It's that time of year again! EA Sports hits us with the racing franchise that just keeps on going - Need for Speed: Underground. This time, the action takes place in the seedy world of street racing. Featuring appearances from 20 different licensed cars and a whole range of different musical artists, the game has a lot going for it from the back of the box.
The aim of "Need for Speed: Underground" is to become the ultimate street racer, using a combination or driving skill and car modifying know-how. The main Underground mode begins with a race, after which you select which car you wish to start your career with. By completing the various races and games, you unlock more races and new parts for your chosen chariot.
The story of Underground is a little weak, but who really cares? Within the game a few GCI cut-scenes describe to you what is going on, whether you have achieved anything and so on. The CGI is well presented and informative, but really that is its only purpose within the game. If you are looking for a game with a real story, you may as well look somewhere else.
Initially, I chose to go with the Peugeot 206 Gti/S16 for purely cosmetic reasons. This is where the real fun of the game begins. The car customization system featured here is amazing. Everything you could possibly want (and a heap that you don't) is included within the options here. As mentioned earlier, the majority of upgrades are locked at the beginning of your career - it's up to you to win races to unlock them. The upgrades link seamlessly into your car; it really is a wonder to behold.
The variety of different race types featured within the game is pleasant. All the usual "beat the opposition" modes are here, with the ability to tailor each race's difficulty before hand, by using the easy/medium or hard options presented to you pre-race. This is a useful addition to the game, as it lets you select hard with races you are good at, and easy if you are having a few problems with a certain race. Each setting brings its own corresponding rewards - if you play through the game on easy, you receive less points.
The racing itself is a speedy, responsive affair, with realistic handling. The cars really feel like they are on the road, powering through the streets. Lots of shortcuts and time saving alternatives can be chosen. The 3d map rotates shows you the way to go. The one gripe I came across was within the opponent AI. Unfortunately, later on in the game it suffers horribly from "CPU catch-up" Syndrome - meaning however much of a lead you generate, crash once and the whole race is lost. It reminded of the old-school "Daytona USA" arcade machines, it's almost that bad. This is however a standard feature of most arcade racers I have played - the upshot is of course that you just have to make sure you don't crash. Another feature that irritated me slightly during the racing, was that of traffic. As cars appear randomly during the race, it's incredibly easy to crash into them, requiring a race restart. Of course, on the flip side of this argument it seems that the CPU is just as likely to crash into them as you are - the game is very realistic in this sense. The game is an arcade racer, through and through. That isn't to say that the car physics are un-realistic and shallow. A lot of time an effort has clearly been put into finding the perfect balance between realism and fun.
The two modes that interested me the most were "Drift" and "Drag". Within the Drag mode, you are forced to race along a drag strip, using manual gears to achieve the quickest gearshifts and be first to the line. This mode is fantastically fast, with the emphasis on pure speed, rather than anything else. The mode is made even better by the fact that you have to interact with traffic - there is nothing better than rallying along the road at 150, trying to change gear at the right time and watching for incoming traffic - and the incoming traffic comes in fast.
The other mode of interest, "Drift" involves power sliding round a small circuit. The premise is 'whoever can do the biggest/fastest/longest power-slide wins'. This mode is a welcome addition, as it interrupts the sometime repetitive nature of the standard races.
The maps within the game are your standard Need For Speed affair, with one location requiring various races to be completed across it, racing it backwards and so on. Unfortunately, there is a lack of variation, with one neon lit track after the other. The map designers have made a good job of creating tracks with the emphasis on speed and reactions, rather than technical driving skill.
The main feature however, is car customization. Lets get one thing straight - this section of the game is fantastic. The variety of different modifications you can make to the standard cars is stunning. The interface is intuitive, making even a car novice like me feel right at home. After applying new side-skirts and a bonnet scoop to my car, I was laughing at the genius of it all. One gripe I had with the customization section is that after every race where you unlock some new material, it doesn't highlight what you have won, making it a chore to remember what new goodies you can install. This is hardly a big thing however, and its annoyance factor negligible. It should be noted that the first few levels of modifications you apply during the game cannot be tuned like in "Colin McRae 4". They are more of the "plug n play" variety.
Racing itself is a joy. The graphics contained within the game really are some of the most detailed and vivid I have seen. I had been worried, prior to playing the title that it may have taken the "Midnight Club 2" option, sacrificing eye-candy for speed. Suffice to say, I was incredibly happy with the result.
The game ran incredibly fast, even on my non-gaming PC (P800, Radeon 9600 pro). On my gaming PC however, it was mind blowing. The depth of the in-game racing visuals is amazing. Stark neon lights burn the asphalt as you tear along the road, glinting at the brightness of the headlights of the racer in front of you. All the usual suspects are there - lens flares, motion blurring, headlamp glow, light trails and the like. All of it really comes together within the race itself. All of these graphical options are editable for slower PC's, giving everyone the chance to race.
Another great feature of the game is the sound. As the game is a "THX certified" title you would expect nothing else. With my home sound system it sounded fantastic however I am no 'audiophile', so my judgment here is a little lacking. The engine noises are very realistic and vary according to your setup. The voice acting on the CGI cut scenes is performed to an acceptable level.
The Music within the game is also produced to an incredibly high standard featuring tracks produced exclusively for the title, and a few lifted off albums here and there. The two genres that most of these tracks fall into are the two most prolific in the charts today (aside from pop), namely Hip-Hop and (gah) Nu-metal. The game features big name acts like Dilated Peoples and Nate Dogg on the hip hop side of things, and Rancid and Static X on the metal side. Unfortunately, most of the heavier records (Static-X) were taken immediately off my playlist, to save on headache tablets. One feature here that is lacking compared to other games (such as the aforementioned Midnight Club 2), is that there is no option to import mp3 files into the game. This was a serious let down, as music can really make or break a game. Overall, the music is incredibly well produced, and will appeal to a wide audience - as long as you like the genres mentioned above. If you like neither of these, the music will not become your favorite aspect of the game.
The game offers On-line play through the in-game menus, featuring a patching system to update the client when necessary. The main let down of the title however is here: there is no LAN play option. I felt this would have been one of the main selling points of the title, but alas the option is not included. As someone who spent many an hour with Midnight Club 2's LAN racing, I was deeply disappointed that EA never included this option.
Need for Speed: Underground is a fine game. If you are interested in the world of street racing or car modifying, this is the only title on the market that I would recommend to you. Furthermore, If you are interested in (and even if you are not) any form of racing, I believe this game would be worth your money. The game's ability to suck you in, and make you want to modify your car is great. For me, the game was a great mixture of arcade racing, with a twist of simulation - and a lot of modifying. It is a title that will make you return for second and third helpings, as you strive to create your perfect car.