Need For Speed: Underground
It's not what Paul Weller had in mind.
EA's been going a bit bonkers with its preview code of late, and as fast as our calloused hands can type up our thoughts on its latest sure fire hit, another one screeches through the door demanding our attention. Be upstanding for Need For Speed: Underground, the sixth in the decade-long series and the third game in recent memory to subtitle itself with Underground. Need. New. Subtitle.
Having never been one of its pillar brands, the series has watched numerous newcomers overtake it and steal its thunder despite having always been pretty good. Possibly the problem (and its strength, perversely) is that you're never quite sure what sub category a Need For Speed game fits into. And Underground doesn't make that any clearer.
Ostensibly an illegal street racer in the vein of Midnight Club, Underground also throws in a slice of Project Gotham Racing, and while we're here, let's have a dash of Burnout too. But it's not simply an exercise in pillaging everyone else's good ideas, because EA Black Box has slipped in enough of its own to keep our interest level high long after our initial mutterings had subsided.
Upon booting up, the familiar clean EA options menu presents the player with the opportunity to 'Go Underground', engage in a Quick Race, play split-screen multiplayer or have a tinker with customizing a car.
The main meat of the game, predictably, occurs in the career-based Underground mode and essentially involves choosing one of five initially available licensed cars (from Ford, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Toyota, etc) and attempting to win a series of three versus races in order to win cash, upgrades or occasionally whole new cars.
Medals, cash, it's all the same to us
Each race can be attempted at three levels of difficulty, with a bigger cash prize awarded for the harder gradings. At this stage, the Midnight Club II influences are apparent with a cheesy cut-scene playing out a scene of 'street' bravado, followed by a nighttime races played out to the strains of cocksure Hip Hop.
But when the race kicks off, it's more Gotham than MC2, with a relatively restricted track-based race and an uncannily Kudos-esque system awarding the style of your driving. When civilian traffic starts cluttering up the streets Burnout/MC2 style it all feels a little over familiar, and in true EA style seems dramatically easier to win than any other street racing game we've come across lately.
It tries to mix things up with a variety of events, including drag racing with a manual transmission [which was in EA's Drome Racers, too -Tom], races where you have to rack up 'cred' (think Kudos) by drafting round corners as much as possible, traditional racing tournaments, as well as knockout races where the last placed driver gets knocked out every lap. On the whole though it sticks to the simple racing formula that we know and love.
Winning's not always fun
It was only after about 20 (out of the 100) events that the Underground seemed to want to concern itself with presenting a challenge. Up to that point we won just about every race at the first attempt, even on the 'default' medium difficulty. Ho hum.
It wasn't as if we were driving especially well, either. The handling of your car early on isn't exactly helpful, and the tendency to spin off on the wet roads means crashing is a formality for much of the time.
What seems stacked in your favour is the fact that the AI cars always let you catch up. Even after the most horrendous prangs you can conceivably pip the computer at the post as they amble along while, conversely, they rarely slip that far behind. It's certainly a much less frustrating ride than, say MC2, but having AI this elastic just makes it feel faintly embarrassing when you don't win. If there was an option to skip the first 20 events we'd have taken it, as this is where the game appears to get interesting.
Spec me up
Where Underground scores over the opposition, is the ability to upgrade your car as you go along. Every successful race awards the player with cash, which you can go and spend on a multitude of fully licensed extras from cosmetic upgrades such as spoilers, grills, paint jobs and alloys to performance enhancements such as engines, tyres, suspension and turbo.
Each upgrade is available in its 'factory installed' level, and a further three levels after that, which can only be unlocked at predetermined points in the event calendar. Once you've bolted them on, it has the effect of increasing your car's performance, which basically equates to better handling or top speed. Other upgrades, such as nitrous, give you tactical upgrades that you can use for a limited time only.
Better still, sometimes your prize for winning is a whole new car, which you're then able to trade for your old one. Sometimes it pains you to say goodbye to your fully customized Ford Focus, but for the purposes of winning races it's often a short cut to the top.
As slick as baby oil
We must admit, after the first couple of unendearing hours with Underground, its customization bent grew on us to the extent that it's starting to stand out in its own right, rather than coming across as EA's latest muscle bound attempt to dominate another sub genre.
And who can resist its visual charms? The Xbox version we got to grips with pumps out more detail than we've ever seen in a racing game, with some truly stunning tracks packed with incidental effects that push the console to new levels. The preview build admittedly lacks polish in certain area, and occasional glitches occur, but even now the frame rate is remarkably consistent and the signs are promising for its November 28th release. We're still not convinced about the gratuitous baby oil slickness of the roads, but in most other respects it’s a fine game to gawp at [it's certainly very fuzzy-neon -Tom].
The music is probably our least favourite aspect of the game, with a tiresomely generic 'Yeeeeeh, yeeeeh' Hip Hop, um, flava to the EA Trax selection, but you can always turn that off if it's not to your liking. The rest of the audio can be quite pleasing at times, though, with some excellent sound effects, such as the clinking of glass bottles as you knock a black bin liner flying, or the barking of dogs as you tear through a puddle strewn scrap yard.
Sounds of the...
On the whole, Underground has just about enough going for it to compete against its upstart rivals. Sure, it's more restrictive than MC2, doesn't have the same range of cars or locales as PGR2, and lacks the all-out mentalist thrills of Burnout 2, but the customization element warmed us to it in a way that we weren't expecting. It's frustrating that the EA/Microsoft Mexican stand-off means only the PC and PS2 get the online mode, but it's an area we'll be keen to explore once our review copies turn up. With so many great racing titles to compete against, Underground's in for a rough ride. Forced to make a call we'd say it was a bit of a Jack Of All Trades, and its shiny new paint job may not be enough to save it from being overtaken.