Electronic Arts finally took the wraps off the sequel to Need for Speed Underground today. The first look coincided with the announcement that EA has signed TV star Brooke Burke to appear in the game as Rachel, an adrenaline junkie who becomes your mentor and initiates you into the world of tuning up production cars. We were able to see an early PS2 version of the game in action, including a showcase of one of the game's five neighborhoods and a handful of new features from the game. Even though the game is still a long way off, there certainly seems to be a lot to get excited about in this sequel.
According to what we were shown, the game's development began in July of last year, before the original Need for Speed Underground even shipped. Apparently, given the overwhelmingly positive response to the first game, the decision was made to begin working on the sequel immediately to accommodate some of the team's ambitious ideas. Whereas the original Need for Speed Underground featured roughly 40 kilometers of track, Need for Speed Underground 2 packs 200 kilometers' worth of track. Each of the five neighborhoods will be interconnected via a lengthy and intricate freeway system. We were able to catch a glimpse of some of the game's new locales, which appeared to be based on familiar cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The main goal in the single-player game is to become the best of the best in the underground racing circuit. However, this time out, your focus will also be on discovery--how to advance in street races and tune up your car, with the help of Rachel. Instead of offering a linear story mode, like the original game, which forced you to work your way through a set number of races before progressing, this next game will offer much more flexibility. You'll be able to progress through a level by completing a few event races of your choice. In addition to the story races, you'll be able to find or initiate additional races (there should be roughly 150 races in the game) by doing some exploring and finding AI-controlled cars eager for a race. If you win, you'll receive information or a tip on finding other hidden opponents.
Exploration will apparently be a major part of the game, since you'll be able to find a number of hidden shops and opponents. Finding both will give you more than just bragging rights, since computer opponents will yield information on where to find other hidden competition and how to uncover shops that feature parts or cars you won't find anywhere else in the game. Fortunately, as you discover these hidden shops, they will become permanently visible on your minimap display, as the normal ones are. As for parts and cars, once you discover a shop with parts and cars you haven't seen before, they're added to all the shops you visit in the game so that you don't have to go back and forth to one single shop to get what you need.
The new game also offers an improved upgrade system for your car. In fact, tweaking your car will be a much more accessible process to casual players who aren't terribly hip to gear ratios and suspension types, though there will still be plenty for those who know the degrees by which a single gear has to be adjusted to get a half-percent performance boost. Basically, you'll have two options when buying a performance upgrade in the game. You can buy a premade kit and be done with it, or you can customize the different upgrades in the kit to fine-tune your wheels. You'll even be able to use a wide variety of kits and decals to make your car look sharp. We watched a Mazda RX8 get the star treatment with numerous kit options.
Start Your Engines
Since you'll be racing in such large environments, you'll be kept in the loop via a virtual phone that will send you messages that offer challenges from other players in the city or updates from the parts or car shops in the game. This level of interaction is decidedly different from the previous game and seems to add a welcome bit of variety. In many ways, what we've seen is reminiscent of the rather free-form approach taken by the snowboarding game SSX3, which made the entire mountain your mode menu. In Need for Speed Underground 2, it appears that the various cities you roam are your menus. You'll initiate races by accepting challenges that arrive over your virtual phone, by finding specific locations that trigger certain races, or, in the case of the new outrun race mode, simply by closing in on an AI car and matching its speed. If you manage to do it correctly, the game will seamlessly segue into a race and will add an onscreen meter that tracks your distance from your opponent. If your opponent gets too far from you, the race is lost; but if you keep up, victory, in the form of cash and information, is yours.
The racing gameplay has undergone some tweaks that seem to offer a faster-paced overall experience. The biggest change we were shown was that the style points you earn are now added to your car's nitrous meter, offering a much more tangible benefit to driving stylishly than the first game's point modifiers. Drifting is being tweaked to better take advantage of the varied street types in the game and to make for a more-dynamic racing experience. The team mentioned that all of the race types from the previous game are returning, in addition to new modes, like the aforementioned outrun. While EA was not able to give many details about multiplayer, it was confirmed that the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox games would be online, while the GameCube version would support split-screen play only.
The graphics in Need for Speed Underground 2 are coming along pretty well. We'll be honest and say we weren't totally blown away by what we saw at first. The game doesn't appear to offer an exponential improvement over its predecessor at first blush; but once you start to scrutinize it a little, you'll see there's an impressive amount of business going on. First and foremost, the game appears to be maintaining and improving on the graphical quality of its predecessor while offering the five massive areas to go through. There will also be a broader range of time periods to race in, including different times of night. Weather effects will also be added to the game and will affect the way environments look.
The team is also using every trick in the book to guide players through the game's massive areas without being too intrusive. For example, your headlights now reflect off the cat's-eye markers on the road. The reflections will help point you to where you need to go as you make your way through the game. The audio didn't seem quite as remarkable--car sounds such as engine roar and tire skids stood out the most, while the music and ambient noise were still fairly low key. Then again, given the strong audio in the previous game, we have high hopes that the sequel will sound even better.
Based on what we've seen so far, Need for Speed Underground 2 is shaping up to be a promising next step for the burgeoning franchise. The development team's work reflects the impact that user feedback from the original Need for Speed Underground has had on the game and has ensured that the next game will, at the very least, offer a strong, stylish racing experience. The addition of new modes and the host of gameplay refinements being added throughout the game contribute a considerable amount of optional depth that should please hardcore racing fans. While the graphics at this early stage don't appear to offer a quantum improvement over the first game, the fact that the visual quality of the game is looking better even though you have an entire city to play through certainly bodes well for the final game. Need for Speed Underground 2 is currently slated to ship this November for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox. Look for much more on the game in the coming months.