Last year's portable rendition of Need for Speed Underground
was an impressive feat of not only bringing a racing game into a console-style 3D graphics engine on the Game Boy Advance, but also getting the game to actually work on the handheld. The system isn't exactly an enormous powerhouse under its hood, and many developers have taken the initiative of pushing texture-mapped polygons on the system only to have the gameplay suffer because the system just can't handle the load. But the first NFS:U
, despite a few hitches and omissions in its gameplay, was a surprisingly solid racing game. It just needed a little more "oomph" to its design.
For Need for Speed Underground 2, the same development team has been given the opportunity to provide that needed "oomph" for the sequel. On the surface the GBA rendition still retains appearance of last year's game, but the studio went in and tweaked the design to make it a much more fulfilling racing experience. Don't expect the same open-ended production of the console version, as the GBA game follows a much more rigid structure for its racing tier. Still, it's definitely one of the top racers to hit the GBA this year, and at the very least struts the GBA's prowess in some of the best 3D yet seen on the handheld.
At its core, Need for Speed Underground 2 puts players behind the wheel of more than a dozen vehicles from such manufacturers as Toyota, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Mitsubishi. But to gain access to many of these cars, it's a matter of winning street races of different varieties to earn enough dough to unlock and purchase them. But it's not just a matter of simply taking these cars out for a spin; stock vehicles are boring, and the game encourages spending money to customize these vehicles beyond the showroom vehicle's performance. Of course, since these are street vehicles you can also tweak their look with decals, a new paintjob, some ground effects, neon under the carriage...
It's clear that the development team on this game used the first Need for Speed Underground for the sequel's foundation. Like last year's game, Need for Speed Underground 2 is segmented into different challenges. The standard race takes place in a circuit track of several laps against as many as three other opponents, and while a good technique behind the wheel is definitely handy, a good eye for handy shortcuts is also expected. These circuit races are pretty much the meat of NFSU2, as most of the challenges take place in this mode. The game's engine handles the racing incredibly well, offering a really good sense of speed and a decent amount of variety to the level layouts. It offers a chase cam for the game's default perspective, but it's much more natural to race in the in-car viewpoint since the chase cam is intentionally on the sluggish side to portray the "drifting" motion of the vehicles. As tight as these races are, last year's complaint is still in the sequel: there's no on-screen map to tell players where the heck the track's going. Some alleyways don't go anywhere, and sometimes you're suckered into thinking that's the way you need to go. The developers include a map before the race, but that's not exactly a handy way to go, and without the on-screen reference it's easy to get lost and lose the race.
The drag racing, a side game from last year, has received much more focused attention this time around. Players still simply drive in a straightforward strip as fast as their vehicle can take them, but now they'll have to swerve past traffic by shifting through several lanes on the strip. Smacking into a vehicle is definitely not a good thing, so the challenge is to know when they'll pop up and where. The "Drift" mode has also been fleshed out to give players a new way to race the tracks; the trick is to keep the wheels spinning loose on the pavement as long as possible, and the longer they're screeching around corners the more points they'll earn. There are also a series of mini-challenges that add variety to the game's main career mode.
Even though handheld gaming has received a graphical kick in the pants thanks to the introduction of the Nintendo DS and the upcoming Sony PSP, it's still great to see just how far developers can go on the GBA for 3D graphics. The system is without a dedicated 3D chip, so programmers have spent months if not years tweaking their code in order to bring the system up to speed with today's gaming. The GBA will never match what current, or even previous generation console games have been able to pull off, but Need for Speed Underground 2 is definitely the most impressive 3D seen yet on the handheld. Last year's game was impressive in its own right, but Pocketeers definitely optimized the code to produce more varied texture work and a faster sense of speed for the sequel.
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