Need for Speed Underground 2 Hands-On

We take EA's latest racer for an exclusive high-speed test-drive.

We finally got our first--though all too brief--look at Need for Speed Underground 2 last month at Electronic Arts' official unveiling of the game. In development at EA's Canadian development house for nearly a year now, the game builds on the promising new look and direction introduced in last year's acclaimed title. EA will be showing off a playable version of the promising racer at its summer press event today, but we managed to get an early look at the PlayStation 2 version of the game in particular to see just what this year's entry in the series has under the hood.

Take a look at the latest footage of a work-in-progress version of Need for Speed Underground 2. Click "stream" for a larger view.

The demo is actually set in one of the neighborhoods shown during our first look at the game, and it has a decidedly Southern California look to it, complete with a Hollywood-esque "Bayview" sign. The open-ended area let us take a scenic tour of the richly detailed city, which sported some impressive lighting effects that ranged from dramatic spotlights to subtle effects, like the soft glow of colored neon and the glare of cat's-eye markers on the road. From a design perspective, the locale was a much richer place to roam than the city in the first game, thanks to the presence of roads that undulated and offered varied geometry.

The demo exhibited a taste of the open-ended mechanics that are part of the revamped gameplay. You'll access the different types of races by going to specific points that are highlighted on the mini-map in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen. The races and other points of interest are all color-coded for your convenience. Our demo featured an orange marker for opponent cars that we could roll up on and challenge to a race, while purple markers represented circuit races, blue markers were included for Street X races, and a lovely yellow star was used for showcase areas. Other places of interest shown on the map included car lots, paint shops, performance shops, body shops, and car specialties shops that all let you spend your hard-earned cash to get the sweetest ride. The races in the demo showcased a nice bit of variety. The circuit races were well in line with the feel of NFSU 2's predecessors, although they were much more challenging, thanks to their level designs. The Street X races were probably our favorite of the bunch due to the fast-paced and hectic feel of racing their tightly constructed courses.

The artificial intelligence looks to be challenging and pretty aggressive--at the moment. This obviously makes for some interesting races. Your opponents have no qualms about working every shortcut and opportunity that presents itself when you're in a race, which should keep you on your toes and provide plenty of incentive to get the best car you can. The game's physics have also been tweaked a bit to let the cars slide a little more, thus helping to give the action an arcadelike level of polish that we really dig.

Underground 2 will see you tearing up the road in some exotic locales.

Underground 2's graphics are shaping up nicely, and the city has undergone a good measure of refinement since our first look at it last month. The lighting we mentioned was sharper and more defined, as was the overall level of detail in the areas we tooled around in. Both the cars and the environments sport a competing level of detail that's very high. Aside from the presence of buildings and other landmarks in the city, you'll actually see trees that gently sway in the breeze, which helps give the world a subtle bit of life. The game also retains the shiny, wet look of the first game, although the presence of all the new lighting effects gives it a richer look. The work-in-progress version of the game we played isn't quite perfect, because we saw a few frame rate discrepancies in the heat of a race, which bogged the action down some. However, we doubt the game is going to ship with a janky frame rate.

Although the demo we tried gave us just a taste of what the final game will offer, Need for Speed Underground 2 certainly looks to be firing on all cylinders. The improved visuals, expanded gameplay, numerous car options, and tweaked controls are coming along well. Racing fans will certainly want to keep an eye out for the game when it ships. Need for Speed Underground 2 is currently slated to enter showroom floors this November. In the meantime, be sure to look for more on the game in the coming months.

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