Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Need for Speed - Underground 2

An update of the prequel, and it's totally worth it!
Underground + GTA3 + GT3 = Underground 2

Need for Speed Underground 2 is the sequel to the multiplatform hit Need for Speed Underground. Following the theme of the underground street racing scene found in the last title, this one takes in a few of the suggestions made about the previous one. The most noticeable feature of Underground 2 is the new Explore mode. This is similar to a few of the street racing games available on Sony's Playstation2 where players drive their souped up street racers around the streets looking for a fellow rival and then they challenge them to a street race of various sorts. This sort of gameplay encourages free roaming and allows players to just explore, as well as progress through the game at their own pace. Even though there is a very unlimited structure to the game, EA has managed to incorporate a story similar to how those “Choose your own adventure” novels work.

One of the key characters, and probably one of the selling points of this title will be the work of supermodel Brooke Burke. In Underground 2, she plays the mysterious friend Rachel who helps hook you up with the illegal racing scene. Whilst the story is nowhere near as deep or involving as that found in GTA3, a cast of interesting characters who are all connected will aid in your climb up the career ladder as a street racer.
The story unfolds initially with a flashback to the past showing the main character being forced into a ‘job' and then as he drives his souped up GTR, he gets smacked into by a mysterious white vehicle. After losing reputation, he moves to another area and has to build up his reputation as a racer there. Whilst this story shares much with GTA Vice City, as do many of the other elements of this title, Underground 2 deserves to stand on it's own.

As mentioned above, Underground 2 enables the player to explore the city and control the way that their player progresses. Initially only a handful of cars will be available, such as the Puegot 206 and one of the favourites, the Nissan 240SX. Some other cars such as the Lancer Evo VIII and the Skyline GT-R will be available later. This isn't much of a spoiler because not only are these cars advertised, they are also expected to be in this game. When driving there are now a lot more controls than previous Need for Speed titles, such as hydraulics controls. Most people will find they have insufficient buttons on their controller, even myself included as I struggled to map the keys to my PS2-PC controller. After realising that the D-pad is not used, I began to assign the Reset Car, Change View, etc.. commands to the different arrows and this worked sufficiently well.

Whilst driving in “Explore” mode, there are various cars on the streets in this large breathing city. Unlike GTA3 there are no pedestrians and there is no time progression, but there are plenty of other cars. Street racers are quite recognisable as they not only have a lot of flare with neon lights and decals (compared to the plain blocky cars which just take up space and obstruct your view), and they also appear on your mini map radar. If you happen to come across a street racer, you can use the “Enter Race” button to challenge them to an Outrun competition. Making use of all the large twists and turns of the city, the challenge involves you trying to outrun the other car. 

There are no rules as to where you can and cannot drive (except to areas which are obviously out of bounds such as restricted areas) and the objective is quite simply to get 300m away from the other vehicle. The car in front chooses the path, whilst the car in the rear must catch up and pass the other car in order to be in the lead and choose the path. This brings up a few elements of skill and tactics where if you are in the lead and you suddenly corner and change direction, the rival car can run into all sorts of mishap. In the beginning I noticed that it took a lot of effort to win an Outrun competition as not only are the cars still in ‘stock performance' (that is, unmodified), you also do not know the streets as well as you knew them in other games such as GTA3. 
The other way to race is to find mission points or “Race points” where you can drive up to them, press “Enter Race” and then join in on the action. All the previous game play modes such as Drift make a return in Underground 2, but with newer more refined interfaces. Either way you choose to enter challenges or races, winning them wins you money which can be used to customise your car (both performance-wise and appearance-wise) or to change your car. Losing them of course causes you to lose money.

So what makes this game different to GTA3? I've mentioned the Rockstar series' several times throughout this review, and I must reinforce that whilst there are many common elements, the two games are in entirely two different genres. Rockstar's titles focus on the gangster theme whereas Underground is more strictly a street racing game. Whilst it is possible in GTA3 to street race in certain missions, or by simply doing a drive-by shooting of other cars on the street causing them to panic and run, GTA doesn't offer the same depth in terms of customisation.

The key element of Underground 2 will be the customisation and tuning abilities. Whilst players still remain in a relatively simplified process of “Install level 2 upgrades” and so on, where there isn't really much effort required other than to win enough money from the various Outrun challenges and races, it is still incredibly satisfying to build up a beautiful street racing machine. The box boasts billions of combinations possible in this title, but most people will probably stick to the more popular brands and car models. The new parts do look unbelievably cool, albeit a bit unrealistic in my opinions. I have a family of street racers and whilst a lot of the components and parts available in the game are real, I am still yet to see anyone in my area use some of those parts, but hey, it's a video game.
An interesting thing to note about Underground 2 is the change of location. Instead of the Hong Kong night racing scene where twists and turns through bridges and a neon filled city centre, Underground 2 features a more civilised and calm backdrop. The large nature of the fictitious world is well suited to Underground's game as there's a good mix of city driving as well as a few straights to test out the cars. I personally prefer Underground 2's large open city nature where there is variation in the city and it doesn't feel as repetitive as the various tracks in the first Underground did. The sound in this title is great. Underground 2's soundtrack is well suited to the nature of the game and coupled with a good speaker set, the THX-certified game will really make you feel immersed in this environment. If a good set of speakers isn't available, try using a good pair of cans (headphones). There's nothing sweeter than hearing the beautiful roar of your machine.

So what is wrong with Underground 2? Not a lot actually. Apart from the high system requirements for a game which does not really look that great (maybe I have too high expectations?) but there is not that much which could be improved upon. Some people may not like the way the story is set out with the ‘comics' approach where the storyline is presented as a comic strip, and others may not appreciate the selection in cars. The graphics I suppose are still quite good for a street racer game, and they do add to the feel of the game quite well.

The one thing which does disappoint me though is the lack of a proper in-car view. New to Underground 2 is the hood-view where you can see the headlights of your car (if they are pop up), but this is nothing like the old in-car views which were popular in the older Need for Speed games. I am still yet to see any game mirror something like the in-car screen of the Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R. For those who do not know, when driving this monitors things such as acceleration/throttle, temperature of car, revs, and features them on a bar-graph. As you accelerate, the display shows a percentage of throttle applied as well as boost, and it flashes in red when it is reaching maximum power, and when the gears needs to be changed. 
Whilst this is not really an important part of game play, it's one of those things that would make this game even cooler to play. Another feature that would have made this game just that ‘little bit cooler' would be the ability to zoom in and view the engines of the cars. When modifying cars, it looks mad when people do up the engines, but sadly, this feature is not available. A clutch system, which requires you to press a button before changing gears, would be a great addition to add to the realism and challenge of the title, but should remain optional. Finally, I think a slight game play tweak to make crashes not so often or easier to recover from would help keep this game at pace.

In conclusion, this is by far the best street racer available on PC. Nothing comes close. If you enjoy racing games, and you liked the large size of GTA's cities, then this game will not disappoint you. Only a few minor improvements could be made to the game, but even without them, Underground 2 still stands as not only the best street racer on PC, but also as a damn good game. If you are looking for an idea for a game for Christmas, this one will be hard to look past.

SYSTEM: PC, Game Cube, Play Station 2, XBOX, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS



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