Review by BloodGod65

"Because Rice Car"

Having suffered through a three year deluge of sub-par Need For Speed games (and judging by new information, soon to be four years. Sorry folks, I just call it like I see it), I thought it was high time to return to the Playstation 2 era – a time when players could just drive really fast and not be constantly hassled by some half-wit story. After spending some time with Underground 2, I've come to the conclusion that nostalgia has colored my memory to some degree, though it's still a better game than anything the series has seen recently.

Like the Need for Speed's that would follow it, Underground 2 attempts to wedge a story into the game to give all the driving around some sort of meaning. However, it's only notable because of how badly it fails to portray any sense of plot. Judging by what little is coherent, it's essentially the same story told in later games – new guy arrives in town, pisses off locals who trash his ride, and then he spends the rest of the game trying to get even. The story, such as it is, is told through semi-animated, pastel colored comic book strips that are boring to watch, not to mention impossible to understand. I would be harsher on this aspect of the game, but unlike later NFS entries, Underground 2 doesn't constantly bombard the player with its mindless story. In fact, story sequences pop up in increasingly rare intervals as the game wears on, eventually leaving long gaps between them.

One aspect of the game that isn't as easy to ignore is its determination to show players how “hip” and “street” it is. While voiced dialog is rare, the game does have text boxes that pop up before initiating a race that contain all sorts of insipid B-Boy lingo. Words and phrases such as “dawg”, “yo”, and “off the hook” make painfully frequent appearances. The dorks even go so far as to refer to money as “bank”. It might have even been laughable if it wasn't so obvious that the developers were actually serious in their attempts to be cool.

Thankfully, the gameplay is much better, and has taken a couple of strides forward since the previous Underground. First and foremost, there is now a full city to explore and drive around in (although races still take place on closed courses). There are also a few new race types and a greatly expanded customization system. However, many things have been carried over from the previous Underground and those things are generally for the better.

The wild, arcade physics are largely unchanged, for instance. All cars are capable of much more than they would be in real life and all drive loosely, but precisely. Put another way, it's easy to screw around but when you need to do some real driving, the physics engine is more than capable of handling whatever you throw at it. With that said, the loose physics might be a bit too universally applied because every car feels the same as the others. Given that the car roster encompasses front wheel, rear wheel and all wheel drive vehicles, each group should have their own control nuances but don't. Heck, even all wheel and front wheel drive cars can drift with ease. Hardcore gear-heads probably view this as sacrilege, but then again, hardcore gear-heads probably never cared about the Need for Speed franchise in the first place.

As for the racing, the typical circuits and sprints return as do the popular drag and drift modes, which remain relatively unchanged. For newcomers, drag races have players watching a tachometer on the side of the screen, waiting for the perfect time to switch gears in order to get to first (and no, there is no automatic option). It's also necessary to watch for traffic in order to make across the finish line. Drifting is as simple and as grin-inducingly fun as ever. Simply getting up to speed and throwing the emergency brake is always enough to get sideways, although keeping the car under control and off the wall is a little more complicated. Three new race types make appearances here; Street X and URL races. Street X races take place on very tight, very technical closed courses with lots of ninety-degree turns. URL (Underground Racing League) races take place on closed courses that resemble tracks that would be used for legitimate racing. Finally, Outrun races have players chasing another racer through the open world city, trying to get ahead and keep a lead of one thousand feet in order to win.

One thing that is immediately noticeable about the racing is its easy difficulty. On the default setting, it is pretty pathetic. Getting a ten second or more lead over opponents is no great feat. On the hard setting, it's still no big challenge to get ahead of the pack. Regardless of what difficulty level players use, the computer does a lot of cheating (and it happens even more frequently with higher difficulties) and it's pretty obvious when it occurs.

Another nuisance is the control scheme. After playing Need for Speed with the 360 controller, the old control setup is a bit wonky. Up and down on the analog stick control the accelerator and brakes (as do the X and Square buttons) instead of gear changes. L1 controls nitrous and O button is the rear view. There are other control options, but the default is the easiest to live with. None of them are so weird that players can't get used to the controls, but after the finesse of next-gen controls, the old ones feel awkward.

One would expect that with all this illegal street racing the cops would eventually arrive to put a stop to it, but alas, there are none (Bayview must be a cesspit of crime). After the uproar caused by the lack of cops in the previous Underground, one might have thought that EA would take the hint and put them back in, but when it comes to hearing the pleas of its fans, EA is notoriously hard of hearing. So, no cops. It's an even bigger disappointment when you think about how big the open world is, and how fun it would be to get chased through it…

But what about the cars? Like Underground, this entry focuses exclusively on tuners. And having twenty-nine of them, this is a pretty good, if one dimensional, car list. Basically, if it's ever been popular with the kids and it's a feasible tuning platform, it's here. The only two oversights are the Honda S2000 and the Acura Integra (both of which were in the previous Underground). The exception to the tuner rule is with SUV's. In some misguided attempt to broaden the horizon, EA decided to put these unwieldy behemoths into a racing game yet didn't loosen up the physics enough to make driving them any fun. There are only three, and nobody in their right mind would try to use on because it's like racing a tank.

Customization, which was a highpoint of the first Underground, is back and has been greatly expanded. In addition to the typical body kits and spoilers, players can also tweak mirrors, headlights, taillights, and roof scoops and more besides. And pretty much every option has a carbon fiber version. What is really mind-blowing is the sheer number of options that every customization aspect has. There are literally dozens of parts to choose from in for each body piece. In addition to that, players can install vertical doors, and entertainment systems. Admittedly, a lot of this is unnecessary and useless but it's cool that EA gave players the option to do pretty much anything to their cars.

What may turn some players off is the fact that customization isn't optional. In fact, it's mandatory to proceed in the game. To progress, players will sign sponsorship contracts with companies. One of the stipulations to complete a contract is to appear on a set number of DVD covers, which requires players to have a car with a certain number of stars (a style rating). The number of stars goes up as players add body parts and other things to the car. By the end of the game, players will just be adding stuff to a car in order to meet sponsorship requirements, which eventually makes a car look tacky.

Getting parts for a car is handled a bit differently as well. Instead of going to a menu and choosing upgrades from there, players will have to seek out shops in the city. Shops come in different varieties, each of which caters to some special aspect such as paint, performance or bodywork. Despite being an interesting idea on paper, it doesn't work out so well. Anytime something needs to be done to a car, players will have to trek all over the city to get it done, because the game doesn't have an option to jump from place to place. This also applies for races, so in the end, players will spend as much time going from place to place as actually racing. Over the course of the lengthy career mode, this becomes very tiresome.

Graphically, Underground 2 wasn't the best looking game when it came out and time certainly hasn't made it any prettier. Much of the city now feels lifeless, and is composed of lots of bland textures. The cars have held up better, and they look realistic and the aftermarket parts look good after being applied. However, there are noticeable amounts of jaggies on cars. A final thing of note is the light trails that are mainly visible with the head and taillights of vehicles. When the car moves, a weird blur follows a split-second behind, giving off a weird trailing effect that sort of looks like something you'd see after taking ecstasy.

However, many people may not notice any of these due to the overwhelming amount of blatant advertising present in the game. I won't mention any names (I'm not giving any extra help to these jerks) but a certain cell phone company logo stays on-screen through the entire game and ads for an electronics store and burger joint are plentiful. There are also a few more companies present, but it's clear they didn't pay as much as the others because their ads are fairly obscure. I've got no problems with in-game advertising as long as it's done tastefully. Unfortunately, that's another thing rarely associated with EA.

It's a small relief that EA didn't actually put commercials for these products into the soundtrack (boy, I hope they don't read this and get any ideas). Speaking of which, the soundtrack is actually quite good with a decent selection of rock, hip-hop and EBM music to keep players pumped up while racing. Sound effects on the other hand aren't so great. The exhaust notes for most cars bear a striking similarity to one another, and putting an aftermarket exhaust on a car doesn't seem to alter that sound in the slightest.

It's no secret that the quality of Need for Speed games has been slipping as of late. As I mentioned earlier, that was the primary motive for coming back to Underground 2. While there are several obvious design flaws that mar the overall experience, it manages to be a damn sight more fun than EA's recent fare. If you're waiting for the next great NFS game to come around, a stroll down memory lane might provide some entertainment.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/03/09, Updated 02/25/13

Game Release: Need for Speed Underground 2 (US, 11/15/04)

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