"Great Ideas Galore, But Lacking Where It Counts"

Need For Speed: Underground (NFSU afterwards) is the seventh regular game in EA's long-living arcade racing series. After last year's killer NFS: Hot Pursuit 2 (NFS: HP2) I was very anxious about how the series would evolve on the PS2. After the rehash of the classic NFS gaming, wrapped in flashy Next-Gen graphics, the designers at EA/Black Box decided to take a shot at the furiously (pun intended) trendy ''illegal street racing''. With mixed results, I must say.

On the one hand they developed a racing series called the ''Underground Mode'', complete with ranking lists and all, but made it into a very linear experience. There is only one way - up, instead of having a dynamic league structure where you could actually LOSE ranking points for messing up. So the whole ''ranking'' is pretty pointless, since when you attain a rank, you simply keep it. And it's disappointing to drive a killer 6-lap race and only get some cash and a pat on the back. Doh.

Furthermore, the AI is a VERY mixed bag. Sometimes the AI cars happen to behave somewhat lifelike, even crashing into traffic or making mistakes, but 90% of the time, they drive like on rails and have Neo-esque reflex times. Not only that, but their cars seem to have some upgrades you can't install. For example, I usually drive a RX-7, and in one race two AI RX-7s zoomed past me while I was at maximum speed, and nowhere was a nitro blast to be seen.
The end result is that even with three difficulty levels, the AI can be a real fun-killer, making the game unnecessary frustrating at times.

While on the AI topic: I like the idea of having traffic in my race tracks, but NFSU implements this feature rather lackluster. There are zones on the race tracks where you have to dodge traffic like mad, and ON THE SAME TRACK there are areas totally devoid of it. Kind of strange, since NFS: HP2 did have traffic on the whole track. Furthermore, compared to, say, Burnout 2, where you have thick and really dense traffic, NFSU's traffic is rather sparse in comparison. The only thing making it difficult to race is the somewhat random appearance of cars from streets that are out of bounds for the players.

Another quirky thing is the ability to unlock parts. It's understandable that you have to pay for the parts in Underground mode, but in all the other game modes, you only get just the parts you happen to buy in Underground mode. You get ample cash, so being able to buy all the cool upgrades isn't that much of a problem, but it would be nicer if the whole set you unlocked would be available in the non-underground modes without the need to buy every single item.

Graphically, the game doesn't reach the standard NFS:HP2 set. The sense of speed is tremendous, but the tracks and environments look rather drab and lifeless, no comparison to the lush and colorful tracks seen in NFS:HP2.
Furthermore, the lack of a race replay makes me wonder. The game is all about auto-cult, but the only times you see your car (except for the tuning/menu screens) is just before and after the race. In a game so full of ''mine is bigger/better/badder than yours'' this is a painful omission.

The game offers a good variety in race types, not only the usual circuit and point-to-point challenges, but it also includes a drift mode (powerslide for maximum points) and a drag race over 1/4 and full miles. Nice additions, especially drift races make for good boasts :-)

On a brighter note, the replay value is guaranteed, especially if you like to slug it out online. I don't have the online adapter, so I can't tell how online racing compares to offline, but even offline the plethora of customizing options will keep you busy. But all in all this game fell short of the high standard NFS:HP2 set in the arcade racing genre.

- lifelike car models
- countless modifying options, both for visuals and performance
- amazing sense of speed
- good soundtrack
- drift and drag racing

- unbalanced AI
- only so-so track graphics
- rigid challenge and league structure
- some VERY frustrating races
- car selection may not appeal to anyone

Verdict: If you really want to street race, get Burnout 2. If you want a whiff of underground air AND like to trick out your car and don't mind the stiff difficulty, get this game. But it doesn't dethrone NFS:HP2, really.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 12/14/03

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