Need for Speed Underground 2 Updated Impressions

Electronic Arts gives us a peek at more of the upcoming street racer sequel.

Electronic Arts development team members recently came by our offices with an updated work-in-progress version of Need for Speed Underground 2. The sequel to last year's new spin on the classic Need for Speed franchise sports an ambitious number of improvements over its predecessor, which should be sure to please fans. Our latest peek at the game gave us a look at some of its new features and how they work, in addition to allowing us to see more of the impressive Bayview area and the early part of the revamped career mode.

The rubber will meet the road once again in Need for Speed Underground 2. (Note: All footage is from the Xbox version.)

Our demo of the game started out with a look at the circuit and drag races you'll engage in. In terms of basic structure, the races aren't much different from those found in the original NFSU. You'll still take on a group of opponents, and you'll still tear through the streets while avoiding traffic in a race to be first across the finish line. The circuit races will require you to make your way through challenging routes that send you on scenic tours of the vast, new racing environments the team has crafted for NFSU2. The races we saw demoed were all set in the Bayview area that we've taken a look at before, but some new parts of the neighborhood were shown.

The new areas showed both the variety within the neighborhood and the fresh approach to design that keeps your surroundings much more visually interesting than those found in the original game. Whereas the original game's tracks all had a very similar look and feel to them, NFSU2 throws in new visuals, such as radically different buildings and new design touches (like undulating roads and hills), that make for a richer experience overall. The drag races we saw didn't feature quite as much variety, for obvious reasons, but they still managed to include a greater variety in the surroundings.

The gameplay in the circuit and drag races was similar to what NFSU offered, although the overall experience was different due to the new nitrous system. Unlike the original game, NFSU2's 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 now awards you with points for near misses and other stylish moves, in addition to powerslides. 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 über speed burst, which lets you roll faster and longer than your standard nitrous burst allows you to.

Powerslides and near misses are among the new feats that will now award you style points.

While the race modes have undergone some tweaking to their gameplay and visuals, the new career mode has gotten a much more comprehensive overhaul. The game's story still follows the same basic underdog premise as the original NFSU. You'll still be cast as a lowly newbie to the racing scene who's mentored by a vet as you work your way up the ranks of the car-tuning set. The mode's overall scope and structure have been overhauled to offer a richer overall experience that you can tailor to your preferences. The beginning of the mode finds you landing in Bayview--new to town and eager to find out what's up in the racing world. You'll be contacted by Rachel, your mentor in the game who is voiced by Brooke Burke; she'll walk you through the basics of playing the game after you pick up her car from the airport.

The intro sequence familiarizes you with your minimap, a handy tool that you use to try to get around the massive areas in the game, and the Satellite Messaging System (SMS), which is built into all the cars in the game. The SMS system conveniently lets you communicate with Rachel and other folks you'll encounter in the game. In addition, you'll find some Global Positioning System (GPS) functionality as well, which ends up being vital toward getting around the game's neighborhoods. The minimap and GPS work nicely together and help paint you a serviceable picture of your surroundings. However, as we've mentioned in our previous looks at the game, one of the fun new aspects of NFSU2 is exploring the neighborhoods. Your map shows you both the basics of your surroundings and key points of interest, such as shops and places to pick up race events. However, each neighborhood holds more than a few secrets for you to discover. You'll find hidden shops and other surprises peppered throughout the 'hoods that will yield some nice perks if you can find them and have the funds.

The career mode's open-ended structure gives you a significant level of control over your experience, allowing you to decide what races you want to participate in. Whereas the original game locked you into a set, linear experience that forced you to participate in every style of race, NFSU2 is far friendlier. You'll be able to determine which races you participate in. While progressing to the next neighborhood will still require you to have a set number of wins under your belt, where you earn them is up to you.

Naturally, the cars go faster when the pavement is wet.

Once we got our demo out of the way, we squeezed in some quick circuit races just because we had to. The two races we played were set in different parts of Bayview, and each featured some notable touches. The 4088 Bayview International course runs near the local airport. The nicely designed track has its fair share of twists and turns, as well as eye candy in the form of planes coming and going. The second course, 4024 Park Drive, is a fairly twisty course that is complicated by a rainstorm. While the rain looks nice, the extra water on the track can really mess up your racing groove, so you'll have to be extra careful that you don't wipe out in spectacular fashion while trying to zip by the competition.

The graphics in the game are shaping up nicely. The environments are looking good and shiny, with a liberal helping of special effects and interesting layouts. The lighting is showing a broader array of gradients, ranging from the bright and garish light blazing from certain buildings and street lights to more subtle hues from neon signs. The weather effects are looking good and even offer the old "rain on windshield" effect that puts drops of water on the game screen as you race.

The effects for using nitrous are just as eye-popping, and they present a more intense sense of speed that's further complemented by the new system, which lets you use nitrous more often. The cars in the game look great and present a high level of detail that's shown by the new lighting system and damage modeling. The game's frame rate is coming along well, and the version of the game we saw kept the action going at a fairly consistent clip, with only the occasional inconsistent hiccup.

Look to get your street-racing fix this November when NFSU2 ships.

On the audio front, the game is taking the same stylized approach to sound as its predecessor by featuring a good mix of exaggerated effects and authentic engine noises. You'll also hear a collection of effects--such as the beeps from your SMS system--that contribute to creating a very cohesive aural mix. We were only able to hear a bit of Brooke Burke's voice work, but from the sounds of it, she comes across as pretty natural, which is a welcome improvement on last year's female guide.

Need for Speed Underground 2 looks to continue on its positive road to moving the franchise right along. The improved gameplay and visuals are headed in the right direction, and they continue to leave us wanting more time with the game. If you dug the original game or are curious to see what all the fuss was about, you would do well to keep an eye out for Need for Speed Underground 2 when it ships this fall for the GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming months, but until then, check out an exclusive, new developer interview with a direct feed from the game in motion on the media page.

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