The import tuner scene has literally exploded into mainstream culture, thanks to the success of movies like The Fast and The Furious. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before the gaming industry followed suit, producing nitro-infused racing titles that celebrated the modified car lifestyle. EA managed to meld the illegal world of street racing with the car enthusiast spirit in last year’s popular Need For Speed Underground. Packed with plenty of aftermarket parts, a number of racing modes and an addictive sense of gameplay, this title drove into many gamers' hearts, prompting demand for a sequel. Well, buckle your seatbelts, because we’re peeling out with Need For Speed Underground 2.
Apart from the initial intro movie in the first NFS title, there really wasn’t much of a story in the game. Underground 2 attempts to change that within the career mode, trying to provide you with a backstory and a reason to take to the streets in your car. The premise of the game, told in graphical novel format, is relatively simple to follow: The player, a successful racer in one town, is suddenly ambushed and almost killed by rivals. Six months later (presumably to allow you time to rest and heal up from your injuries), you fly into Bayview, with the intention of climbing your way back up to the top of the racing scene. While the idea of including a story mode for a title like this is a decent idea, it’s implemented rather poorly. For instance, there isn’t much of a progression within the story that consistently ties the action of the game to the plot of the “career” mode. In fact, with the exception of the graphic novel exposition at certain moments, I’d actually forgotten sections of what the story was supposed to be. What’s more, the graphical novel format, while striking, doesn’t truly deliver the impact that a cutscene or in-game movie does.
What is more impressive is the size and scope of Bayview itself. Comprised of 5 separate districts, the streets of Bayview comprise more than 125 miles of driving terrain, all of which is interconnected and demonstrates no perceptible load time, including its varying rain conditions. Akin to GTA, you’ll gain access to other districts only after you’ve proven your driving skill, but once you’ve unlocked these areas, you’ll be able to drive from one end of town to the other without stopping. The effect is a much more realistic, dynamic cityscape than the original Underground title that doesn’t just feel like you’re stuck on specific tracks or courses.
Speaking of courses, Underground 2 provides many more race types than were seen in the previous title. Sure, you’ve got the circuit, or lap based race, drag races, drift races (where you slide your car around corners) and sprint races, but there’s a number of newcomers this year. StreetX combines the dramatically shortened drift tracks with the laps you’ll find in a circuit race. You can expect plenty of cars smashing into each other for position in these matches. Outrun races are a combination of street bravado and driving skill. Essentially, you’ll see a number of drivers on the included world map, and you’ll be able to drive up to them and flash your headlights. From there, the race is on, as you have to catch up to and outdistance your rival. Every now and then, you’ll find yourself running into a situation where a photographer will want to take a picture or your car for a DVD or magazine, which essentially becomes an all out timed sprint to get to their location before they pack up their equipment and leave. Finally, there’s the U.R.L., or Underground Racing League, a series of circuit races set on actual tracks instead of city streets.
With the exception of the U.R.L. races, which you have to earn access to, you can choose to take on anyone of these races at any time. In fact, that’s one of the substantial improvements over the original title; players now have the option to choose exactly what kind of race they want to participate in at any point in time. So if you happen to hate Drift racing (as I did from the first game), you can avoid every single drift race offered, focusing instead on sprints or circuit contests. But this isn’t just a situation of coming in first to win, like other racing games. You do have to win races, but Underground 2 places a premium on obliterating your opponents by opening up huge distances. The more time between you and second place, the more respect and monetary compensation you win at the end of the race. As your rep grows, you’ll attract the eye of sponsors who’ll give you signing bonuses, new cars and contracts to represent them. These contracts will have stipulations, such as the fact that you’ll have to win a certain number of races. A number of them will be further specified, so as an example, you may be asked to win 13 races, two of which have to be drift, sprint and drag races, with the rest up to you. Once you take on and complete all of the specified tasks, you can take on a new U.R.L. competition and move up in respect and racing class, giving you access to more cars and modifications.
Speaking of cars and modifications, players are no longer limited to one machine in Underground 2. You’ll gain access to a five car garage, which you’ll be able to access at just about anytime to switch machines. The number of licensed cars for Underground 2 has been increased to more than 30 vehicles as well of different classes, so you’ll be able to put modified muscle cars and tuner cars up against SUVs and other machines. Initially, any car that you buy or acquire through contracts will be stock machines that will seem quite sluggish compared to the other tuned up machines. However, this can all be changed by visiting some of the car shops in the game. Like the previous game, you’ll have the option to include after market parts like weight reduction kits, better fuel systems and improved suspension. While it’s often good to pick and choose which part you have money for at a certain time, you’ll eventually have to acquire all of the parts accessible to your car to make a vehicle that will eat its competition alive. You’ll also have the option to perform a number of visual improvements, such as decals, neon undercarriage work and hydraulics. The more visually distinctive your ride, the more photographers will want to put you on magazines and DVDs, which is an easy source of income.
Visually, Underground 2 is an interesting mix of building upon the old and redefining gameplay for the new. In particular, let’s take a look at the city of Bayview itself. Large, gleaming and full of neon and other distinctive visuals, Bayview evokes both Miami and the winding hills of L.A. along its winding streets. In fact, the city itself is perhaps the closest thing to a character the game has. While you won’t see a change in atmospheric conditions (the Underground world is perpetually shaded in night, from dusk to the earliest bits of dawn), the effect of rainfall that comes sweeping in on race courses is striking. All of the game’s action takes place at 480p for widescreen support, and framerate is steady throughout, although the Gamecube suffers from some discernible slowdown. Similarly, particle effects, particularly that of smoke from burnt rubber, are very nicely done. However, this is balanced by a number of graphical issues. First of all, the sense of speed that was imparted in the original title seems somewhat missing in Underground 2. In fact, compared to Burnout 3, another EA racing title from September, Underground 2 feels positively pedestrian at times. There aren’t as many motion blurs or camera effects to truly impart the idea of velocity (toned down Drag racing shaky cam excluded), and you may discover yourself fighting to feel like you’re hurtling down a street without massive nitrous boosts engaged. There’s also something that I feel I should say, which is that the number of billboard ads thrown into the game seems somewhat oppressive now. I can understand seeing one or two here or there, but it feels like almost every corner has two or three posted, so you’re really driving through an infomercial than a game now. I’ve already mentioned the issue that I have with the novel “cutscenes”, although the intros before races kick off don’t seem as distinctive either. Car models, although somewhat detailed, aren’t as sharp as other titles, nor does it feature damage modeling, which is certainly annoying when it comes down to potential accidents or crashes during gameplay.
In fact, that’s one of the weaker moments, hearing an accident that sounds particularly horrific while watching absolutely no damage befall your machine. On the upside, the rest of the sounds, from the growl of the engines to the spray of nitrous and the peals of thunder are great and really impart a significant amount of ambience to the gameplay. The soundtrack, on the other hand, will probably remain a bone of contention for other gamers. Ranging from rock to rap, there’s a significant amount of music included that won’t appeal to a player for whatever reason. Granted, you’ll be able to pick and choose which tracks you want to hear, but you don’t have the option to play custom soundtracks if you have an Xbox, and some of the songs, like the Snoop Dogg/Doors remake, are basically sacrilegious. Oh, and one more thing…the included game characters don’t need to “over-hip” themselves with every conversation they have. I don’t need to hear dawg, bank, or tight 500 times as I play the game; it makes me reach for the mute button because they’re trying too hard to be down with current slang.
This leads me to some of the other issues that I managed to find with gameplay. First of all, the customization of cars leaves something to be desired, primarily because of the world map hosting the location of shops. To be able to access shops, you need to find them first, a process that can sometimes take a large amount of searching to track down. Not all of them are going to show up on the map once found either, a flaw that also happens with some races as well, which is idiotic. Secondly, while there’s the option to dyno your car, providing tweaks to the speed, handling and other stats of your vehicle for certain races, it’s not really necessary to be successful in Underground 2. In fact, I spent a large amount of gameplay refusing to make any changes based on the dyno at all, and still experienced significant success in all kinds of races.
Outside of that, the difficulty of the game does seem noticeably lighter, even on the toughest setting. Additionally, why the inclusion of SUVs? Seriously, I can see that fully outfitting these machines looks visually striking, but the handling and speed of these cars stinks for any race. Hell, if it’s going to be included, have a “Pimp My Ride” mode, where you’re given the option to trick out a car with what you’ve unlocked, and then you can race for these machines against friends or online, where you can sell or trade them to other gamers. But don’t make them seriously available as a racing option. Finally, while the inclusion of nitrous is something to be expected in a tuner racing title, the influence of Burnout 3 once again seems to have skewed the game mechanic itself. I shouldn’t gain additional nitrous by avoiding accidents, taking shortcuts or drifting like I did in Burnout 3. I should have a set amount that I bring to the race and nothing more, particularly since Underground 2 has cut out the number of air catching hills and jumps that were a visually appealing section of the first title.
Overall, Underground 2 does manage to expand on the street racing culture it worked so hard to embody in the first title. Broadening the racing arenas to include a complete city, the number of race types and vehicles significantly increases the number of things to do in the game. However, the quirks of the world map, lack of visual speed and other gameplay issues keep it from surpassing the original title. That being said, Need For Speed Underground 2 will still appeal to racing fans looking for an exciting time behind the wheel.