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Need For Speed Underground

Kristan feels the need.

Guys, I think it's time for a new subtitle. When you've got two games in the top five that use Underground like some kind of we're-so-down-with-the-kids term then you know the games industry is drifting inexorably into the realms of self-parody. Even Eurogamer's handy random game subtitle generator could have come up with a better one... Whirr click. Here's one - Revolutions! Shit. Whirr click. Xtreme! Damn. Whirr click. 2004. Grrr! (At least it's honest.)

With EA's run of success knowing no bounds these days it was no surprise to wake up yesterday morning and discover that the latest Need For Speed had shot straight in at No.2 in the UK chart, outselling all manner of huge brands along the way. It was no surprise given the huge retail presence EA commands these days and the vast marketing campaigns it can deliver. And having played it extensively, it's no surprise because Underground is actually a damn fine exponent of the rather crowded street racing sub-genre.

Spot the influences

Those familiar with the Midnight Club, Burnout and Project Gotham series will immediately spot where EA is coming from with Underground. It lifts MC's concept of night time illegal street racing wholesale, introduces the style (Kudos) factor and real cars of Gotham and then garnishes it with the extreme danger and slo-mo collision intensity of Burnout. There's even the customisation/upgrade/trade-in element so beloved of GT fans. In a sense it's covering all bases, and it's obvious EA has been busy doing its market research to really get under the skin of what people hunger for in a racing game.

In order to get anything out of Underground it's essential to plough headlong into it and 'Go Underground', with the game's exhausting 111-race long single-player campaign mode. First you get to choose from a handful of fairly bog standard every day run-arounds like the Golf GTI, Honda Civic or Peugeot 206 and then go out and win each of the main race types. Circuit is your bog standard race around the city, Sprint is a simple first past the post charge to the finishing line, Drag has you shifting the gears yourself manually along a straight course with occasional obstacles, Drift is an exercise is racking up points by power sliding around a mini-circuit, Lap Knockout is an elimination round where the racer in last place gets knocked out every lap until it's a one-on-one, while the end-of-section tournament combines several of these into a league-style duke out.

During races you accumulate cash and style points - and you get to keep the latter whether you win or lose. Cash is earned for winning each race, and your prize varies depending on the difficulty level you've set for each race. Unlike, say, Gotham, winning a race on any skill level removes that race from your objectives, so there's no sense of 'I'll finish it on easy then come back to it and win the hard medal when I've upgraded my car'. Finish it, move on, and never look back. With cash in the bank, however, you're basically given carte blanche to do what you see fit with it; trade in your car for a better one (better cars occasionally unlock as you progress) or stick with the one you've got and soup up your ride with a bewildering array of visual and performance-related enhancements.

Tinkering paradise

The visual extras are truly vast, giving you any number of possible permutations for customisation from new hoods to new rims, spoilers, vinyls, side skirts, window tints, neon, decals, accessories, paint, you name it... the list goes on. Thankfully there's a point to all this messing around in that adding 'cool' extras improves your Reputation, which is rated on a five star scale. To begin with you'll have no stars, but adding a few odds and sods results in a bonus multiplier. For example, any style points you've earned in a race for, say, near misses or cool jumps will be factored up accordingly, with the more style points you earn resulting in extras like new tournaments or add-ons.

But it's ultimately the performance side of things that you'll be most hungry to get going with, as the capabilities of the stock cars you inherit are pretty dreadful, with terrible acceleration, woefully slippery handling and humdrum top speed. As you rake in more winnings, so the performance upgrades will also become available, and again there's multitude of vitally important goodies to strap onto your mean machine. Everything can be tinkered with, including the Engine, Drivetrain, Tyres (or tires as EA insists on spelling it), Fuel System, Turbo, Weight Reduction, Nitrous, Suspension - the works. It may sound daunting, but the game shows you the positive effect of upgrading before you part with the cash, and it really does make a huge difference, making not only an appreciable enhancement to your driving experience, but almost allowing you a GT-style sense of attachment to the car that you're nurturing through all the races.

With five levels of upgrade to painstakingly unlock via the 111 races, it's possible that Underground will keep you going for literally weeks. I put easily 15 hours into attempting to blitz through this, but had a far tougher time cracking it than I ever imagined, which is both a good and a bad thing.

Pause. Restart. Yes.

Part of the challenge is winning races against often incredibly steep odds. Your car is crap to start with and becoming comfortable with some unforgiving handling may drive you to distraction unless you're prepared to stomach the humiliation of playing it on Easy. While most races can be learned to death and will be conquered eventually, there was one tournament relatively early on, which required literally hours of repeat play over a challenging but straightforward five-and-a-half minute four-lapper. I dug deep into my well of determination and came through in the end, but - my god - did it teach me about the cheating elasticity of the game's AI.

While games like Gotham pretty much set a defined winning time which you can chip away at, Underground - in common with Midnight Club - pulls this heinous trick of the AI players always allowing you to catch up, no matter how many times you mess up. In every race, no matter how many laps, it always seems to come down to the wire, and in this sense Underground gives you false hope and cheats like no other game I've ever played. The race that I was stuck on in particular was a minefield of obstacles, oncoming traffic and tricky bends, but that wasn't the half of it. Posting six minute plus finishing times found me a few seconds off the pace, so I kept at it, shaving off five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds - still three or four seconds off the winner. At five-minutes-thirty I was starting to wonder what on earth I had to do to win the race. I'd set unbelievable lap times, but if at any point during the race I slipped up, the opposition would come haring past me. Unbelievable. My joypad did its little bounce of death on more than one occasion as the AI again and again pipped me on that final section. Cheating effing game.

Eventually I finally posted a quite spectacular five-minutes-nineteen in the early hours of the morning, girlfriend abandoned and unaware of the obsessive behaviour going on just a few feet away. I couldn't believe it, I finally managed to avoid the dozens of evil sections, but still the AI was breathing down my neck, and chased me hard to the line again, just a second behind. Now what kind of evil gaming mechanic is it that punishes the blood sweating gamer like this? Even Midnight Club II, which displayed similarly evil elastic AI, was nowhere near as relentless, with CPU players capable of dramatically messing up at the death - just like we're all capable of in our nervy post finishing line moments. Underground's considerably less fun for this tactic, and anyone with a short fuse would be mindful about this before they get stuck in [noted! -Tom]. Any prized inanimate objects are unlikely to take the strain.

Swallow your pride

A word of advice at this point would be if you come across a similar situation yourself: just play the particular track on Easy and earn a few quid less cash. It's simply not worth the hours involved in playing the CPU at this cat and mouse nonsense. Any racing game where I can race five perfect minutes, make one tiny mistake and finish last needs a serious design rethink.

Part of the issue, as I mentioned before, is that your car starts off worse than useless. Before you upgrade your car, the game feels utterly awful in the handling department, constantly wiping out at high speed with even minor adjustments to the steering. Worse still, the game insists on going into slo-mo mode every time you do anything the overzealous cameraman thinks is worthy. Not only is this annoying after about one race, there's no bloody option to switch it off, and - worse still - it completely disorientates you at often crucial moments in a race. Luckily, when you totally wipe out you can generally tap select to get yourself instantly respawned safely on the track. Still, it's not a patch on Burnout 2 in delivering unobtrusive footage, and again, unlike Criterion's classic, the game can take an inordinate amount of time to put you back in the race - and when it does you're almost always chasing the pack again, no matter how well you've done up until that point.

Matters do improve massively once you've had sufficient practice and become a better player. Once you've souped your car up sufficiently and you start to truly feel in control of your ride, you'll not only enjoy the racing more, but you'll start to forget how woolly it all felt to begin with. Some of the upgrades, in particular, help matters enormously and could have been useful earlier on, especially the limited Nitrous speed boost, which gives you the chance to blitz past those evil AI drones at the death, and grows in importance the more the game goes on.

Hard to handle

Still, I can't shake the feeling that EA has made a mistake by making it feel an inferior game to its competitors in the initial stages of play, and I've already witnessed several racing game friends of mine express dismay from their initial impressions, and I dare say many of you will do the same. The main issue is that you'll probably hate the handling to start with - something which doesn't improve for literally hours. The fact that none of its direct competitors pulled this trick makes you wonder why EA thought it was a good idea. We know it's a slick, greasy road surface, but it honestly feels like you're skating around on polished marble for the majority of the first 20 per cent of the game.

But, as ever, the level of presentation and gloss is likely to lure many people in and distract them from any major gameplay flaws. And why not? It's undoubtedly one of the finest looking racing games you'll ever see, regardless of the format it's running on. Having previewed the Xbox version, I was incredibly impressed with how the PS2 version fared in comparison (no GameCube version was sent, sorry, but I've seen it running and it's similarly sublime). Although the PS2 version does occasionally struggle to keep up with the spooling of data off the disk, the glorious array of effects and massively detailed tracks, cars and consistently smooth frame rate put it right at the top of the tree, even if it's got borders (no 60Hz mode, bizarrely) and lacks a widescreen mode. (Why can't EA and other publishers for that matter be consistent in this area?)

Minor technical gripes to one side, the tracks are quite gloriously delicious. Not only are they absolutely rammed with highly detailed buildings, foliage, advertising posters and glowing neon signs, the sheer non-repeating variety means you quickly become accustomed to where you are. Although it doesn't have the freeform non-linearity of Midnight Club II (which enables you to effectively craft your own route), each track is built from different sections of the same environment, and so the more you play it, the greater your eventual appreciation will be of each track and its nuances.

Slip slidin' away

Although the track still looks like it's covered in baby oil (please tone it down next time guys, it's clear you can do "shiny"), the sheer volume of incidental effects going on elsewhere make it one of the most convincing racing environments I can recall. Sparks fly up when you scrape past metal barriers, smoke clouds engulf the scene of a crash, exhaust fumes trail a fleeing opponent, trackside litter is smashed to oblivion as you scream through roadblocks at 135mph, street lights blur across the screen in the dark night, and real-time reflections dance across the body of the exquisitely detailed cars. And if that wasn't tantalising enough, smoke stacks billow in the distance, a flock of birds scatter on approach, and the illusion is all the more convincing by virtue of zero pop-up and a smooth frame rate. Taking one look at this on a demo pod, or on a well-cut advert it's no wonder it's No.2 in the charts - it looks absolutely glorious.

Audio wise, the engine roar is all the more convincing through a surround set up, but the whine of the engine will drill through your skull after a while, and in terms of the soundtrack it's another EA Trax hotchpotch, with 26 licensed tracks of varying quality - Asian Dub Foundation, Fluke, Dilated Peoples, Junkie XL and co rattling their way through a repertoire that left this writer utterly cold, but at least you can switch it off and whack on your own tunes if it's bothering you that much (it did).

Underground offers plenty of other modes for when you're finally done with the campaign, giving you the option of racing any of the game types on any (unlocked) track with any of the unlocked cars, set to your own preference of traffic. The only major difference here is that there's also Free Run mode, which is just an opportunity to check out each of the eight main tracks and their reverse equivalents without the traffic or time limit.

Take them on, on your own

On the multiplayer side of things, there's the obligatory split-screen two-player mode (for all formats, rather lamely), or, better still, an online mode for PS2 or PC owners for up to four players on any track in any of the four main modes - ranked or unranked (giving you a chance to race three supercharged 'sponsor' cars otherwise unavailable in ranked races). That's assuming, of course, that you can get the damn thing to log in - yet again the joys of online gaming on PS2 aren't what they could be, and I spent the best part of an hour attempting to get some online action before it finally relented and worked.

The reality, however, is that so few people are actually bothering to play PS2 Online games, and despite being near the top of the charts less than 100 people were logged on across the entire world when I attempted to test it out - consistent with more or less every PS2 Online game Eurogamer has encountered to date, with the possible exception of SOCOM. At the time of writing I could only engage in some head-to-head sorties - and most people actually online just rejected these when I challenged them anyway. Ho hum. If you can arrange matches with some like-minded mates, then the potential is there to have some great battles, free of elastic AI, but simple one-on-one races are nowhere near as much fun as the fleshed out real deal. If only EA would tie up a deal with Microsoft for the vastly superior Xbox Live service, eh?

Against its formidable opposition, Underground has an enormous amount going for it if you factor in the online mode. Offline it's an enormous challenge on its own, with literally hundreds of unlockables and customisations that makes me break out in a sweat just thinking about how much time it's going to take to unlock. After a shaky start, the AI cheating became just another factor in the challenge and I just got on with being good at the game rather than whining about why it wasn't letting me win, and the moans about the rubbish handling proved to be nothing more than EA's way of making you appreciate your upgrades later on. The slo-mo incidents, however, remain utterly annoying.

Overground? Watch this space

Given a bit of time, it's clear that EA has come up with its finest Need For Speed yet, and while it does its best to be an amalgam of all the best street racing games - and is certainly one of the best looking - it fails to haul itself onto the top of the podium by virtue of not enough variety, no new ideas and a few too many minor irritations that take the gloss off the final package. A very solid, enjoyable game, but not quite the classic it could have been if EA had been a little less copycat in its approach.

7 / 10