Review by trancejeremy

"Much better than the first! Lots of fun, if cliche filled."

Let me start off by saying that I really really hated the original Need For Speed Underground, though I am a fan of the Need for Speed series (mostly on the PC - Porsche Unlimited is probably the best of the bunch).

The original NFS:U drove me crazy. It had cheating, rubberband AI; too linear gameplay; only allowed you to own one car; too much traffic; and was far too arcadish for my tastes.

Most of my complaints have been addressed, although not eliminated. The cheating, rubberband AI still exists, but is toned down a lot. There's still way too much traffic, but it is no longer rush hour. And there are no longer the insanely huge jumps over drawbridges and such, though the cars still drive arcade like and the sense of speed is about twice as much as reality.

NFS:U2 is actually alot like Street Racing Syndicate (SRS). Suspiciously like it. While it's true SRS only came out a couple months before NFS:U2, SRS was in the works for about a year before the original NFS:U, but the original publisher went under, and Namco acquired the rights to it (I would wager EA also tried to buy them, much like they recently tried to buy Juiced when Acclaim went under).

Except where SRS attempts to be a fairly realistic street racing game, NFS:U2 takes the opposite tack. For one, the name "Underground" is even more ironic than EA's motto "Challenge Everything". I don't think I've ever see so many product placements in a game before. You have a Singular phone, there are Best Buys and Burger Kings, there are billboards for "Edge" Shaving Gel and some other products. Yikes. Not quite as out of place as the Sargento Cheese billboard in Toca 2, but the sheer number of ads is striking..

Similarly, don't expect to listen to your own music during the game - EA didn't put in custom soundtracks. Because that would get in the way of their "EA Trax" TM.

EA also apparently made concessions to the ESRB - SRS was rated "Teen" in part for "Simulated Gambling", ie, betting on races with money. In NFS:U2, you do kinda wager on races, but instead of actually money, you wager a mythical creature called "Bank". (You also hear this rather silly term spoken about a zillion times in the game).

Quite possibly the lamest thing in the game (and perhaps any game, ever) is a spoken message when the game first boots up. "Hi, I'm Brook Burke, who plays Rachel in the game. While driving fast is fun in a video game, in real life, I always drive slow and obey all the traffic laws."

Oh my. "Challenge Everything". Except traffic laws.

(I would also point out that while Brook Burke apparently was a swimsuit model, as near as I can tell, she's actually not that great looking and essentially is a somewhat younger (mid-30s) version of Joan Rivers (as in, works for E!). Also, apparently she has no navel, which is presumably because she is a mother of two and they had to airbrush it out to hide the stretch marks... In any event, couldn't they find someone better? I shudder every time I see her. Her voice also reminds me of the late Lunchlady Doris from the Simpsons.)

Anyway, the game starts off with a comic book style flashback. Quite stylistic. You learn that you used to be a hot shot racer someplace or other, but were wrecked by an evil street racer named Clem (or something like that). After a 6 month stay in a hospital, you fly to a new city. Bayview City, which is a fictional California town, and meet this lady (played by Mrs. Burke), who for some reason loans you a car. (Apparently they don't have car rental places there).

You supposedly get "insurance money" and so get to pick a car out of the starting 6 or so. You then essentially drive around the city, looking for races and shops. This is neat, but it's also something of a chore. It's very similar to how SRS works, but SRS had a nice feature where you could simply highlight a location and teleport there. This only seems to do that for some races.

There's a story, but it's kinda silly. Apparently you learn your nemesis's name is "Caleb". Apparently one of those new fangled Street Racing Amish. (I shouldn't joke - I have ancestors named "Caleb", albeit 250 years old)

After you do so many races, you unlock more cars and more parts. And more parts of the city. And so on. You can have up to 5 cars. You can't buy them, though. You have to earn a free car from a "sponsor". I really wish you could have more than 5 cars, especially as you need at least one SUV to do the SUV races.

There are several different race types. This is where the game shines, I think.

First of all, there is the standard "Circuit Race", where you race 3 other cars and see which comes first after a number of laps.

There's also the similar Sprint Lace, which is basically the same thing, but is a point to point race.

Drag racing is a lot of fun. You don't drive much here, but you do pick when you shift. And you change lanes. This gets a bit silly, some of the races are on railroad tracks and you have to dodge trains. But fun.

Drift Races. I hate these. Basically, you go around a small track and try to spin your tires and slide as much as possible. The more you do, the more points you get. I hate this a lot. Normal ones are not that hard. Just accelerate as fast as possible, and steer left and right.

But in a very annoying twist, there are "Downhill Drift" races, where you do this going down a hill, which wouldn't be that bad, except you have to deal with a load of traffic. This race (and the fact that you have to do them) dropped by rating by a point, because I hate it so much. (And I'm not the only one).

Sprint X Races. These are essentially circuit races on very very small courses. These are pretty fun. You need to have a very maneuverable car with a lot of acceleration.

There is also "Outrun Races". These are kinda like the Tokyo Xtreme Racer series, you drive around and find a racer and race him through the city. In this case, you try to gain so much distance ahead of him (1000 feet). This is fun, though hard. The key is to realize you don't have to race on the highways, and instead make a lot of turns and such. Still, it really seems to end when your opponent hits a car and you don't. You don't have to do these, but if you do, you can earn special rewards (car parts and such). These are a lot easier with the SUVs, actually.

The AI is actually pretty dumb, but it does seem to have a rubberband effect. This is more noticeable in later races. Basically, that means that no matter how well you do, the AI isn't too far behind you. Or vice-versa - if you crash a couple times early on, you will catch up quickly. I don't like this. Not one bit. It's a common thing, but annoys me. However, it's not nearly as bad as the first NFS:U.

Still, it does change how you drive. Essentially, for the first few laps you really don't need to do anything. Then on the last lap, make your move and hope you don't crash. As opposed to games where the AI plays fair, where you always try to do your best, in the case if on the last lap, you screw up a little, you'll have built up a cushion.

The Car Modding is extremely comprehensive and fairly fun. It's a combination of real manufacturers and fake stuff. You do have to unlock everything, though, which is a pain.

Still, if you are a car tuning fan, it's got pretty much everything. Bodykits, neon, spinners. Carbon fiber. Engine wise, it's abstract, basically like Gran Turismo (Level 1 - 3), though they did let you do upgrades partially.

Some of the car mods are a bit silly. Like roof scoops. Just what is that supposed to do for the car?

It sort of ignores reality in the very unaerodynamic things, like the aforementioned roof scoops, don't provide additional drag or apparently even weight to the car.

And because you need to build up a car with various "Star" ratings, (which incerases with the more junk you add), you're going to have to really make your cars look ridiculous looking.

Besides the just adding stuff to your cars, the "tuning" aspect extends to actually changing the settings of various things. And then going to a test track and trying it out. You can change settings for each sort of race, and there is a section of the test track for each type of race. Pretty slick, but unfortunately, given that races are essentially decided by simply not crashing, kind of a waste.

The car list is actually a nice mix of cars. European, Japanese, American, Korean (Hyundai) even some SUVs. Even Australian - the "new" Pontiac GTO is actually a Holden, I think. If only all car games had such an even mix, things would be much nicer.

The graphics in the game are okay for a Playstation 2 game, but come up short compared to just about any other non-EA Xbox racing game. Blurry textures, murky lighting, and washed out colors sometimes make it very difficult to distinguish between car tailights and the indicators for the tracks. This is made worse by the fact that it rains on pretty much every race (the last or 2nd to last lap generally) which makes things even blurrier. I have a great deal of trouble making things out on certain courses - the race courses, where everything is white or grey, the road, the barriers, everything, and basically have to watch the little map of the course, not the actual road.

They do provide an excellent sense of speed, but about twice as much as reality. Driving 100 feels like 200, or 150. I think they also skip frames - it's like in some movies, where instead of having a stuntman drive the car really fast for a chase scene, they simply speed the film up (some of the early James Bond movies do this), it looks kind of odd.

On the plus side, there is a "hood" view (where it's like your are looking out the window past the hood of the car), which is my favorite view in a game. But unlike Toca 2 or SRS, there are no real time reflections on it. Which I miss, as that is really cool looking. The hood does rise/fall when you acelerate/brake, so it's not a complete fake out.

The sound is very good. Engines sound robust. Even when they shouldn't - my first car, a Miata, sounds like a small block V8. And my second, the Tiburon, sounds like 400 cubic inch monster big block. This isn't really a complaint - might not be realistic, but better than the opposite (where big engines sound like small ones).

Going along with EA's ironic slogan, "Challenge Everything", the game does not support custom soundtracks. The music that ships with the game is quite honestly terrible. I'm definitely older than EA's 14 year old target demographic, but I found only liking one song on the soundtrack - Snoop Dogg's version of Riders of the Storm. Actually sort of a mellow track.

As you might guess from my user name here, I love trance (and electronic music in general) so I am actually a big fan of Christopher Lawrence and Paul Van Dyk, both of whom have tracks in this, but Mr. Lawrence is a much better DJ than artist and his track here is bland, and PVD's song has been butchered by "Cirrus", sort of a big beat/generic electronica outfit (it wasn't his best to begin with, sounds like a phone companies' jingle). Most of the rest of the electronic stuff is the same generic "electronica", though there is one EBM song by a band I haven't heard of called "Hard EBM" which should really be called "Muzak EBM". And sorry Ministry, but "Yes, W". (Ha!). And Killing Joke is essentially a band that spent all of it's creative ability coming up with their name.

The rock music can only be described as unintelligible. And really, I don't like rap much, so I can't comment on that. So I turned off the music. Except for the Riders of the Storm song, which I left on for the menus (it's far too mellow to race with).

All in all, despite some problems, the rather silly cliches and the almost parody-esque attempt to be "cool" (see "Catalina Caper"), it's actually a decent game and fun to drive.

When it comes to car modding, I don't think it beats Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3. But it has far more racing types, most of which are fun.

I liked the driving model and AI in SRS much better (and the graphics in that were less murky). But that game is far too short (and should be called "Skyline Racing Syndicate"). This is a better value (I would wager it takes the average person about 25 hours to complete it), and much more accessible to the casual racing game fan.

And of course, it's got the 2005 Mustang. Steve McQueen is happy. Even though you can mod it almost as bad as the infamous "Sonny and Cher" custom Mustangs of the '60s (thankfully, no beads and plush covering for the hood).

I give it a B+, which works out to be a 8 here. (Bear in mind, I gave the first NFS:U a 5, and I thought that was generous)

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/06/05

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