Electronic Arts' upcoming follow-up to last year's Need for Speed Underground, appropriately titled Need for Speed Underground 2, has been making steady strides with its November release since we last saw the game. The title builds on the winning detour in the straightforward Need for Speed series that took the venerable franchise into the underground racing scene. But, much like how its predecessor tweaked the established NFS formula, Need for Speed Underground 2 is mixing old and new elements to offer a comprehensive step up from the original game for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. We got our hands on near-final versions of the upcoming game for all three consoles to see how it's looking now that EA is quickly approaching the homestretch.
While we've dabbled with the game's modes before, this was the first time we've been able to clock in some time with the single-player career mode to see just how all the pieces fit together. When you fire up your career you'll be treated to a story montage that recaps the good times had after your nameless character became a star. Of course, hitting the big time isn't all fun and games. Underground racing fame can also apparently lead to murder attempts, as evidenced by the unfriendly encounter you have with a seedy guy driving by in an SUV who wants you for his crew.
Following this incident that left your sweet ride in a rumpled mess, the game shifts environments, and you find yourself in the interior of a plane six months later. Your guide from the first game sets you up with her pal Rachel, who has graciously offered to let you use her car for a bit as you get settled in. After that, the game pretty much lets you loose to explore the city for a bit in Rachel's wheels. Your only real edict at the start of the game is to bring Rachel's car to her garage. You'll pass information points along the way that fill you in on gameplay mechanics. You should probably savor the time in Rachel's car and take the scenic route to the garage, because once you get there, she'll repossess it and leave you to your own devices. Since you're new in town you won't have much money, so you'll have to settle on a considerably more modest set of wheels to cruise around town in--one that lacks the sexiness or muscle of your original car.
Still, despite the frugality of your wheels, you'll still have some useful basics, namely a Satellite Messaging System (SMS) and a Global Positioning System (GPS). The SMS is built into all the cars in the game and conveniently lets you communicate with Rachel and other folks you'll be encountering. The GPS helps keep you aware of your surroundings. The minimap and GPS work nicely together and help paint you a useful picture of your environment, including the various points where you'll go to initiate races. The map isn't 100 percent accurate, though, as there will be points on the map you'll have to find on your own that will yield hidden surprises, such as shops and even free cash. Therefore, you'll still want to devote some time to exploring the vast city.
Of course, as nice as it is to explore the city, NFSU2 is really all about winning races, earning money, and looking really cool while doing it all. The open-ended structure of the game lets you focus on the kinds of races you're most comfortable with and lets you bypass any trouble spots. To progress, you only need to complete a certain amount of objectives, which gives you the freedom to structure your rise to fame to your tastes. As you become well known you'll be able to visit "showcase" locales, which let you pose your car for glamour shots that will be in magazines. As your fame grows, you'll be invited to elite Underground Racing League competitions, which serve as milestones in your journey to become the ultimate racer.
We also had the chance to try out the online experience for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and we were pleased by what we saw. The transition to online play on both platforms was smooth and comparable in terms of functionality. The game offers the basic EA Sports features, such as messenger, friends lists, and chat (via headset or typing), which is a comfortable fit. Once you log on you'll find the same basic options across both platforms. You'll be able to check on news about the NFSU2 online community, hop into a quick game that's randomly generated, search for a game using specific parameters, choose and customize your online set of wheels, and check out your ranking. The ranking system in NFSU2 will likely serve as the game's big draw for competitive racers. You'll see that you'll be able to choose to play ranked or unranked games, which lets you either work on your standing in the game's leaderboards or just play for fun. Ranked games will move up your standing and prestige on the online boards, which can create a little bit of an ego boost at the same time. The team has thrown in a bonus for players who excel online. The special bonus can only be seen online by your competitors, so it gives you that extra bit of bragging rights.
Start Your Engines
Control in the game is solid and it works well with the tweaked handling. You'll find that flashy moves such as powersliding and the like are a little easier to pull off. Performing this move and others like it is essential to success in the game. The new nitrous system in NFSU2 fills your nitro gauge, whereas last year's game was a little stingy with the nitro. This time around you'll find that good players will rarely be without their precious speed boost once they perfect their powerslides. The nitrous system will be much more dynamic, allowing you to fill it up by performing all manner of racing feats. The style points system has been beefed up and it now awards you with points for near misses, powerslides, and other feats of driving prowess. The points go toward filling up your car's nitrous meter (if you have a nitrous-equipped set of wheels). This new system includes the mighty "nos breaker," which you'll earn by charging your meter twice. If you manage to pull it off, you'll be able to access the überspeed burst, which lets you roll faster and longer than your standard nitrous burst. All told, the control scheme translates pretty well to the console's individual controllers, although it's a bit awkward on the GameCube pad.
The graphics in Need for Speed Underground 2 are, for the most part, coming together very well across the three consoles. The dev team has opted to go in a new direction with the game's presentation. The story in career mode unfolds in a montage of storyboard-style sequences made up of still images that are partially animated. While it's certainly a different look, we're not totally sold on it. A 2D-animated Brooke Burke is nice, but obviously live-action Brooke Burke would be better. It's still nice to see that the team is trying to change things up some and not just settle for a mimic of last year's game.
However, the in-game graphics are on par with last year's game, with a mostly successful collection of additions and enhancements. The large city environment and its neighborhood subsections offer the freedom and visual variety players were left thirsting for after the original game. The slick speed effects and visual sheen seen in the original are back with some tweaks, ensuring that you are pulled into its speedy experience. The implementation of weather effects, such as rain, is cool; however, we have to admit that we're a bit underwhelmed by the "rain." In our versions of the game, it seemed more like a light drizzle. Still, the visuals in the game are looking impressive overall. It shouldn't be much of a surprise to hear that the Xbox is the best looking of the console versions, with the PlayStation 2 and GameCube following its lead. All three games look fine, but resolution, texture quality, and frame rate separate the platforms quite distinctly. It's hard to tell if the differences will be very dramatic, as our versions of the game still had some lingering frame rate issues that popped up on occasion, most notably in the GameCube version.
Audio in Need for Speed Underground 2 is sharp, with immersive sound effects, a broad soundtrack of music, and solid voice. The whole package helps paint a strong audio picture of your world. The car audio is accurate and it is given some heightened style thanks to the powerful engine sounds. Crashes and assorted collision sounds are perfect companions to the often painful visuals. There's nothing more jarring than the unsettling "crash" you hear when you slam into an obstacle and go spinning out of control after you were just humming along at high speed. The voice acting runs the gamut from fair to solid, which is good, since you'll hear a fair amount of it as you speed around the game.
If you dug the original Need for Speed Underground, Need for Speed Underground 2 should do you right. The game's expansion on the already solid foundation of its predecessor touches on most of that game's weak spots and offers a better experience overall. The online play in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox games is solid and should feature enough variety to ensure that the game will be played well after you've mastered the career mode. Working for online bragging rights alone should guarantee a hefty amount of replay value. Our time with the game left us thirsty for the crowded competition to be found when the game hits retail and when mobs of racers will start testing their skills against one another, which thankfully isn't that far off. Need for Speed Underground 2 is currently slated to ship next month for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Game Boy Advance and PC versions of the game will also be available at roughly the same time.