Need for Speed Underground is a street racing simulation video game from Electronic Arts for PC, Sony Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo Gamecube. It features twenty licensed cars popular in the street racing scene, which can be customized both visually and for performance. Visual modifications improve your reputation multiplier which grants you additional style points; amassing certain amount of style points unlocks new upgrades. The game features drag racing, drifting, circuit racing, and a sprint mode. You can play a guided "underground" mode in which the goal is to become the best-ranked racer in all of these types of driving, play quick races, or play on the internet against others (on PC and Playstation 2 only.) This review focuses on the PC version. There is no LAN play, though EA is considering releasing a patch for the PC version after christmas, in 2004.

In general, Need for Speed Underground is an excellent game. It features a broad selection of some very popular automobiles, which can be heavily customized not just for performance as in popular racing games such as Gran Turismo, but also heavily customized for their appearance through the use of paint colors, decals, vinyl kits, body kits, spoilers, and lighting including neon, headlights, and taillights. A variety of racing modes gives all types of drivers something to do with it. The support for force feedback is fairly well-refined, and the game allows arbitrary configuration of controllers so that any button may be mapped to any function.

The game is fun to play, really fun. It has a feeling of speed that is often lost in racing games, even those which have to do with street racing, which is ironic because with all that stuff on the road, it really OUGHT to feel fast. The motion blur doesn't hurt, but even without it there's enough going to on really keep you busy. When you drive over broken terrain and the car is skittering this way and that, you are positively active.

PLAY MODES

There are three modes of play in NFS:Underground.

In Underground mode, your goal is to become the number one street racer in four brackets; Circuit, Sprint, Drift, and Drag. Along the way you also find yourself (your car actually) on the cover of assorted magazines dedicated to "Import" (essentially, Japanese) automotive performance and style, such as Import Tuner and Super Street. There are 112 challenges, ending with a showdown against a highly tuned Nissan 350Z, an interesting choice especially considering that the holy grail of the import scene and the "battle king" is the Nissan Skyline.

In Quick Race mode, you can pick assorted race types, and race against the computer without harming your Underground stats. You can also drive in a "free run" mode, in which you can simply drive until you get bored, and practice making those tricky turns you need help with. This is also where the drag and drift tutorials are hiding out.

I would like to tell you something about online play, but there is a bug in the patch system; I cannot install the patch, so I cannot play online. I will tell you that Xbox and Gamecube owners do not have an Online play option. This is a confusing decision on EA's part at best; There is a "broadband" (ethernet) adapter available for the Gamecube, and the Xbox comes with ethernet. Only PC and PS2 gamers can play online. They can even play against one another. The game's cheat codes work in online play, and an upcoming patch will cause any game in which a cheat code is used to end, counting as a loss for the person who entered the code, and not counting against the other players (the game will not affect their statistics at all.)

RACE TYPES

The game has four basic types of driving.

In circuit racing you compete against three other cars to run multiple laps around a defined track. Deviating from the course results in your car position and speed being "reset"; you are dumped back on the course, unmoving, and facing the proper direction. Being the first person across the finish line on the last lap results in a win, and anything else is a loss.

Knockout racing is like circuit racing, but in each of four laps, the driver in last place is eliminated. The last driver in the race is the winner.

A sprint is a long race from one point to another. The first person to cross the finish line is the winner.

In a drag race, you compete with the other three drivers on a (relatively) straight-line race, with or without other cars on the road. Rather than complete freedom of motion, you can tap the D-pad (or jerk the wheel, or flop the joystick) to change lanes. You must manually shift gears in this mode. The better the timing of your shifts (optimally right at redline), the better you will do. You must also use creative management of your nitrous oxide to win a drag race, and in many cases it is important to put yourself in front of other cars. Drafting is also a useful technique, which is true in all race types but a drift challenge, but especially in drag racing. If you run at full RPMs for too long (upon reaching your maximum gear) your engine will blow, and you lose the race.

In drifting, your goal is to slide around the track, going as fast as possible, and getting as far sideways as possible. The more sideways you get, and the faster you go, the faster you accumulate points in a drift. Drifts are scored, and the person with the highest score at the end of the course (only one drifter on the course at a time) is the winner. There is a score multiplier which goes up to 5X, which is increased by achieving the assorted types of drifts, themselves based on score; Good, Great, Superb, and Colossal.

MECHANICS

There is more to the game than winning races. There are also style points, which are multiplied by your style modifier. The more "tricked out" the design of your car, the higher your modifier. Getting style points will unlock the custom cars, which can only be used in quick race mode.

You get style points for the following actions:

  • Drafting (Variable based on time)
  • Hang Time (Variable based on time)
    You get points for any significant time you spend in the air.
  • Powerslide (Variable based on time)
  • Clean Section (+50)
    Don't run into any walls or non-racer cars and you'll get this bonus occasionally.
  • Clean Lap (+200)
    Don't run into any walls or non-racer cars for a whole lap, and you can pick this one up, too.
  • Clean Race (+500)
    Good luck!
  • Near Miss (+100)
    Narrowly missing a non-racer car will net you this bonus.
  • Shortcut (+100)
  • Head Start (+100)
    Manage to get the jump on all other cars at the start, which as far as I can tell requires a nitrous purge, and you get this bonus.
  • Lead Lap (+100)
    Get this bonus for crossing the finish line first on a given lap.
  • Victory (+500)
  • NOS Purge (+150)
    Someone should really tell EA that NOS is a company, and the short form for "Nitrous Oxide" is N2O. Tap the nitrous button right before the race starts to pick up this style bonus.
  • 360 (+200)

You lose style points if you run into someone other than another racer ("Hit Traffic").

GRAPHICS

NFS:Underground is a beautiful game, and in spite of this is not especially demanding of your hardware, probably because it is a cross-platform game with support for a variety of systems. On the PC version you must have a fairly beefy video card to use the "advanced" graphics options of crowds, headlight effects, and motion blur, but as it runs very well at 1024x768x32bpp on a base model GeForce 4 card (A Ti4200) it should run acceptably at lower resolutions on other devices. The graphics are very good and it is relatively easy to see what you are looking at, even at high speeds and with motion blur turned on. Quality textures make up for the typical low polygon counts found in racing games.

Unlike most other Need for Speed games, there is no replay mode. This is especially unfortunate because this is probably the most photogenic NFS title to date.

SOUND AND SOUNDTRACK

The game's sounds are quite believable and really a joy to hear. The loops for engine sound are of high quality with a nice deep rumble, and the loops for tire noise are long enough to seldom sound canned. Crash and scrape sounds give you a good sense of what you have just done to your poor car, not that there is any crash damage in the game.

The soundtrack is more a mixed bag, with many of the songs seeming not to fit the game at all. Much of it is trite pop music. Luckily you can specify whether each track should never be played, play only during the game or in the menu, or both.

The sountrack contents are as follows:

  1. Overseer - "Doomsday" from the album Wreckage
  2. The Crystal Method - "Born Too Slow" from the album Legion of Boom
  3. Rancid - "Out of Control" from the album Indestructible
  4. Rob Zombie - "Two-Lane Blacktop" from the album Past, Present and Future
  5. BT - "Kimosabe"
  6. Static-X - "The Only" from the album Shadow Zone
  7. Element Eighty - "Broken Promises" from the album Element Eighty
  8. Asian Dub Foundation - "Fortress Europe" from the album Enemy of the Enemy
  9. Hotwire - "Invisible" from the album The Routine
  10. Story of the Year - "And the Hero Will Drown" from the album Page Avenue
  11. Andy Hunter - "The Wonders of You" from the album Exodus
  12. Junkie XL - "Action Radius" from the album Big Sounds of the Drags
  13. Fuel - "Quarter" from the album Natural Selection
  14. Jerk - "Sucked In" from the album When Pure is Defiled
  15. Fluke - "Snapshot" from the album Puppy
  16. lostprophets - "Ride" from the album Start Something
  17. Overseer - "Supermoves" from the album Wreckage
  18. FC Kahuna - "Glitterball" from the album Machine Says Yes
  19. Blindside - "Swallow" from the album About a Burning Fire
  20. Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz - "Get Low" from the album Kings of Crunk
  21. Mystikal - "Smashing the Gas (Get Faster)", a Need for Speed Exclusive
  22. Dilated Peoples - "Who's Who" from the album Neighborhood Watch
  23. Nate Dogg - "Keep It Coming", a Need for Speed Exclusive
  24. X-ecutioners - "Body Rock"
  25. Petey Pablo - "Need for Speed", a Need for Speed Exclusive
  26. T.I. - "24's" from the album Trap Muzik

CARS

The following cars are available at the beginning of the game:

The following cars can be unlocked by completing challenges as you play through the game:

In addition, the following cars are unlocked in exchange for amassing style points. They are not available in underground mode, and can only be used in quick races:

  • Nismo Sentra (2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V)
  • VORTEX car (2000 Acura Integra Type-R)
  • Petey Pablo Car (1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX)
  • Mystikal Car (2002 Toyota Celica GT-S)
  • Rob Zombie Car (2003 Nissan 350Z)

All of the cars have stats which do not bear listing in a review, and which are not at all representative of their actual performance characteristics. The cars have been "adjusted" in order to keep the game competitive, because (for example) a Honda Civic simply does not have the horsepower potential of a Nissan Skyline. In addition, cars do not behave differently based on their powertrain; front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, and all wheel drive cars all handle the same, and launch the same.

PERFORMANCE ENHANCEMENTS

There are a number of performance enhancements available in the game. Most of them come in multiple levels, and in assorted kits including parts from specific brand names. Buying parts from different manufacturers does not change the cost or the performance characteristics of the parts, and is simply there to soothe personal preferences, and (one assumes) to generate more licensing revenues for advertisting/product placement. All of the brands included are well-known names with varying levels of credibility, like AEM, Greddy, HKS, 5Zigen, Jackson Racing, DC Sports, Brembo, Sparco, NEUSPEED, Stillen, Borla, A'PEXi, Eibach, and so on. The various brand packages will not be provided here, as they are insignificant to performance.

Some of the performance upgrades are contradictory or simply incorrect, but the system is geared toward simplicity. For example, on a car with a turbocharger, you do not have a header, but a turbo manifold and a down pipe. And the pipe to replace the catalytic converter is not called a "flow pipe", but a "dump pipe". In fact, the equivalent of a down pipe on a naturally aspirated vehicle is sometimes called a "flow pipe" by some manufacturers. In general, however, EA has done its homework, and the performance packages are close to reality.

Below I give the cost for each option, the challenge you must complete in order to unlock it, and some commentary on what the assorted parts actually do for you in the real world.

Engine/Exhaust Package

  • Street Performance (Cost 500, Challenge 6)
    Cold Air Intake System, Cat-Back Exhaust System, Headers
    A cold air intake brings in more air from outside the car which is cooler and thus denser, resulting in more oxygen which means you can burn more fuel. A cat-back exhaust system replaces every part of the exhaust behind the catalytic converter to decrease resistance, increasing peak horsepower. Headers replace the exhaust manifold, which carries the exhaust from the engine to the catalytic converter.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 1000, Challenge 30)
    Mild Camshaft & Cam Gears, High Performance Throttle Body, High Flow Intake Manifold, Larger Diameter Flowpipe
    The camshaft controls the opening and closing of the valves, and a performance replacement generally opens them longer and further. A new cam gear (technically a "cam sprocket") is often necessary to control a change in valve timing due to cam replacement (or when milling the head to increase compression.) The throttle body is the part in fuel injected cars which replaces the part of the carburetor responsible for controlling airflow, and they are usually unnecessarily restrictive. The intake manifold is also responsible for this intake airflow, and carries the air from the throttle body to the intake valves. The "flowpipe" is either a dump pipe which replaces the catalytic converter to reduce exhaust system restriction, or a down pipe which leads from the exhaust output of a turbocharger to the exhaust system.
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 2000, Challenge 66)
    Replace Piston & Rods, Racing Camshaft & Cam Gears, Port & Polish Heads, Blueprint the Block, Low Restriction High Flow Headers
    Replacing the pistons can be done for weight, balance, or to increase compression in naturally aspirated (non-turbo) engines, or to decrease it for turbocharged motors, or for strength in high-horsepower applications by installing forged pistons. Connecting rods are generally also forged, and balanced, and replaced for strength, balance, and weight. Porting the head refers to removing material to reduce intake and exhaust restriction, and polishing it reduces turbulence which can improve efficiency. Blueprinting consists of taking detailed measurements of the engine block and ensuring the closest possible fit with all other components.

Drivetrain Packages

  • Street Performance (Cost 500, Challenge 6)
    Short Throw Shift Kit, Shifter Stabilizer Kit, Replace Clutch, Lightened Flywheel
    A short throw shifter reduces the distance needed to push the shift lever to change gears and can reduce the chance of missing a shift. A shifer stabilizer replaces the bushing(s) at the bottom of the shifter where the lever contacts the internals of the transmission and can also improve shift feel. The clutch is what connects the engine to the transmission, and an upgraded clutch can transmit more power. The flywheel is what the clutch presses against and is generally fairly heavy; lightening it makes a car which can "rev up" faster, but makes it easier to "kill" the car by dumping the clutch, as the flywheel stores energy.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 1000, Challenge 30) Limited Speed Differential, High Performance Clutch
    Actually called a "Limited Slip Differential", the LSD prevents one wheel moving too much faster than the other by transferring power away from the slipping wheel, improving traction and thus also improving handling during acceleration (and often during deceleration.)
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 2000, Challenge 66)
    Six-speed transmission, Lightweight & Strengthen Driveshaft
    A six speed transmission generally has gears with ratios closer together than a five speed, which improves acceleration by enabling you to keep the engine in its "power band", or the area in which it is most efficient. A lightweight driveshaft is usually made of carbon fiber or aluminum and provides benefits similar to a lightened flywheel, and often removes a significant amount of weight from the vehidle.

Tires

  • Street Performance (Cost 500, Challenge 6)
    Improved tires have greater grip and can handle higher temperatures and greater stress. They also have stronger sidewalls which reduces sidewall flex, improving handling still further.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 1000, Challenge 30)
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 2000, Challenge 66)

E.C.U. and Fuel System

  • Street Performance (Cost 1000, Challenge 9)
    Performance Chip
    A replacement chip for your ECU includes a new program which sacrifices fuel efficiency for improved power at all speeds.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 2000, Challenge 38)
    High Flow Fuel Pump, Adjustable Fuel Pressure Regulator, Replace Fuel Rail, Replace Fuel Filter
    A high flow fuel pump, larger fuel rail, and a larger fuel filter allow your system to deliver more fuel to the engine. An adjustable fuel pressure regulator can control the rate of fuel delivery, though this can also be done in the ECU.
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 4000, Challenge 80)
    Stand Alone Engine Management Unit, Replace Fuel Injectors
    Replacing the ECU with a new Engine Management System allows you to fine-tune every aspect of your computer's behavior without sending away for a newly-programmed chip. Larger fuel injectors have higher flow rates, and allow greater fuel delivery.

Turbo Package

  • Street Performance (Cost 1000, Challenge 9)
    Stage 1 Turbo Kit
    While the "stage" of a turbo kit is only a name given by the manufacturer, stage 1 usually includes only a turbo manifold and a turbocharger, plus whatever modifications are necessary to the ECU to handle fuel delivery. Turbocharging uses exhaust gas flow to spin a turbine which is then used to compress the intake charge (air/fuel mixture) to allow more fuel to be burned for greater power.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 2000, Challenge 38)
    Stage 2 Turbo Kit with Intercooler
    An intercooler cools the air compressed by the turbine, which allows greater levels of compression (known as "boost" and measured in bar or psi.)
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 4000, Challenge 80)
    Stage 3 Turbo Kit
    During the course of turbocharging, one has usually made ECU and Fuel System modifications, replaced the pistons for low-compression versions (high compression pistons and a turbocharger both increase compression, to do both is to blow up your engine,) upgraded various other engine components like the camshaft, which is covered in another area. Each successive stage of turbocharging may include a larger turbine, which takes longer to spin up to speed ("spool up") but is capable of delivering greater boost.

Brake Kits

  • Street Performance (Cost 1000, Challenge 9)
    Street Compound Brake Pads, Steel Braided Brake Lines, Cross Drilled Rotors
    Performance brake pads usually grip better and can take more heat before "fading", or losing grip. Steel braided brake lines do not expand when you step on the brakes, and improve pedal feel. Cross drilled rotors allow gases escaping from tbe brake pads as they are worn away to escape, reducing heat build-up, and also increase the surface area of the rotor, improving the rate at which heat is removed from it. However the amount of surface in contact with the brake pads is reduced and so they can actually increase stopping distance.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 2000, Challenge 38)
    Large Cross Drilled Rotors, Race Compound Brake Pads
    You can not actually increase the size of the rotors without replacing the brake calipers, but a larger rotor coupled with a larger brake pad improves contact surface area and decreases stopping distance.
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 4000, Challenge 80)
    Large Cross Drilled and Slotted Rotors, Four-piston Racing Calipers
    In the use of disc brakes, most brake calipers have only one or two pistons which push the brake pads against the rotor. Four piston brakes, which are stock equipment on most of the more expensive sports cars, grasp the rotor more evenly for improved pedal feel and decreased stopping distance. Slots in rotors provide a path for the escape of brake pad gases and are more effective for this purpose than cross-drilling.

Weight Reduction Kits

  • Street Performance (Cost 750, Challenge 14)
    Remove Rear Seats, Remove Interior Panels, Remove Spare Tire
    Actually a free modification on a real car, this will save you between 50 and 100 pounds. The legend (which is essentially untrue but a useful ballpark figure) goes that every 100 pounds you remove from your car results in a 0.1 second improvement in quarter-mile time. Reducing weight also reduces inertia, which makes the vehicle easier to turn and generally improves all types of handling.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 1500, Challenge 48)
    Replace Rear and Side Windows with lightweight polycarbonate, Replace Front Seats with Lightweight Racing Seats
    Glass is quite heavy, and it is both legal and reasonably safe to replace your side and rear windows with a plastic replacement such as Lexan. It unfortunately scratches much more easily than glass and must occasionally be sanded and buffed to remove damage. The stock seats in most cars are quite heavy in order to provide comfort, and can be replaced with much lighter models, usually at exorbitant cost.
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 3000, Challenge 91)
    Replace Doors and Trunk Lid with Lightweight materials, Cut and Foam Fill excess Frame and Interior components
    The doors and trunk can be replaced with a composite (usually fiberglass, and occasionally carbon fiber) to save weight. You can also cut material away from the unibody of the car to reduce weight. However, this reduces the structural soundness of the vehicle (especially in unibody cars; see monocoque) and also significantly reduces crashworthiness and is usually only done when installing a rollcage.

Suspension Package

  • Street Performance (Cost 750, Challenge 14)
    Sport Performance Springs and Shocks, Strut Tower Bar
    Shocks provide damping and stop the car from bouncing excessively. Sport shocks generally are adjustable to one of several damping settings (usually five settings for the cheaper types.) Harder and shorter springs lower the vehicle and thus its center of gravity. The car actually sits on the springs, so it is necessary for the spring rate to go up (harder springs) when the ride height goes down, as the suspension has less travel. A strut tower brace as it is known improves the rigidity of the car by connecting it at the tops of the struts in front or shocks in the rear (some vehicles do have rear struts, mostly very light cars) which improves handling.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 1500, Challenge 48)
    Front and Rear Sway Bar, Front and Rear Tie Bar
    This is redundant, as tie bar is just another name for sway bar, a C-shaped piece of metal which connects the left and right sides of the suspension. They decrease body roll (or "sway") by causing both sides of the suspension to compress, but they are flexible so they still allow some roll, which is necessary for proper handling.
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 3000, Challenge 91)
    Coil Over Shock System with adjustable Pillow Mounts
    A coil-over suspension is one in which the spring surrounds the shock or strut. This allows the damping force of the shock absorber to be applied where it is most needed. Pillow ball mounts utilize a spherical bearing to replace the rubber bushing at the top of struts in order to decrease flex and improve consistency. Adjustable pillow ball mounts allow one to adjust camber (and sometimes caster).

Nitrous Oxide

  • Street Performance (Cost 750, Challenge 14)
    Dry Shot of Nitrous Oxide
    Nitrous Oxide's primary component is Oxygen, and it breaks down into a great deal of it, allowing you to burn more fuel. It can cause pitting of the piston surface through oxidization, so pistons are often coated with ceramic to prevent this, which also reduces heat build-up in the piston.
  • Pro Performance (Cost 1500, Challenge 48)
    Wet Shot of Nitrous Oxide
    In a dry kit, additional fuel is introduced through the stock fuel system. A wet kit employs additional fuel injectors to introduce nitrous oxide and fuel together.
  • Extreme Performance (Cost 3000, Challenge 91)
    Direct Port of Nitrous Oxide
    Nitrous is generally injected in the intake (before the throttle body) or into the throttle body. In direct port it is injected into the system at the intake manifold, along with the fuel, improving the distribution of the mixture.

From the descriptions given and my running (and often snide) commentary, you can see that the game certainly does attempt to provide a realistic depiction of street performance, but like all other attempts it falls somewhat short in this department, and misses several significant pieces of terminology by varying degrees. Nonetheless it provides a broad overview of street performance modifications without missing anything drastically important. It is in general equal in the available modifications available in other games such as Gran Turismo or Sega GT, though you cannot customize settings in NFS:U. In this respect, it is probably making a largely unnecessary concession to the console version in terms of minimizing interface complexity.

VISUAL ENHANCEMENTS

Along with customizing the performance of your car, you can also significantly change its look. This has been done before by other games, such as Tokyo Highway Battle 2. However, Need for Speed Underground arguably does a better job of this than any prior game. Not only can you paint your car with several different colors of gloss, metallic, or pearlescent paint, but you can also apply four layers of vinyl kit graphics in different colors, and stick assorted manufacturer decals all over your ride as well. This leads to a great deal of visual customization.

Of course the visual customization would not be complete with only coloration changes, and you can also replace body parts with upgrades you earn along the way by completing challenges. There are also challenges you can win which grant you unique custom parts, such as carbon fiber hoods, and there are two wide body kits which will flare your fenders and space out your wheels. You can even buy an assortment of muffler tips, and then go on to paint them. You can also put Neon under your car, which shines on the road as you drive.

The available body parts are the Front Bumper, Rear Bumper, Side Skirts, Spoiler, Hood, and Roof Scoops. You can also buy wheels ("Rims" in the game, a highly inaccurate term but in common usage) from BBS, Enkei, Konig, Momo, O.Z., Racing Hart Wheels, and NFSU.

The available neon colors are Red, Green, Blue, Orange, Yellow, Aqua, White, Grape, Pink, Lime, Lavender, and Gold, as well as pulsing Red, Green, Blue, Orange, Yellow, Aqua, White, Grape, Pink, Lime, Lavender, and Gold.

Available headlights are Eyelids, Voltage, Projector, and Lunar. (The Lunar lights look like dual-HID.) The taillights are Crimson (semi-clear), Chrome (Altezza style), Masked (all but the lenses painted over), and Reaper. Taillights are appropriate to the car, for example the 180SX Type X taillights are available for the Nissan 240SX.

The Muffler Tips are named Backlash, Livia, Ace, Vortex, Frenzy, Blast, Rumble, Thunderbolt, Rocket, and Sonic.

Window Tinting comes in Light Black and Green, Medium Black, Green, Blue, and Red, and Dark Black, Green, Blue, Red, Yellow, Aqua, Grape, Orange, Pink, Lime, Lavender, and Gold.

PHYSICS, AND MECHANICS

The physics involved in the game are sometimes frustrating and shaky. It would possibly be a mistake to refer to this game as a "simulation" but an attempt is made at a consistent physics model so the name will stand. The first thing to bring up is the aforementioned issue that FWD, RWD, and AWD cars all behave essentially the same, launch from a standstill the same, and so on. It's so significant that I brought it up twice. Want proof? Go drift a FWD car. It's done the same way as the RWD is in the game. It is possible to drift a FWD car, but FWD is designed specifically for traction, and drifting it is essentially the opposite of drifting a RWD car. Not so here.

The physics are also quite "interesting" when leaving the ground, but little fault can be found there. However the collision physics are extremely inconsistent. Also related to collisions is the fact that when sliding backwards after a collision, turning the front wheels should cause the car to turn, and it does not, until you have stepped on the brake pedal long enough to go into reverse, and are moving under power.

A.I.

The game's A.I. is, to say the least, lousy. In order to compensate for this, the game cheats. Badly. For example, the cars do not tend to slow down at all around right angle turns. If you follow a car closely through a right angle turn (either apexing the corner, or pumping the brakes and sliding around it) you will see the car run around it at full speed, then slow down some ways after the corner. In addition, corners which the computer car just has to get around (it's apparently scripted) produce some scary results: The car may miss the corner (turn too soon), run into the wall, and then proceed at full speed. This only happens if you are sufficiently far away from them, however. This is especially frustrating because of the several tracks whose start/finish line directly follows a right angle corner, making it a necessity to collide with cars to knock them out of their path.

And speaking of right angle corners and collisions, if the starting line is immediately before a right angle corner, you will need to make a good start, then brake, and then apply gas around the corner to avoid being caught up in the other three cars, which will fight each other and drive directly into the wall in almost all situations. Have I mentioned how lousy the AI is?

Also typical of need for speed titles, the AI has no realization whatsoever that you are there, and little realization that other computer cars are there. It doesn't appear to run into you maliciously, even after you've been doing that to it. It just runs into you without paying attention. It does try to go around you on straightaways but basically ignores both you and other computer cars on turns, except for the non-racing cars, which it can see and avoid even when they would clearly not be visible - just another way in which the game cheats.

GAME BUGS

These flaws are current as of December 20, 2003, and they may not be current by the time you read this, so check up on EA's website (http://www.ea.com) to check on their current status. First, there is a known crash bug which occurs during internet play. This is intended to be fixed in a patch before Christmas, though time is rapidly running out for that. Second, the patch system is broken, and on some systems it claims that no patch is needed, but attempting to join internet play results in a message about the patch being required. A smaller "bug" (or actually, a bad design decision) is that the updates are done through an ActiveX control which will only work on Internet Explorer, but the patch webpage is loaded in your default browser whether it is IE or not. Due to the bugs in the patch system, I will not be able to review internet play.

There is a crash bug which may cause Windows to bluescreen if you hit Alt-F4 to quit quickly during a race, probably related to poor driver uninitialization.

In conclusion, this is an enormously fun game with some serious shortcomings. The lack of a lan play option at the time of release is both puzzling and crippling; It is not possible to play head to head without an internet connection. For many people, the car customization options will provide as much enjoyment as the gameplay itself, and in fact there are websites dedicated to galleries of customized cars. The large selection of tracks and several game modes mean that this title has very high replay value, though that is not uncommon amongst driving games. The inclusion of traffic on the streets means that no two races will be the same.

I give Need for Speed Underground a 7.5 out of a possible 10. Lan play and some bug fixes could increase it to as much as a 9. EA claims to be sensitive to these issues, and gamers worldwide are eagerly awaiting some meaningful response.

Need for Speed Underground
-aka-
The Fast and the Furious: The Game

Disclaimer:
  • I'm only up to about 35/112 races, so I might not have gotten to the Really Cool Bits, but I read drinkpoo's write-up and, well I just disagree, so I had to give my opinion.
  • Its quite possible that this game was simply aimed at a completely different audience.
  • I'm going to occasionally reference Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 (NFS:HP2) and Need For Speed: Porsche Unlimited (NFS:PU) to give better insight into Need For Speed: Underground (NFSU). It might be useless to people who haven't played Need For Speed games, but good for those who have.

The Good

Animation:

I was impressed with the inbetween animation. In between various tracks, they have little movies explaining what you do. While the characters are visibly CG, the movement looked realistic. Its nothing major, but it was neat seeing how CG in general is improving. There's no real depth or anything to the characters, but hey, this is a game, right? I won't penalise them for that. No one penalised doom2.

Drifting:

I quite like this new game mode. Essentially, you have to try and slide around as much as possible, earning points for each good drift. See drinkypoo's detailed writeup. Its not real racing, but its a nice new feature (I haven't seen it anywhere else).

The extra points:

As drinkypoo mentioned, you can get points for doing things like powersliding, near misses, shortcuts, clean runs and things. It means there's a little more incentive to think about how you drive. I was most amused with "Style Points" simply because in NFS:HP2, I was joking around with friends that I should get style points for jumping over the top of cars and stuff, so actually seeing it materialize was fun. Anyway, I'll move along.

Drag racing:

I don't care much for this feature (weren't we all trying to perfect our shifting anyway ... ?) but some people will like it. Things to note: you can blow your engine and the races are rarely over 30 seconds.

The Bad:

The tracks:

Damn the tracks are bad. In NFS:HP2, the tracks were repetitive. There were a handful of tracks and then various sections of each track were merged together to create more tracks. Can't help feel ripped off, but in NFSU, they have one track with various sections closed off. Its exceptionally boring. And its all at night. Okay maybe that's supposed to go along with the idea of illegal underground racing, but honestly--its a game, bend the rules a bit if it'll make it more fun. Excitebike has more variation (different tracks and day/evening races). Excitebike was released in 1984.

The Cars

drinkypoo is very diplomatic. If you pick any random car, all upgrades being equal, the cars will perform quite similarily. What incentive is there to understand the different acceleration, handling and top end speed differences and how they apply to the specific track? Maybe its because there's only really one track?

Upgrade paths:

Normally I don't care much for the upgrade-slow-car-to-fast-car approach to racing games. I figure if I wanted to drive a shit car, I'd go drive my real-life 1985 Holden Astra of Doom Hatchback. I'm not a fan of upgrades, but I do know that upgrade paths can be implemented better than how its done in NFSU. Example, when you get a turbo upgrade or something, it won't say something along the lines of 'Your acceleration is improved by 15%' or something like that. Its Just An Upgrade. It doesn't give any real expectation of how much better you car performs. Just to compare, NFS:PU gave some idea of what each upgrade kit did. It would say something like 'this part can give you an additional 10-15 hp'. Now I have no real freaking clue whether 10-15 horsepower is something to get excited about, but it gives you a comparison point. 'Kit A gives me more acceleration than Kit B', or something like that. That way you could really focus on the important stuff.

If you read drinkypoo's writeup s/he explains what each part is supposed to do, and its supposed effects, but its hard to see if a particular upgrade is going to give you a Whoa! or just a Huh, what'd that do? I'm not expecting full specifications or anything, but maybe just an idea of what the upgrade really does and by how much it does it. In addition, I personally couldn't care less about visual upgrades like neon lights and stuff. Does putting a jagged line on the side door really make the game fun? Maybe. But not for me.

The Graphics:

First thing I should mention is that I have a NVIDIA Geforce4Mx with 64mb of graphics card ram. If you don't know, thats on the pretty-shit end of the spectrum. It plays most games well enough, but its definitely not taking any speed crowns. That said, NFSU feels like a visual downgrade since the previous NFS:HP2 game looked far better. (I'm not sure whether this is simply a Your Computer Is Too Slow, Get Lost thing, or just poor graphics). The cars for instance look like simple flat-shaded cars, from like, Need For Speed 2, which was like what, 1997? I know that if you bump up the detail a bit the road looks wet/reflective and what not, which I thought was cool, but the cars look crap. Especially when you compare it against NFS:HP2, where the cars looked really neat (on same and even lower end hardware). They were reflective and shiny and just generally what sports cars are supposed to look like.

Also, because in NFSU the tracks seem to all be at night, half the time you're looking at a mostly black screen. Take a look at NFS:PU and you'll see that its not because night driving is inheriantly dull. Its just that the scenery, just doesn't stand out. You don't want to look at the track at all. EA has somehow botched night driving in NFSU.

Physics

I'm not a fan of the physics because braking seems almost instantaneous (its a bit like Midnight Club II). While driving on the edge/recklessly is fun, I think its good to balance things out and reward careful/thoughtful driving. If at any time you take a curve too quickly, hit the brakes and you'll stop really really quickly. The only way you can crash is if you hit oncoming traffic. In otherwords, bad driving isn't a problem anymore--just try to avoid head-on collisions. Oh, and I'll give up my handbrake when you pry it from my cold dead hands. I think I saw an "E brake" somewhere in there, which seems binded to the Shift keys and seems to reduce the revs down to their lowest level, but nah, give me back my hand brake. Only Mario Kart can get away with this sort of game physics.

The Sound:

The sound is good, but most games have good sound these days. You can hear echos under bridges and in tunnels; that's good, and the squeels of tyres are nice enough. I'm not an audiophile. Just as long as it sounds reasonable, and I can hear the difference between the engine at high revs and low revs, I'm pretty happy. Although it would have been nice to have a horn.

Music

drinkypoo's writeup describes the music quite well. I ended up muting the music, but music is always subjective so I'm not going to rag on the game simply because I didn't like it.

Overview

The previous Need for Speed games were in my opinion much better. Its not that this is the worst game of all-time history, its just that it feels that they've taken the racing out of the game. There's no real reward for practicing the tracks, other than to get through the game. I suppose some people like the idea of customizing their cars with logos and racing stripes and whatnot, but I don't. I suspect that the game would be better if I was part of the game's target audience. I want a Ferrari F50 damn it, not a Honda Civic. If you liked Midnight Club II, then you'll like this game. If you preferred NFS:PU or NFS:HP2, then you probably won't like Need For Speed Underground.

Spoiler:

How the Game Ends

Well, there is a very thin plotline in the Underground Mode part of game (which just fills in the gaps between the action), and it has one noticable hole; after you race Samantha, she's supposed to be gone because you've betrayed her trust, but you can still hear her rave about it when your car makes it into another magazine cover. Beyond that small plot twist, it's pretty monotone all the way.

Here is the spoiler, how the game ends. Amazingly, the plot has another twist; The Underground Mode claims to have 111 challenges that you have to complete, the 111st being a race against Eddie, the number one driver of the scene. But then, there's race 112! After winning against Eddie, an anonymous shows up in a Nissan 350Z and he wants to race you! After winning this one, the cutscene shows how the anonymous -- whose name Melissa we could see anyway during the race -- is actually a hot chick, and you see her stepping out of a bright beam of Nissan lights towards you. She wants you! Meanwhile, the female voice of Samantha is raving "I can't believe it, you won, you won!", and noticing Melissa, "is that your fantasy?".

And so the game ends and brings you back to reality; you're no hot street racer, you just fantasize being one. And no, you're not scoring with that chick you just beat in a 4-lap, 200 MPH race. I'm not sure if the game developers meant it to be seen that way, but I find it sarcastically honest.

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