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North America

Need for Speed Underground

by Chris Martino - December 5, 2003, 10:20 am EST


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.


Graphics Sound Control Gameplay Lastability Final
8.5 9 9 8.5 8 8.5

The player car models look great, but the civilian traffic is severely lacking. The backgrounds are really something, even though you’ll be whizzing by too fast to appreciate them. The cut-scenes are decent-looking.


Every noise the engine makes is sweet music to your ears. There is an audible difference between stock engines and your bad-ass upgrades. The tires all squeal realistically and the tunnel-effect when the nitrous is boosting is really cool. The soundtrack is good and even songs that you wouldn’t normally listen to make you want to stomp on that throttle.


It’s easy to pick up and play this game. It can take some time to learn all the nuances, but the buttons are all mapped well, and the car physics hover nicely between realism and arcade racing.


While actual racing is fun, and drift and drag races are welcome additions, NFSU lacks the variety necessary for a great racing game. Most of the game is really easy, but then it throws some amazingly frustrating races your way. Random traffic is better than seeing the same patterns time and time again, but you’ll learn to loathe six lap races especially on the hilly sections where choosing a lane is like playing Russian roulette. Being able to pimp out your car ad nauseam is fun, but some better performance options would have gone a long way.


The rather robust single player mode is great, if a little easy. The multiplayer is necessary to have in a racing game, and NFSU doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself in this area. The inclusion of a couple of multiplayer only cars doesn’t cut it when you don’t include four-player support or a couple of better tracks. Multiplayer drag racing is about the only thing that will keep you coming back for more.


So close, but yet so far. For coming out only a scant year after its predecessor, NFSU does a lot of things right. But a little more time and energy by EA and it could have been fantastic. It’s still worth a play for any racing fan, and for those who just like to fool around with different looks for your car, it shines.


  • Drag racing is a lot of fun.
  • Great looking game with nearly unlimited visual customization options
  • Some excellent fast-paced tête-à-tête street-racing
  • Lack of four player support
  • Not enough ability to customize the actual performance of your car
  • Too little variety in the tracks
Review Page 2: Conclusion

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Genre Racing
Developer Electronic Arts
Players1 - 2

Worldwide Releases

na: Need for Speed Underground
Release Nov 17, 2003
PublisherElectronic Arts
jpn: Need for Speed Underground
Release Dec 25, 2003
PublisherElectronic Arts
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