Need for Speed Underground is the newest installment in Electronic Arts' long-running Need for Speed series. While the various entries in the series have offered fair to strong racing experiences, this latest multiplatform release is shaping up to be the finest entry yet. Need for Speed Underground's mix of slick visuals, tight gameplay, and impressive features have quickly made the title one of the most highly anticipated releases this fall. We had the opportunity to try out preview versions of the game, for the GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, and have come away impressed by how the racer is coming together.
Need for Speed Underground features a radical change in approach from its predecessors. Electronic Arts' Canadian development studio has looked to the street racing scene for inspiration and has married the core gameplay of the Need for Speed franchise with the aesthetics of street racing. As a result, the game features an extra layer of polish and a distinctive new style that borrows liberally from the film The Fast and the Furious. The tight package ends up offering a cohesive experience that's extremely immersive.
The first thing you'll want to do when you fire up Need for Speed Underground is create a profile that will store all your game settings and earnings. This is essential to getting everything out of the game. Once you've sorted out your profile, you'll be able to start poking around what the game has to offer. You'll find three main game modes in Need for Speed Underground; there's underground, quick race, and split-screen. Each has its own variations.
Underground is the meat of the single-player game and is a career-style mode that starts you off as a peon in the underground racing scene. CG cutscenes fill you in regarding your progress as you work your way up from obscurity. You progress by placing first in the races that appear on your map. The competitions include circuit, sprint, drag, drift, lap knockout, and tournament variations of the races. Circuit races are standard lap-based competitions that challenge you to find the best route through open city courses. Sprint races are high-speed runs between specific points. Drag races are all about harnessing the raw power of your car to blow away the competition. Drift races are perhaps the most technical of the races you engage in, and you'll have to exert some serious control as you powerslide through painfully sharp turns on various tracks. Lap knockouts are elimination races in which the last-place car is eliminated after every lap until there's a final winner. Finally, you'll find tournament-style variations of some of the aforementioned races. They are broken up into three heats. You are then rewarded with a set number of points for your final position after every heat. If you manage to earn the most points by the end of the heats, you win.
Quick race is an arcade-style single-player race that lets you choose from circuit, sprint, drag, drift, lap knockout, and free run types of races. You can choose any track you've opened up in the underground mode to race on. In addition, you can customize the number of laps, AI catch-up, amount of traffic on the track, and AI skill level. Split-screen is a multiplayer mode where you can take on a friend in circuit, sprint, drag, and/or drift races. The PC and PlayStation 2 versions of the game offer players an extra treat in the form of an online mode that lets them race in cross-platform competition.
While you're obviously rewarded for skillful driving by earning cash and opening up new tracks and items in the underground mode, you have to adjust the way you play to accommodate the game's other requirement: style. As you finish the various races, your performance is rated on how many style points you accumulate during your run. Style points are awarded for a variety of reasons. You earn some for specific techniques used in the course of a race, like powerslides, drafting, and well-timed gear shifts. However, you also earn points for a variety of other reasons, like taking shortcuts, nearly missing civilian cars, grabbing some air time when you shoot off of ramps or inclines in the street, and being in first place at the end of each lap, to name just a few. The style points you earn are tallied up and can unlock a variety of accessories and assorted goods that can be bought to trick out your car.
Devoting time and money to tweaking out your car ends up yielding more than just a performance boost in Need for Speed Underground, thanks to its street racing influences. Your car's appearance has a significant impact on how you do in the game due to its reflection on you and your abilities. When you choose a car from the 20 licensed autos available, including offerings from Volkswagen, Honda, Dodge, Mitsubishi Motors, Subaru, and Toyota, you'll notice that, along with the standard information on acceleration, top speed, and handling, cars also have a reputation ranking. The reputation ranking ranges from one to five stars and is based on how cool your car looks (for example, how much you've modified and added to its exterior). As you unlock items and upgrades--from winning races and earning style points--you gain access to more and more ways to modify your ride. The biggest benefit from doing this, aside from having a slick car, is that each reputation star you earn is a bonus multiplier that is applied to your style point tally at the end of a race. This means that a sleek car could potentially increase the number of points you earn per race by up to five times. In addition, you also need to bump up your reputation to participate in some of the tournaments in the game.
As you'd imagine, Need for Speed Underground includes a pretty insane customization feature that is broken up into two major parts, visual and performance, that offer an insane number of options. The visual customization portion is broken into six subsections: body, rims, accessories, paint, decals, and vinyl. The body section lets you tweak the front and rear bumpers, side skirts, spoiler, hood, and roof scoop on your car. The rims section, obviously, lets you pick rims from various manufacturers. The accessories option lets you customize the neon, headlights, taillights, muffler tip, and window-tinting. Paint lets you choose the base color of your car as well as the color of your rims and spoiler. Decals let you brand the windshield, rear window, hood, left and right doors, and quarter panels with various manufacturer appliqués. Finally, the vinyl option lets you place up to four layers of vinyl elements on your car to create whatever look you want. All your hard work may be rewarded, though, as your car can grace the cover of a variety of different magazines.
Need for Speed Underground's core racing mechanics, while featuring quite a few technical elements, are extremely user-friendly. The control scheme features different layouts for acceleration, braking, shifting, emergency braking, camera control (which lets you choose between third- and first-person views), and nitrous (once you equipped your car with it). There are in-game tutorials for the drag and drift modes, which require a bit more technique than standard racing, to ensure that newcomers aren't totally overwhelmed. The game also features a stability control to help newbies from spinning horribly out of control as they tear through the streets at insanely high speeds.
The graphics in Need for Speed Underground are a very stylish mix of impressive technology and art direction that extend to every facet of its presentation. Whereas most racing games often throw the bulk of their polygonal budget into very specific areas, like their cars, Need for Speed Underground's visuals feature high detail that's equal across the board. In fact, when you first start the game, you'll find that the environmental detail outshines your stock car--that is, before you trick it out. The cities you race through feature detailed design that's complemented by a host of effects. The detailed cities are enhanced by traffic that you have to avoid, although smacking into cars is also a treat, thanks to a cinematic camera angle that's used when you slam into something in a spectacular fashion. The slow-motion view of your car as it bounces around helps take the edge off the fact that you've lost a position or two as a result. You'll see lighting effects that give the cities a surrealistic sheen, as if everything were slick from water. A soft haze is also used around street and car lights to accentuate the effect. You'll also see slick warping effects when you reach high speeds in drag races or when you use your nitrous. This is especially impressive when using the first-person camera. While the game's default third-person view is fine, and actually lets you appreciate the detailed cars, we have to say that first-person is ultimately the way to go.
The first-person view lets you appreciate the impressive lighting effects and environmental details the most, while it also lets you get a better look at the road. We've been especially impressed by how all the eye candy doesn't impact gameplay by proving to be too overwhelming. Despite the insane lighting effects and plethora of detail, it's not much of a chore to stay on track and even find the shortcuts that are peppered throughout the various courses. While the game is set exclusively at night, the amount of variety on display keeps the game from becoming repetitious or stale. While Need for Speed Underground obviously looks great, the game's sense of style isn't just confined to the in-game graphics. The various menus in the game are laid out nicely. This is especially true of the car menus that overlay your choices on a real-time image of your car.
As far as the specifics of how Need for Speed Underground looks on the various platforms, it's a testament to EA Canada's skill that, for the most part, the game runs well on every system. While the PC and Xbox incarnations of the game obviously look a bit better, the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions are hardly dogs. There have been a few tweaks added to the graphics on each platform--to take advantage of their individual strengths--but nothing too glaring. You can expect a high frame rate and detailed graphics on whatever system you choose to play. In fact, the game may be the most stunning racer to hit the platforms this season, which is quite a feat when you consider the challenges involved in multiplatform development.
The audio is also stellar, as it blends excellent tunes and ambient effects to perfectly complement the visuals. The games tunes are a good mix of 26 tracks from artists like Rob Zombie, The Crystal Method, Asian Dub Foundation, Andy Hunter, Junkie Xl, Mystikal, and Nate Dogg. As with all EA games, you can tweak the game's playlist to your liking by selecting which song will play where in the game. As for the sound effects in the game, Need for Speed Underground serves up a richly stylized audio palette that blends the roar of car engines with a host of subtle effects. The roar of your car's engine and the skids you hear as you tear through the track are suitably muscular and tweaked to walk the fine line between realism and exaggeration. The ambient effects are especially slick, thanks to how perfectly they complement the visuals. You'll hear the standard assortment of traffic throughout your race, as well as the appreciative roar of the crowd at the beginning and end of your competitions. However, what really makes the game hum are the subtle effects. The muffled "woosh," as you tear past cars, or the whine of your nitrous, when you activate it, are excellent little touches that pull you into the game. The audio package gets an extra layer of polish thanks to its THX certification, which should please gamers with the hardware to take advantage of it.
Based on our experiences thus far, Need for Speed Underground is coming together incredibly well. The game's new approach shakes up the sometimes predictable franchise and offers a welcome development. The impressive visuals and tight gameplay are an excellent balance of form and function and are very well done. The inclusion of online modes for the PC and PlayStation 2 (in particular, the ability to have players from each platform compete against one another) is a great addition to the impressive offerings already on hand. Fans of the franchise, or anyone looking for an accessible racer with plenty of depth, should be on the lookout for Need for Speed Underground when the game ships this fall for the GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. A Game Boy Advance version of the game is also slated to ship in conjunction with the console versions. Look for more on the games in the coming weeks.