Of all the technical restrictions put on mobile developers, draconic file-size limitations are the most crippling. If a dev team's goal is to make a 120k game, and the splash screen alone uses 15k, that group is going to have to write some pretty tight code. Fortunately, Verizon's V Cast service allows for much larger, more complex games and makes streaming additional content off the network relatively seamless. EA's Need for Speed Underground 2 is the first game to fully take advantage of this technology, and the result is the longest, most engaging racing title ever made for wireless phones. The realmusic audio content alone is worth the $9.99 download price.
If you've played the console version of NFSU2, you know exactly what to expect from the mobile version. You are a washed-up street racer who, under the tutelage of the seductive Rachel--played by aging supermodel Brooke Burke, whose name and body still bear a satisfying symmetry--may once again find sponsorship, fame, and ready cash to pour into your ride. The story unfolds through comic book-style cinematics, which, while less than impressive on consoles, are mind-blowing on mobile.
Exposition is hardly Need for Speed's focus, nor really its forte. The racing is a showcase in itself, and it looks as good as software rendering possibly can. The game's streaming capabilities have allowed EA to include an unprecedented number of tracks across multiple racing districts, and each looks like a distinct part of the city. You can view these either on a world map screen or by free-roaming through the streets of your chosen district, where you may even find hidden cash bonuses. Each race is initiated via a pager challenge, and you are told how long you can expect to spend on the course. As a result, while NFSU2 is a full-fledged video game, and not really intended for casual players, it can nonetheless be enjoyed in short sessions.
Dedicated players will be rewarded, though, as NFSU2 plays just like its console counterpart. Using your emergency brake to execute perfect drifts and then nitro blasting away takes some getting used to on the mobile keypad, but racing at a high level is satisfying enough to justify perseverance. Every command available in the console game is present here, and they can all be remapped to whichever keys you prefer.
Fancy driving refills your nitro meter, so the Burnout formula (risk equals reward) applies here. As you narrowly escape crashes, a bonus multiplier builds, such that each successive near miss adds several orders of fuel to the fire. Drafting behind opposing vehicles and performing powerslides also charges up your turbo. The rival racer AI is excellent, and your adversaries will perform all these maneuvers in hopes of getting an edge on you. You may pull ahead of a souped-up Audi TT, only to have its driver draft behind you, then rocket ahead while rounding a corner. Bystander vehicles aren't stupid either and will sometimes swerve to avoid a crash.
When you do collide with a car, it will fly ridiculously over your head in a manner not unlike rag-dolling. While crashes don't seem to damage the vehicles involved, they'll cost you precious seconds and will potentially necessitate the use of nitro fuel to regain your top speed. Hitting street signs or the like will stop you cold, however. Apparently, several tons of steel is no real impediment, so long as it's on wheels. Then again, when compared to its competition, NFSU2's physics modeling is exemplary.
Although they don't crunch on impact, Need for Speed's cars look absolutely beautiful, whether in the garage or on the street. Considering the LG VX8000's lack of hardware acceleration, the highlights and reflection effects on each car's painted surfaces are incredible. Holiday lights hung over telephone wires will imbue your vehicle's exterior with shades of red, green, and blue. You will notice quite a bit of the draw-in, but the detailed architectural modeling work that's gone into this game helps to make up for it. In any case, NFSU2 manages to consistently run around 20 frames per second, which is quite a triumph for a V Cast game.
We've seen graphics approaching this caliber before, in titles such as Gameloft's Asphalt: Urban GT. As a result of its revolutionary approach to content delivery, however, EA has been able to provide much more visual variety. Almost everything you do in the game requires a download, but the trade-off is that you'll always have fresh content heading to your handset. Every time you head to a shop to upgrade your car, for example, you'll download new car models to account for your opponents' upgrades. The stock Peugeot-driving loser you smoke today may show you up with a souped-up ride tomorrow. When you reach the second Phoenix, Arizona, district, everyone will have some noticeable upgrades, including big rear spoilers and checkerboard paint jobs. You should put your earnings to use as well, lest you, in the words of Rachel, "look like you're driving your daddy's ride." Need for Speed is consistently difficult, and you'll need to get tricked out (to employ the game's parlance) if you hope to compete.
NFSU2's audio, too, benefits from this dynamic content-delivery system. If you've got the space on your phone, you can download eight realmusic samples of the tunes included in the console version of the game. Each of these lasts about a minute and can be enabled or disabled via the game's EA Trax menu. Of course you'll want to hear Riders on the Storm, the postmortem collaboration between longtime pals Jim Morrison and Snoop Dogg. While the compositional quality of this music is debatable, the audio fidelity isn't. It's simply the best in a mobile game, ever.
Although we'd like to see EA make some better licensing choices, the amount of audio content offered here would cost more than the price of the entire game, were it purchased on Verizon's Tunes and Tones service. You're getting high-bit-rate samples of popular music--essentially for free. Add spoken cutscene dialogue to the package, and you're looking at an unbelievable audio bundle that really adds to the game's value. The only caveat is that you must choose between sound effects and music as your racing accompaniment. Many games now offer this choice, which is mandated by handset hardware shortcomings.
Even more impressive than Need for Speed's wealth of ear candy is the sheer number of race challenges and locales you'll encounter. It's usually much more economical to buy a subscription to a game, which costs half as much as an outright purchase. In the case of NFSU2, however, we're not convinced that average players will complete the game within two months of periodic play, especially since EA is able to provide server-side content refreshes at any time.
Need for Speed starts relatively small but soon swells with downloaded features. The game will delete unused content, though, so you won't have an ever-expanding client, à la Guild Wars. When you wish to revisit previously viewed content, such as old cinematics, the game will simply prompt you to redownload the content, making room by excising other, more recent content. This shuffling sounds like an annoyance, but it's relatively painless in practice.
Need for Speed Underground 2 isn't just the best racing game ever made for a mobile phone; it's also a much-needed showcase for V Cast technology. This game boasts game length and replay value so many orders beyond the mobile norm that it calls for a total paradigm shift. Simply put, mobile gaming just got a much-needed kick up the evolutionary ladder.