimented steering mechanism. You tap the D-pad to switch lanes and you're loosely magnetized to that lane. Instead of cross traffic there is oncoming traffic and roadblocks, and random obstacles are very commonplace. Sadly, there are no more jumps. It's different than NFS, but after a few races, it's actually just as good.
If you're familiar with the Need for Speed series, then the way these cars handle won't surprise. There is a good mixture of arcade and realistic handling in them all, but these cars are more realistic, more "weighty," and less twitchy. The result is that powerslides and drifts work better, and more skill is required to drive them well. Unfortunately, in order for most of these rides to reach any satisfying levels of speed, you'll need to seriously upgrade them. While EA's other racer, Burnout 3: Takedown, is a different kind of game, it needs to be said that no racing game this year, including NFSU2, comes close to equaling its sense of speed. So, no, it's not as fast as Burnout 3. Nothing is.
On the other hand, even the worst cars here are capable of cool tricks, drifts, and slick powerslides. There are few racers in which you can pull into a 180 turn with the brake, slam down the e-brake, and slide into a continuous rubber-burning 360 peelout. You can literally just pull off donuts all day on any main street. It's sweet.
Unlike several previous games in this series, there is no car damage (and no drivers in the vehicles) so driving can often careen into an exercise in laziness and dereliction -- pretty sad. The biggest consequence revolves around NOS. If you've bought NOS, you can then earn more by pulling off moves -- powerslides, avoiding oncoming traffic, pulling off a clean section, getting air, etc. If you smash into other cars and beat up your vehicle, you'll lose NOS. The biggest issue with the default NOS is that it's used up so damn fast. But you can tune it to your liking. Also, avoiding traffic earns you more NOS than a more skilled trick like powerslides, which seems wrong.
One of the best parts of playing NFSU2 is its thoroughly conceived customization sections. There are hundreds of exterior parts to apply to your ride and they're all easy to apply. The range of parts is excessive -- spoilers, hoods, siding, mufflers, rims, spinners, window tinting, funky trunks, speed dials, neon undercolors, five layers of decals, etc. -- it goes on and on. Nearly all parts are unlocked due to winning races, and the newer, cooler version can be added as you get deeper and deeper into the game. They all contribute to your Visual Rating, so they thankfully tie into the best goals -- winning races.
The under-the-hood tuning is also excessively good. Unlike last year's rather trite upgrade system, this one not only exists, but you can tune your car in the Dyno Room and see instant realistic results. Street Racing Syndicate did this first, but I think NFSU2 does it better. That's mainly because the car can be tested on a track and then adjusted on the fly and brought back to dyno test again, and all of it is executed quickly and easily.
For the PS2, Xbox, and PC, the online game is solid if predictable. You can get online with your custom rides and race with as many as five other opponents simultaneously. There is very little slowdown, the cars drive extremely well, and the voice chat is as good as it gets. All of the race types are playable online too. The GameCube version is not online.
Visually, NFSU2 improves upon its excellent looking original in every way, plus several little bonuses sweeten the deal. At least that's true on the Xbox. The PS2 is a slight step down, thoug it's still quite good looking, and the GameCube is a big step down, with a slower framerate that affects gameplay. All of the consoles support widescreen 480p.
The diversity of the city is impressive in both its art direction and architecture. Bayview is an imaginary city, but if you look close it's a compilation of several cities you know. There are bridges reminiscent of Seattle, a radio tower that looks like it's been stolen straight off Twin Peaks, SF, and the city center area could easily be any major metropolitan center. Some houses in Beacon Hill and Jackson Heights look like they've been snatched out of the Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
The lighting is excellent. NFSU had many dark patches, and this one makes up for that with cats eyes and better sign placement. The cars all show realtime reflections off windows and exteriors, and EA has made sure there is some kind of Chinatown section filled with bright flickering lights. The game still takes place all at night again, but it's now during several times of the night. So you've got early evening when the sun is setting, late night when the sky is pitch black, and early dawn. The artistically handled skies and gorgeously imagined clouds help bring an additional layer of realism and beauty to the game.
The streets aren't always dark and wet now either (though the patented dark wet streets are back). The weather changes. Sometimes right in the middle of a race, you'll hear thunder and then it starts pouring, which affects your handling. When you drive beneath underpasses, you'll see the rain coming down in only those patches open to the sky. There are no people on the streets, but trees sway in the background and cars independently drive by, crash, stall and mill about the city. When you pull off donuts, clouds of smoke billow up behind you. On the whole, EA's done an excellent job with the visuals on the PC and Xbox versions, and to a certain extent, it's done as best it could on the PS2. Too bad about the Cube version.
On the downside there are several minor quibbles. The car models aren't that detailed. I'm not sure what the polygon count for each car is, but this game won't win best car model awards anytime soon. I could easily do without the cutscene crashes -- they just get in the way -- and the graphic novel segues feel contrived and like an excuse for not having anything else. How many times can we see the same painted image of Brooke Burke? I guess a freakin' lot.
As with the previous Underground, this year's model offers a cacophony of impactful sound effects. Each car has its distinct gear revs, idles, depth to its engine sounds, and distinct tire-burning screeches. The gear switches sound thick and real. The crashes sound like real metal twisting and windows shattering. And all of the little menu sounds of ignition, keys turning, gears clicking -- create a great feeling of power and car satisfaction.
Brooke Burke's voice acting is state of the art Brooke Burke -- she's a no-nonsense car chick who knows she's hot. She likes to talk about slamming, jamming, and peeling, so someone's going to like her work. As for the rest of the cast, I've now come to expect the sound of "cool" dudes that use the most "hip" lingo around. I guess people talk like that, right? Yo! Know what I'm saying dawg? Ugh...
The soundtrack is a collection of 27 songs, compiled on EA's Trax. They can be customized so you can hear them in the menus, when racing, not at all, or at any time. You can hear them in sequential or random order. I personally hadn't heard 90% of the songs, and the tunes like Snapcase's "Skeptic," Skindred's "Nobody" and SpiderBait's "Black Betty" got the "off" switch from me. I don't know, is this what the kids are listening to now? I mean, even Snoop Dogg's Doors remix of "Riders on the Storm (Fredwreck Remix)" was pretty damn bad. And it's not like I haven't heard that song a million times already.
NFSU2 supports Pro Logic I & II for Cube and PS2, and Dolby 5.1 surround sound for Xbox.
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