Reviewed: January 6, 2005
Released: November 15, 2004
The Need for Speed franchise has been around for as long as I have been gaming. I know I have at least one NFS game on 3” disk and probably the first one on 5” floppy if that helps date it. Back in the “old days” you either had NFS or Test Drive if you wanted to live and drive dangerously.
EA has taken the NFS series to new levels of technical achievement over the years with its Hot Pursuit games and in 2003 it took the world of NFS underground, exploring the dark and exciting world of illegal street racing. Another year and another sequel later, EA is back again with Need for Speed Underground 2, and this time they are going to blow your doors off.
Nothing can possibly prepare you for what awaits when you pop in your NFSU2 disc. This game is not a sequel. There is hardly enough of the original game to even justify sharing the same name. This game is evolutionary and revolutionary. The only thing that even comes close to comparison would be Namco’s Street Racing Syndicate, and even that title quickly becomes a speck in your rearview mirror as you lose yourself in EA’s inspired vision of underground racing.
Perhaps there is a little bit of the core of the original NFS Underground lurking about this title. You are still racing in hundreds of events ranging from circuit, street, sprint, drift, and drag, and you are still on the never-ending quest for cash and respect. But EA has taken those core elements and turbocharged them, so strap that NOS canister to your Xbox and fasten your seatbelt.
EA had the luxury of seeing what SRS had to offer and do it better, mainly the open-ended style of gameplay. The original NFS Underground simply had you wading through a massive tier of races, with more becoming available as you unlocked them.
Underground 2 still does the same thing but disguises the laundry list by giving you the freedom to roam a massive city. Encompassing five large area and nearly 40 miles of drivable roads, NFSU2 rivals any racing game that has come before it for sheer scope, size, and complexity.
Normally in a game like this I can memorize, or at least learn my way around the entire game in a few hours. I am still getting lost in Bay View even after 60 hours of gameplay. Not all of this giant city is open at first, but as you progress through the career mode more and more areas will become available.
Jackson Heights is mainly a lone mountain road that twists through the hillside overlooking the city below. It’s very much like Mulholland in LA with plenty of switchbacks and treacherous turns.
Beacon Hill and City Center are basically two halves of a giant city separated by a suspension bridge and tunnels going over and under the river. The design of this city is flawless and very complex. You can get lost in the canyons of skyscrapers downtown or blinded by the bright lights of the Vegas-style hotel and casino section in the center of town.
Coal Harbor is the dirty part of town with warehouses, train yards and a shipyard. You’ll be drag racing between trains and dodging cargo canisters on the wharf in this area. The final section is the Airport and offers some of the most breathtaking races as you drag down the runway as planes are taking off and landing.
NFSU2 comes loaded with 30 licensed vehicles that you can tweak beyond recognition. New for this year are SUV’s like the Navigator and the Escalade, and while these are a unique challenge to learn to drive, let alone race, I have to wonder if they replaced a few popular (and obviously missing) models of cars that are actually preferred in the street-racing scene.
Underground 2 offers several modes of racing. You can do a quick race with any unlocked car or track, or you can challenge a friend in a two-player split-screen race, but most of you will head directly to the career mode. This is where the story and the real racing action can be found.
Yes, there is a story, but frankly even the sexy Brooke Burke couldn’t hold my attention long enough to grasp it. There’s some hard ass name Caleb who runs the racing scene and I’m supposed to take him down a notch, all the while signing up with sponsors, racing in their required events, and building up my car so it looks hot enough to get on magazine and DVD covers.
When you arrive in the city you meet up with Rachel who is your link between the underground scene and sponsors. She keeps in touch with you on your handy PDA informing you of new race events and possible hot spots in the city. You get to drive and race her car around for the first few minutes but she wants it back all too soon, and you will be forced to head to the car dealer to buy your own ride.
And thus begins the continuous process of buying cars and upgrading them, both for performance and looks. You have to have speed to win the cash and you have to have cash to pimp your ride with neon, tinted windows, custom body parts, and flashy vinyl.
Scattered about the city are several upgrade shops. Some are obvious and others are hidden just waiting for you to find them. These shops include a specialty shop, performance shop, body shop, and graphics shop where you can do just about anything to your car from installing a thumping stereo system in the trunk to lighting your engine with custom neon. You can even install custom instruments in the dash that update the HUD in the game.
Shops are color coded, both on the extremely helpful and massively complex overhead map you can pull up anytime during the game and with matching colored streetlights. So if you are driving around town and happen to spot a colorful light that isn’t on your map you might want to investigate. There are dozens of hidden shops around town and you need to find these to unlock the more advanced parts and upgrades.
Gameplay is extremely open-ended despite the list of race events that continues to grow along the left side of the map screen. You are free to race these events anytime and in any order you wish. Once you have won the event they will disappear from the map. Just like shops, the events are color coded too, so you can quickly find URL, Sprints, Drag, Drift, Circuit, and StreetX events on the map. Often there are more than one of each type available.
URL races are sanctioned races that open up once you have a sponsor and take place on real racetracks, usually for big money. Drift racing is all about how much you can break traction and slide that backend around. The faster you go and the greater the angle of your slide the more points you earn. You don’t need to cross the finish line first, just have the most points. StreetX are short circuit races on tight twisting tracks, much like the Drift tracks, where precision driving and all-out aggression make all the difference.
Sprints are linear races of various lengths that twist through town from point A to B. Circuit races also take place on the city streets and consist of numerous laps over the same section of road. And of course we can’t forget the Drag race events. These are all about proper shifting, lane changes, and knowing when to kick in that nitro. These can be some of the toughest events in the game.
Sprints, Circuits, and some of the Drag events take place on public roads and you will need to keep an eye out for civilian traffic, and depending on where you are racing perhaps a jumbo jet crossing your path. Drag races are particularly sensitive, as you can total out your car with one wrong move.
Also new for this game are Outrun events, made possible since we now have this huge city and have to drive everywhere. During your travels you might spot an orange triangle on the radar map. These indicate other street racers open to a challenge. Simply pull behind them and wait for them to flash their brake lights then challenge them with a tap of the D-pad. The race is on.
Outrun is just like the racing from the Tokyo Xtreme games on the PlayStation. You basically try to take the lead then out-distance your opponent. When you have put the required distance, as indicated by the bar on the top of the screen, between you and your opponent you get a few hundred bucks. It’s not as easy as it sounds. You first have to take the lead, which often involves some intense follow-the-leader, and depending on the skill of the driver, I’ve had some of these races last upwards of 10-15 minutes and take me clear across town.
Over the course of the game you will sign on with several sponsors, each of which will assign you a list of requirements to fulfill your contract. The events will vary with each sponsor, so if you prefer drag racing over drift racing you might want to sign up with Kenwood rather than AEM.
Also, as part of your sponsorship requirements (and new to the sequel) are photo ops. These appear at random as stars on the map. You generally drive to these locations within a certain time limit and get your picture on the cover of a magazine or DVD case. Some photos are automatic but the really fun ones allow for you to frame your car around the scenery, tweak the hood, trunk, and doors, and snap your own picture. Preview the final copy and if you don’t like it, try again. I was annoyed that after trying to get the perfect shot for ten minutes the magazine would put text or some hot chick over my car. If this mode stays in for NFSU3 I want to pick and pose the girls.
One thing that SRS got right was allowing you to pick your destination and then “warp” right to it. With the exception of being able to “jump to garage” NFSU2 makes you drive everywhere in the Explore mode of the game. For those without the patience to put some extra miles on their car you might want to check out the World Map mode, which basically takes all the “fluff” from the game and just gives you the races you need to complete to win the game.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely phenomenal GPS system in NFSU2, or what most of us have learned to call, “that stupid arrow at the top of the screen”. Not so any longer. The GPS system in this game is freakishly smart. EA needs to patent this code and sell it to anyone trying to make a game with a waypoint arrow in it.
Rather than pointing in some arbitrary direction towards a distance objective, the blue arrow in NFSU2 actually updates as you drive and points to the road you should be driving on at any given moment. Yes, the game has actually plotted an invisible course from your location to wherever it is you want to go and now points the way street-by-street and turn-by-turn. It even tells you when to exit off the highway. Even when I tried to foil the GPS by driving in the wrong direction it only took 10-20 seconds before it updated the course and started giving me new directions.
Also useful, but not nearly as clever, is the SMS system that allows you instant access to frequently used commands with the D-pad. Push left to pull up the map, right to access your instant messages, down for career stats, and up to challenge punk racers to an Outrun.
The final new tweak to NFSU2 is the revamped NOS system. Once your car is equipped with Nitrous you can magically refill the tank during a race by driving dangerous or stylish. It’s the same system used in Burnout 3, and while it may be unrealistic it is certainly better than having to pay to refill my nitrous after each race like in SRS.
I hate driving at night almost as much as I hate driving in the rain, so it’s rather ironic that 100% of this game takes place at night and 40% of the time it’s raining. I guess you have to explain those perpetually wet streets somehow, and it gives the programmers a subtle method of showing off the real-time reflections and water droplet effect on your TV screen. The rain also affects your handling to some extent, but only when it’s falling.
The overall visuals in NFSU2 were disappointing, at least when compared to EA’s, Burnout 3: Takedown. Perhaps it was the abundance of reflections or the overuse of light bloom effects or just the hazy atmosphere of the city. While the textures ranged from mediocre to good, nothing leaped off the screen, and other than the cars the architecture was simplistic.
Of course you really only see these shortcomings while parked. Once you hit 2nd gear everything becomes pretty much a blur of lights and colors, and by keeping everything simple the designers have managed to maintain a fluid framerate throughout the entire game. The Xbox version supports progressive scan but there seemed to be a total lack of anti-aliasing, especially on the cars, which were plagued with jaggies on straightedge surfaces like windows.
The city is massive and cleverly designed into unique sections that apparently load on the fly as you drive over bridges or under tunnels. You can drive from the docks of Coal Harbor to the top of Jackson Heights and never see a load screen or even a hint of pop-up.
Special mention is required for the colorful lighting this time around. Not only can you choose from a variety of colors for your headlights, you’ll get to see those colors on other cars, hopefully in your rearview mirror. The color selection for your paint schemes has also evolved to include Metallic and Pearlescent mixes that shift colors depending on the angle you view them.
Colors also come into play with the neon enhancements. Previously reserved for under the car, you can now enhance the engine compartment with neon. Colored lighting and icons are also used in the city to highlight specialty shops, money drops, and race events. And a final kudos for including those tiny reflectors on the guardrails and centerlines that actually reflect your headlights.
Of course this game is all about the cars, and the models are fantastic with smooth curves, stylish body parts, and countless paint and vinyl combinations that allow for virtually infinite custom creations. It’s easy to get lost in the car creation process. I know I’ve spent at least an hour tweaking my 350Z. Oh yeah – what’s up with NOT being able to customize my license plate?
Camera work is pretty standard. You can play from the bumper, the hood, or behind the car. There is also a good selection of replay cameras and the Xbox version seems to be capable of capturing the entire race, but doesn’t allow you to save your favorites to the hard drive. I really like some of the handheld camera styles that use the snap-zooms and shaky cam. And of course the NOS experience wouldn’t be complete without the fisheye blurring effect made famous in The Fast and the Furious.
And last but certainly not least, I have to mention the original story presentation that uses comic book panels rather than tired old CG to tell the story. Brooke Burke still narrates as the camera zooms and pans around giant poster boards full of artwork, and this is really good artwork. If they created a book with all of these images printed on glossy paper I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
The only thing close to a CG movie would be the opening cutscene and a few transitional movies as you complete stages and open up new areas of the city. Of course you have the pre-race and post-race mini-movies, but those all use game-engine graphics.
NFSU2 is full of sound; rich, wonderful, Dolby Digital, THX approved sound. Not only does each and every car have its own unique engine noise; that sound changes as you begin the lengthy upgrade process. Installing a turbo charger adds that unmistakable whine. Installing a Pro package transmission with add that “thunk” when you shift through the gears, and installing the hydraulic suspension package will have your car bouncing and whining like a classic pimped out ride in Little Havana.
There is a decent selection of music in this year’s game but I was very disappointed that there was no custom soundtrack option so I could listen to my own MP3’s. This is easily a 60+ hour game with only 27 songs or about two hours of music. Even more annoying is that the song changes each time you switch between races and menus or restart a race so it’s hard to hear an entire song. You can customize the music, but only by specifying when songs should be heard (menus, races, always, never).
And if any game ever screamed for a DJ-style presentation (like Burnout 3) this is it. It would have been so much cooler to hear an underground DJ or pirate radio station broadcasting race information rather than getting those annoying phone calls on my cell.
Voice acting is pretty much limited to Brooke Burke who has a voice that’s almost as sexy as her bod. I’m not into the real underground racing scene, so a lot of the “insider slang” is probably lost on me. It’s probably cool for those who know what it all means. I found it kind of silly.
I’ve heard a few claims of people winning this game (and by “winning” I mean completing the story mode) in 30-40 hours. That may be true if you are using the World Map rather than Explore or have found a way to cheat. At 40 hours I was 74% through the game and finally finished the game just under the 68-hour mark. That probably included no more than 10-15 Outrun races.
Simply put, this game is huge, both in scale of the city and complexity of the gameplay. The first sponsor has you doing 9 races, the second 19, and the third has 29 events. Get the picture? And once you finally do finish the career mode you still have plenty of multiplayer racing to look forward too.
Whether you opt for split-screen two-player or head online with Xbox Live, you get to choose from all of the standard race modes available in the single-player game. The only thing missing was Pink Slip races. These were some of the most intense online races in SRS since you could actually lose a car that you had spent weeks building up. As much fun as I had with the numerous races I did play online, NFSU2 just couldn’t compare to the online thrills of Burnout 3.
Everything about Need for Speed Underground 2 is bigger and better than before, but it’s also almost entirely different. The huge city with its open-ended exploration mode gives you a sense of freedom that we’ve never seen in the franchise, but it also takes away a lot of the structure that some gamers might require. Thankfully, the World Map mode gives you that structure if you so desire.
The Outrun races are a nice feature and add substantially to the game, and the wealth of new car parts for both cosmetic and performance upgrades allow you to work on your car almost as long as you drive it. The other new modes, colorful lighting, and improved physics all add immensely to this finely tuned game.
NFSU2 is fun, challenging, diverse, and long, and while it might get a bit repetitive if you try to conquer it all in a week of solid gaming, if you take your time with it you’ll find a solid month of intense racing action here, probably more. NFSU2 is the reigning king of the underground race scene, at least until Midnight Club: DUB Edition tries to dethrone it later this year.