Written by: Rik

Date posted: September 20, 2009


If you were being cynical, you might say that Need for Speed: Underground was the result of someone from EA watching The Fast and the Furious, taking a quick note of the box office takings, and then swiftly coming to the conclusion that the next game in their long-running racing series should cash in on the success of the film before someone else got there first. In fact, they probably didn’t bother to watch it, that thing about the box-office takings was probably enough, because that’s the kind of scum EA are. Boo! Hiss!

Ever dreamed of driving a Nissan? Well, now you can.

In truth, though, by 2003 the series was in dire need of an overhaul. While Porsche 2000 was a worthy game, it sold like proverbial cold cakes, possibly because the kind of people who want to drive a Porsche are balding, middle-aged men who watch Top Gear and only use a computer to look at spreadsheets at work in the hope that they’ll eventually get paid enough money to buy an expensive car – like a Porsche, for example.

After a year’s hiatus, EA decided to go back to a formula that had worked before, releasing the confusingly-titled Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, which was, equally confusingly, developed by different teams for different formats. Predictably, the PC got the shit version, a glossy but feature-lite and forgettable affair during which you drove your supercar round and round in circles while police helicopters attempted to put a stop to your antics by dropping exploding barrels in your path.

Thanks to Vin Diesel, though, EA realised that ‘the kids’ no longer wanted to drive shiny, expensive supercars, which were for ageing businessmen and Premiership footballers with too much money. Instead, the kind of gravelly-voiced musclemen that all pasty nerds want to be got their ‘respect’ out on ‘the streets’ with customised Nissans and Mazdas.

If such youth-speak makes you cringe, then be prepared to skip each and every cut-scene in Underground, during which hungry, out-of-work actors deliver stomach-churning lines while shaky, blurry images of poorly rendered youths flash across your monitor as if attempting to induce an epileptic fit. As with rival Midnight Club II, the story and cut-scenes are completely incidental as regards your general enjoyment of the game, so you can thankfully ignore most of them safe in the knowledge that you’re missing out on absolutely nothing. Frankly, I couldn’t really follow what was going on, except to note that people seem to call you “dude” a lot, while using words like “sick” and “wack” to describe things.

Using nitrous makes everything go all blurry.

One major plot point that I did manage to note (and then only because it’s exactly the same as in virtually every other racing game) is that at the start you’re derided by other characters for your crap car and ugly face. Suitably chastened, you resolve to win them over by painting your respectable-looking family hatchback a lurid colour and sticking a few stripes on it. Winning races helps too, of course, but if you think you’ll be allowed to race for too long in anything that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to drive to the shops on a Saturday morning, you’re sadly mistaken. Participation is enforced by the requirement to maintain your ‘reputation’ with other racers, which means that if you want to progress, you have to embrace the practice of adding massive spoilers and Kenwood stickers to your car. Still, no matter how ridiculous this practice seems to you in real life, once you resign yourself to its inevitable and constant presence in the game, you can actually find yourself spending more time ‘pimping’ your car than you might ever have imagined (See The Birth of TigerCar).

Once you’re into the game proper, you’ll find yourself at the first race of over a hundred (111, in fact) that make up the career mode. Like Midnight Club II, late-night street racing is the order of the day here, ostensibly on ‘real’ streets, although unlike Rockstar’s effort you aren’t given free license to roam around a city map. Instead, the tracks are laid out for you, and apart from the occasional choice of routes, you’re generally not allowed to explore, with giant flashing red arrows (apparently erected throughout the city for the purposes of each race) acting as a barrier as well as pointing you in the right direction. As with previous NFS games, civilian traffic is present and correct, although despite all of the extremely dangerous driving that seems to take place, the local cops are nowhere to be seen, and anyone expecting police-chase hi-jinks is likely to be disappointed.

If it’s all starting to sound a bit boring and ‘on-rails’, especially when compared with Midnight Club II, then that’s because it is, a bit. If you attempt to drive past the flashing red arrows, you’ll be reset back on the road, and while there are some shortcuts, they’re fairly obviously signposted ‘fork in the road’ type affairs rather than hidden away and awaiting discovery by a cunning driver. The routes themselves are fairly forgettable, and whether you’re undertaking a ‘Circuit’ (driving around in circles for 3-4 laps) or ‘Sprint’ (driving from point A to point B) race, the various bits of the city all seem to blend into one another. Very few races stand out as memorable – instead, it’s more a case of grinding through them one by one in order to progress to the next one.

Style points: 0. Just like in real life.

And you will need to grind through, too – the sheer number of races you need to get through demands some serious time investment. To be honest, it’s hard to see the point of having quite so many when there’s so little variation between them, beyond padding the game out a little bit. Equally, while the difficulty level isn’t massively high, the game has a habit of punishing careless mistakes with extreme prejudice. If you’re in the lead with one lap to go, for example, any slight misjudgement is guaranteed to result in you losing the lead, and with it, the race. You might also find a lot more traffic veering into your path, too, with any collision fatal to your chances. Of course, repeat plays are all part of any racing game, but with each race clocking in at a good five minutes, it soon becomes a hard old slog, made more frustrating by the fact that you’re only doing it because the game wasn’t playing fair last time around.

So, you may ask, what does Underground have going for it? Well, for a start, the presentation, as you might expect from EA, is really up to scratch. Giving everything in the game a really glossy shine seems to have been the order of the day, and though this approach may not be to everyone’s taste, for me it suits the game’s setting perfectly. While Midnight Club II resembled Midtown Madness with the lights off, clearly a lot of effort has gone into getting the ‘look’ of Underground just right. On the sound front, you’ve got a whole host of licensed music from the traditional ‘angry young man’ genres of rock and hip-hop, which I personally quite enjoyed, but might equally make you feel unwell and depressed, depending on your taste.

There’s no denying that such things come pretty high on the list of priorities for those expecting The Fast and the Furious: The Game, though, and it’s clear that this is where most of EA’s energies have been expended. All of the cars in the game are fully licensed (they have real Honda and Nissan badges on and all that) and so are all of the various upgrades available to you when you’re called upon to make your car look more ridiculous.

On the gameplay front, there’s the opportunity to indulge in ‘Drift’ racing, which involves pulling off massive powerslides with judicious use of the handbrake, and the all-important drag racing mode, where you dress your manly in-game character in women’s clothing to test how much ‘respect’ you have. Only joking [help, my sides are splitting – FFG reader] – of course, it’s that business of driving in a straight line as quickly as possible, placing the emphasis on shifting gear at the right time and using nitrous oxide to gain extra speed, while also keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic (and avoiding it too, naturally). Both are well thought-out and implemented, and as well as lending additional authenticity (if you can call it that) to the experience, they also add much-needed variety to the career mode.

Launching yourself in the air prompts a change of camera angle.

Speaking of which, while we’ve complained about the main racing action – and Underground can certainly be a frustrating experience at times – there are also plenty of genuinely exciting moments, too. You may not like it when you hit a tree that brings you to a complete standstill midway through a race that you’ve been leading all the way, but it does make the remainder pretty exciting. And the bit at the end of the drag race where you have to be in the right hand lane to hit the ramp that launches you over the moving train may be slightly contrived, but it’s satisfying when you get it right and trigger a slow-motion external view of your feat.

Verdict-time, then, and without wanting to keep mentioning another game, Midnight Club II is the obvious point of reference here. While Rockstar’s effort is certainly the better game overall, Underground‘s slick appearance, extra street-racing features and robust handling make it worth a look as well. In terms of the series, its success probably saved the Need for Speed name, representing an impressive return to form which, inevitably, EA tried to milk for all its worth until it started looking tired again. Let’s not talk about that now, though. In fact, let’s not talk about any more Need for Speed on this site ever again (well, for a while anyway).