The latest game in the Need for Speed franchise revs close to the redline.
Need for Speed Underground is a high-octane, fast-paced street racer with a tank full of style and just enough under the hood to be considered serious. Players enter the world of illegal street-racing in an imaginary city in a bid to move up the ranks and dominate the asphalt. With enough visual customization options to satisfy even the most fickle driver and a never ending slew of rivals to defeat, NFSU may be one of the year’s best racing games.
At the beginning of the game you’re a rookie with ten grand in the bank. You need to buy a car and turn it into a racing machine. While your initial choices are limited, you’ll quickly unlock all sorts of customization options and other cars including such monsters as the RX7 and the truly impressive Nissan Skyline. The reward system is simple and fits perfectly with the game. As you race, you earn style points for maneuvers such as drifting, getting air, taking shortcuts, and narrowly avoiding civilian traffic. As your points accumulate, the game automatically unlocks various options, such as new body kit parts or new vinyl decals. There are three levels of visual upgrades and as your car improves in this category, so does your reputation rating. Now here’s the fun part. Your style points at the end of a race are multiplied up to 5x by your reputation rating, so the farther you get into the game, the quicker you continue to unlock more options.
The biggest downside to this is that you can’t choose what you want to unlock. Although you also earn cash from racing, it quickly becomes superfluous. So if you really want to get some better rims, you can only race until the game unlocks them for you. It would have been much better if you were allowed to “spend” the style points in any way you wanted. Another spin-out is the inability to put hood vinyls on anything but your stock hood. Not only does this prevent you from really tricking out your car the way you want to, but you’re forced to choose between a plain, upgraded hood, which keeps your reputation high, or having your hood look the best. By the end of the underground mode, however, you’ll have access to so many different paints, vinyl, decals, and parts that it’s hard to sort through them all.
By now you’ve realized that NFSU is heavy on the style, but what’s a racing game without the racing? Fortunately, NFSU offers some excellent gameplay in this category, although it’s certainly pales in comparison to the visual aspects. The performance upgrades also come in three stages and the game even allows you to choose between several brand packages, though they all perform equally well. It’s pretty much a given in a racing game that you need to improve your car’s performance and NFSU fulfills this requirement by the slimmest of margins. Those more simulation-minded gamers will find it severely lacking. The racing itself is very good. The streets all have that slick look made famous by The Fast and the Furious, and the sense of speed is truly exhilarating. When you punch the nitrous, the screen dilates and the sound whips by in a nice tunnel effect. The engines and tire noises are spot-on and you can really hear the difference when you upgrade your vehicle.
The tracks themselves are pretty interesting, but lack terribly in overall variety. You’ll get the standard opening/closing/reversing of certain portions of track in an attempt to keep things fresh. While this isn’t ideal, it does add to the sense of a close-knit racing scene within the city. The AI racers handle themselves very well, but not flawlessly, and the game tends to operate on a limited rubber-band principle. You can blow the competition away or get smoked yourself, but normally the gap between cars closes over time. The traffic in the city is all random, which is a really nice touch, although it can quickly become frustrating. There are a few sections of road where you can’t see in front of you and you’re forced to choose a lane at random and hope you don’t run smack into another car. You can use the traffic to your advantage and the feeling of pinning your opponents to the wall or pushing them into an oncoming truck will have you snickering to yourself. Of course, they’ll do the same to you if you’re not careful.
In addition to the standard circuit and sprint races, NFSU adds drift and drag courses, which are fantastic. In a drift course, the object is to drift as much as possible around hairpin turns. Your score is determined by your speed, angle and length of drift and you can nail some huge moves after just a little practice. Unfortunately, the drift courses are all too easy to dominate, especially in the earlier stages of the game. The drag racing component is amazing and is sure to become much more commonplace in racing games. All you have to do is time your shifts perfectly to maximize acceleration and minimize resistance. Your car will automatically stay in its lane and a simple tap left or right will change lanes. In the later levels, avoiding traffic on the road becomes as important as timing your shifts properly. When you add nitrous into the mix, drag racing becomes a pretty cerebral affair and while you’ll never feel totally outmatched, you will have to attempt some of the tougher races a number of times.
The games overall difficulty will have some players disappointed, as the first 75% is way too easy and the few truly difficult levels towards the end can become an exercise in controlling your temper. There are three settings, but there isn’t an amazing amount of difference between them. Another pet-peeve is the lack of a garage feature. You can easily trade cars, but I like to race with the Skyline and drift and drag with my cherished Toyota Supra so I’m constantly trading back and forth. The multiplayer is serviceable but with only two player support it lacks the punch necessary to be excellent. Drag racing is great, however, and will probably become a favorite among groups.
Overall, Need for Speed Underground is long on style and short on substance, but it does have enough going for it to be considered a very good racing game. With a little more thought however, NFSU could have been one of the great racing games. For those of you who love arcade-style street-racing, it’s definitely worth a purchase, but those who want a little more realism should rent first. Any racing fan should at least check it out.