Recent NFS titles have been nothing short of shoddy. If they were to be a car we would have to label them the Fiat Punto of gaming; extremely lightweight and even more undesirable. However, EA have been improving this year so we had high hopes when it came to this latest offering. But does Need For Speed Underground get our joysticks ready and raring to race?
Rather stupidly, Need For Speed titles over the last few years have had something of a yearning for a bit of the fast stuff. Hot Pursuit was like driving tanks through Sticky-Toffee-Pudding but thankfully things have got a little bit better. A new look has come in for this version, hence the new name. This is another one of those titles with attitude reflecting the slack-mouthed ill-behaved youths of America. No doubt this is aimed at the older gamer, the kind of 20-year-olds that sit about getting all excited by pictures of shiny cars. Even if you don't fit into that category there is plenty to be enjoyed here so don't go wondering off quite yet.
Stuff the country; this is where it is really at. Gone are the days of the long winding coastlines and the grassy verges, now is the moment for shiny streets of women, in fact scenes more accustomed to 2Fast2Furious. Whilst both this and Burnout 2 are essentially 'thrill-racers' they both approach the idea with a different theory. This is more of a car-lovers title. You have your real-world cars that you can improve and exchange for bigger and better beasts before you blast about the city showing off the size of your exhaust. The premise is a simple one; complete the various challenges presented to you by the greased up youth of America and make your car look all pretty. It's like Barbie for people with excess testosterone. With 20 licensed cars you can chop and change all over the place to get the prefect motor. Of course, when you start your choice is slightly limited but the better you get the better choice you have. Faster tyres, flashy turbos and all manner of bits and bobs help to speed up the car you have at the moment before you move on to bigger and better things. Those of you that came from the age of the 'groovy stickers' you found in cereal boxes and with sweets will know just what it takes to be cool. Find stickers and put them on everything. Whilst it might not be cartoon pictures of Batman and Robin you get the idea. Neon pictures and other stylish items help to increase your reputation that in turn gets you points. And what to points make? Prizes! Extra tracks, extra parts for your cars and all sorts of hidden goodness.
To get a reputation and a car so powerful it makes girls melt over your bonnet you need to do some work. Winning races is the name of the game. You are alerted to various illegal street-races via your map. There are knockout races, drag races, A to B 'see who can get there first' races and a few other bits and pieces to keep gamers entertained. As you go through you unlock more and more and it all starts to fall together into a title that many will love. Building your car from scratch and seeing that car on the front of a posh magazine is a great feeling, even if on reflection it seems a bit sad.
Driving is all about being able to see where you are going. We've never tried it but are pretty sure that doing it blind-folded would hinder your progress and reduce your chances of survival. Now Underground doesn't make you race blindfolded it just makes seeing what you are doing slightly tricky. Because this is the shady underbelly of society it all happens at night and at times it decides to rain as well. Add in some clouds of dust and lighting reflecting all over the place and you'll be so confused that even the simplest of races can turn into a nightmare at times. Still, this is a vastly enjoyable game. The frustration of going bumper-first into a small pollard due to the poor visibility is immense, but the better you get at the game the less it happens, thank god.
Visually this game is stunning. Based in the light drenched world of a city at night everything is very pretty and interesting. Just looking at the screenshots shows you how shiny everything is, just about anything reflects in anything that in turn is reflected in anything else. We can't complain though, this a very pretty game and the visuals capture the feeling of speed superbly well. One complaint we would have is that the game looks a bit too good at times. If too much goes on at the same time and it happens very fast it starts to jerk and creak a bit. Could have done with a bit more spit-shine perhaps.
One thing we hate about games with licensed cars is the issue of damage. Not many companies like to have their cars recreated in a game only to be smashed about and turned into a small crumpled up block of metal. 100mph into the side of a truck will result you flying through the air happy as Larry before landing on your silver foil roof only to remain totally undamaged. It really is annoying but is something that shows its ugly head in numerous games like this. Still, you can imagine total metallic carnage if you like...
The AI of enemy racers also deserves a positive mention. The opposition don't just plod about on rails about the circuit. They swerve, slide, take shortcuts and carry out all manner of acts that make them a real tricky challenge particularly as the game cranks up the difficulty levels. There are also other road-users to contend with. Whilst not as intelligent as your fellow racers they add to the atmosphere of the game and prove an irritating obstacle.
This is where it all falls a bit to the dogs. You get the feeling that EA simply couldn't be bothered to put together a solid driving system for Underground. Whilst it is enjoyable for the most part there will be numerous occasions where it just all falls apart and shows the game for what it is. Just over average.
The cities are awesome, the cars are very realistic and it's all very smart and shiny. Lighting, speed and enough style to make anyone's jaw head south. Shame some jerky frame-rate problems let it all down a bit.
EA are getting good at this. The company with the money they just tend to get a load of well-known artists on board to make a very decent and enjoyable soundtrack. Fast paced and very suitable music and some lovely screeches and 'vroooms' top it all off.
Lots of races and even more to see and do. You can build up your reputation, unlock new cars, new upgrades and do all manner of bits and bobs. With 20 cars to enjoy and the 2 player options in there as well this will keep you going for quite a fair old while.
If 5.0 is bang on average this is a title that is well worth looking at if you like the basic idea. It does numerous things very well but numerous niggles and a couple of very irritating flaws let it down. Its cool, its flashy and essentially its vastly entertaining. EA might be guilty of going for big exhausts and flashy lights over gameplay but for thrill-seeking racing fans whom like 2Fast2Furious and the like this is ideal. One to consider.