Need for Speed Underground Review
With the popularity of movies like The Fast and the Furious and some solid game titles (including the Midnight Club series), this nighttime racing culture is starting to really reach the mainstream. EA has done a pretty damn good job of capitalizing on this with Need for Speed: Underground, their newest racing title which turns out to be a pretty large departure from the previous NFS games.
NFS:U is one of the best looking racing games I've seen, with plenty of DirectX 9 features and cool effects. They will likely bog down even the fastest of computers when you run at high resolutions, but there are plenty of options for tuning performance just the way you like. The real problem I had was that the frame rate was all over the place if the settings were turned up just a bit too high, and it would totally screw up my driving. I wound up having to use medium details at 1024x768 resolution with no anti-aliasing to get a smooth ride.
So far, the game has been technically sound otherwise - the game didn't crash on me once, and I didn't find any obvious bugs. All I really want to see is a bit more stable of a frame rate when I turn up the resolution.
Underground was primarily designed as a console title, and the menus are a bit strange in the PC version if you are trying to use anything but a mouse. Depending on the controls you choose, the menus may not be navigable with your gamepad or steering wheel - of course, the mouse still works, which I would recommend. The menus were impossible to get through when I used a PS2 controller and USB adapter, but it worked great in-game after I took a few minutes of fiddling in the game's control settings.
The actual racing feels pretty arcade-like, and it has all the usual NFS controls plus a new nitro button for those extra boosts when you need them. The cars handle smoothly, although they all felt a bit similar. In fact, they handled a bit too smoothly - unlike a Gran Turismo game where you need to learn the intricacies of your car as well as the track, the difficulty in this game comes mostly from learning the layout of your next race.
NFS: Underground looks great, although you will quickly find out that the game reuses many of the same areas of the city, and you can only ever race at night. So while the visuals are impressive, you never really get a change of scenery. With all the graphics options cranked up, the cars are absolutely beautiful, although I'm a bit biased against the whole midnight racing thing. I'd rather see a nice blue BMW M3 than a purple Civic with flames and neon all over it. Again, that's just my opinion.
The game does seem to have this thing with reflections, as the streets always look like a thunderstorm just passed over. The cars drive like the road's dry, of course, but it just looks slippery. It seems mostly a part of the game's sense of style rather than realism, and this governs how so much of this game works - from both a visual and a gameplay perspective.
I find it a bit too easy to compare NFS Underground to this year's excellent Midnight Club 2 - both include the same subject matter and both wound up on both consoles and the PC. While MC2 included some high-flying car stunts as well as distinct cities, this title focuses on customizing your car and a more arcadey, stylish approach to racing.
The game will have you go through many "missions" - specific goals, not all of which are simple races - in a somewhat non-linear format. Every time you make it through a tier of goals, you can then choose from several more to beat in the next. You still have to beat every mission, but at least you usually get the chance to try a different race if you are stuck on any one. The standard racing monotony is broken up with drag racing as well as drifting competitions where the goal is to skid the hell out of your car without actually hitting any walls.
The drag racing is an interesting design where you are made to focus on when to shift gears. Even if you use Automatic transmission, you'll have to shift during the drags - luckily, you get a nice big tachometer and you only have to tap left or right to change lanes. It's a unique approach, and the sense of speed during these is excellent. You even hear the wind whipping past as you exceed 200MPH during these races.
The complete lack of police in NFS:U feels a bit strange, especially since previous games in the NFS series, where cops would probably not be so prevalent, were all over the place. And this leads me to my next point: the gameplay is really fairly simplistic and shallow overall. Despite the different types of races, you'll be doing different variations of the same track for the majority of the game, the cars are all pretty easy to handle, and you don't have to worry about cops at all. Other traffic is around, but they're really just slow-moving obstacles.
NFS:U includes plenty of real, licensed, upgradeable cars which can't be damaged even if you get into a head-on collision with other traffic - you just bounce up and are allowed to drive off in your car without a scratch. I think in this day and age of racing games, even some cosmetic-only damage should show, and while I understand that some car manufacturers don't like licensing their cars' likenesses out to games where damage can be shown, well, a little realism might be good for everyone. Does anyone really form their opinion of a real-life car based on how it takes damage in a game? Maybe, maybe not.
The movies in NFS:U are pretty terrible. Before we even see the game's intro movie, some guy comes on telling us not to have a "need for speed" in real life, and that we should do it in the game instead. That's fine, but the way they deliver was so against this game's otherwise failed attempt at attitude made me laugh out loud. As you go through the game, you'll get some FMV clips with some girl telling you how you're doing, but these are just plain, well, lame. Skip them, and you'll have a much better time taking this game seriously.
Upgrades in this game come mostly by way of useless stuff to put on your car. There are real parts that can be upgraded, but the system is very simplistic; I expected something a little more technical. Instead, you get a ton of stickers, decals, and neon lights to install instead, and the more of these you have, the higher a reputation you have. This in turn allows you to gain more style points (this game's form of money - Project Gotham veterans need not be jealous) to purchase new upgrades. Again, maybe it's just me, but this just feels so goofy.
EA has included online play in the PC version of NFS: U, and you can even race alongside people playing the PS2 version of the game (which is the only console this game supports online play with). The lag was kind of obvious, but it was still fun to tear around in. There is a ranking system with online play if you'd like to be competitive, and it's fairly well done. I'm glad to see multiplayer here, as many game publishers seem to be either skipping or skimping when doing PC versions of games.
My biggest complaint about this game revolves around the slight variations of the same track in the same nighttime atmosphere. The whole Type R, illegal street racing culture makes little sense to me, and even though I still find this game pretty entertaining, I'll probably never understand the real people and cars that this game is based on. I'd still recommend Midnight Club 2 over this one - even with its inferior graphics and style, its stunt-oriented racing and wide range of environments make it a better game in my opinion.
The sound effects in Need for Speed: Underground are very well done, with some nice ambience, great engine sounds, and the little touches that help pull everything together to make it part of a game rather than something slapped on at the last minute.
The soundtrack features a decent mix of hip hop, rock, and techno tunes, some of which you might have heard before - but maybe not. Artists like Fuel, The Crystal Method, Nate Dogg, and several more are included, but again with the Midnight Club 2 comparisons, the game doesn't allow me to set up a custom soundtrack with my own MP3s. I guess Rockstar has spoiled me with the above mentioned game as well as the Grand Theft Auto series.
A few moderately big shortcomings aside, Need for Speed: Underground is a solid racing game with an easy learning curve, arcade-like racing, online play, great graphics, and a distinct style. Its lack of track variety got on my nerves, but there's plenty to be had here both on- and offline. While I may never understand the culture that this game borrows from, I can't deny a pretty decent game when I see it.