Electronic Arts has to be commended for its dedication to the Need for Speed series. The racing franchise has been around for many, many years now and barely ever even breached the popularity barrier, however EA stood by it and supported it as much as possible. Then, proving that perseverance will conquer all, last year's rejigged Need for Speed: Underground became the surprise hit of 2003, outselling every other NFS title combined! Therefore, the onus has definitely been on the largest Third Party in the world to create a worthy sequel. Was the team up to the task, though?
The storyline that forms the basis of the main career mode of play is somewhat banal in the fact that you are King of the Underground, a legend amongst legends, simply unbeatable. That is until you are run off the road by some thugs and must gradually build up your reputation from scratch, racing on any of the underground tracks that are offered, all in the hope of finding and inflicting painful revenge on the people who almost ruined your career. Thankfully you have some friends, like the lovely Brooke Burke to help you along...Nice!
Booting NFS: U2 up and sitting through the annoying loading times you are greeted with some poorly compressed FMV clips, static comic book-esque images that drive the story along and car models that are barely up to PlayStation 2 standards. This really does not bode well for the rest of the game, but thankfully the track designs and the general city of Bayview where you spend a lot of your time roaming around GTA-stylee are visually impressive, with the frame-rate proving to be more than adequate in one-player mode. It is just a shame that this honestly does not look like it has been modified to take advantage of the GameCube’s extra horsepower. You would think after creating so many games on the Nintendo platform that EA would be able to wrap the system round its little finger! There are a few nice touches, like with the lighting, weather and neon effects – but you cannot help feeling not as much effort was put in as could have been…
When it comes to in-game music, EA tends to beat its competitors hands-down by splashing money around to ensure its EA Trax set-up is one of the finest in the Industry…and it works. Up step heavyweight Rap artists such as Snoop Dogg to provide an ‘urban street’ feel to the experience be it when you are browsing the multitude of menus, tweaking your vehicle and options to perfection or just blasting round a hectic track, trying desperately to cling onto your slim lead. Thankfully, should certain songs distract you too much during a race, they can be switched off or just to ‘menu’ status, with the option of placing other songs it their place. This is a very nice feature that deserves much laudation, as there is nothing worse than dreading a specific track because of its terrible and/or annoying music. As for sound effects, the car engines can grate on the nerves ever-so-slightly, but everything else seems in order, with some clear voice acting to boot that brings a welcome underground atmosphere to the experience…
The idea of Underground is quite a basic one, if you think about it. Picture the scene; you are in a car and you must race. See? Simple! Now, obviously I am exaggerating beyond belief, but for those of you that had not quite grasped the idea of Need for Speed, a rudimentary premise was called for. Now, there is an extra layer that Underground brings to the table, one that turns this from a run-of-the-mill racer into a hi-octane thrill-fest that attracts enough gamers to its speedy courses to make it the Christmas No.1 game here in the UK. What is it? The extremely 'cool' atmosphere. This game would not be what it is without any of the funk, hip-hop tunes or urban lingo.
But that is just the dressing, you want to know how the main salad tastes, right? I suppose if I were to be straight to the point I would hastily state 'Burnout 1.5' and leave it at that. However, in the interest of fairness I must explain this label. You see EA has always been on to mimic winning formulae, with the most recent examples being the two different styles of Lord of the Rings: The Third Age games, one which 'paid homage' to Fire Emblem and the other that was an out-and-out Final Fantasy pastiche. Now Underground 2 hits the streets with more than a little Burnout influence to be found within, although somehow manages to only overtake the original of the racing trilogy.
By this I mean the instant replay, slow-motion crashes (that are not a patch on Burnout's) and the increasing of your boost by achieving near misses (except it is more awkward to carry out because the handling is not as smooth in NFSU2). But being classed as Burnout 1.5 is no real criticism since Criterion's racers are so far ahead of the competition anyway. So, you are placed in the city of Bayview, with five areas to visit (Beacon Hill, Jackson Heights, the airport, Coal Harbour and the City Core), numerous events that take place and hordes of messages that can be collected on your SMS system, each giving you a little tip on how to customise your vehicle, where best to progress your game and various pointless messages as well just to try and flesh out the story a little.
The main racing is definitely nice, but nothing more than that terribly humdrum adjective. Accelerate with the right shoulder button, brake with the left, hand-brake turn using ‘A’ and boost with ‘B’ – those are going to be your main ports of call. The analogue nature of the GC pad’s shoulders is extremely pleasing, although braking with the left is sometimes a little less responsive as you might like (however this seems to have been purposely done to try and hone your skills). You must use these and your own cunning to not just squeeze into first position, but to wipe out the opposition and get the farthest possible win margin. Everything comes down to respect and money earned in this racer – keep your eyes open and your mind focused and you might just stand a chance of traversing the game successfully, whilst also having a surprisingly good time…
The extensive length in Underground 2 is not a matter of question at all – this is an extremely long game, full stop. However, whether you will make use of its length all depends on the type of gamer you are. If you picked up EA’s latest driver in order to simply experience the thrill of the race and the buzz of beating out fellow underground racers, then you could well find that this is not quite as lengthy as it would appear. Yet if you are keen on upgrading your vehicle and customising it to perfection in order to increase your ‘street cred’, then NFSU2 is most certainly for you and will last for so long that you will lose track of how many hours you have put into it. With the wide ranging city to explore, various types of racing to challenge yourself on and a competent two-player section, EA has made sure that this year’s outing stands itself far enough from its predecessor to warrant another purchase.
With gameplay that mimics Burnout to some degree, Underground 2 uses this solid base to build its GTA mission-style gameplay, leading the gamer deep into the murky underworld of US cities and forcing them to become better than they already are. However, things can become slightly repetitive after a while...
The car models might need a little remodelling before 2005's version is released, but there are never too many problems with regard to the frame-rate or annoying pop-up.
EA Trax works very well again, providing the urban street, hip-hop style that makes up the entire experience. If a track is not to your liking, simply switch it off on the menu screens! Shame the engine noises are a little annoying...
Customisability is the key, with veterans eager to tinker with every little item on their vehicle and improving as many areas as possible. However, if you are just here for the ride, then the lack of online and four-player may turn you off sooner than you would expect.
This is by no means a weak title, but probably does quite manage to push Burnout 2: Point of Impact out of pole position on the GameCube. Luckily for EA, at the moment there has been no real competition released in this particular genre on Nintendo's home console, so the obvious choice would be to rush out and buy this if you are desperate for a racing game. If you are a little more patient, though, try to find a cheap copy of Burnout 2 instead and just rent this before making your mind up.