Replay Value: 9.7
You know, sometimes I like to think of myself as one of the most hardcore and well-versed Need for Speed aficionados around. I've been with the series ever since it made its debut on Panasonic's, thankfully, deceased 3DO. While I never owned a 3DO myself, I do remember actually playing the original Need for Speed briefly when it first arrived. I thought it was a pretty kick ass game, really solid, and utterly gorgeous for its time. I managed to forget about the game since I was nothing more of an adolescent at the time, until one day I see Need for Speed: Special Edition for the PC at my local Sears. Somehow I managed to squirrel up $45 and blew it all on the game. Ever since then, my life as a gamer has been filled with more joy. As the years went by, Need for Speed saw more and more sequels and follow-ups. Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit was the franchise's major milestone, up until Hot Pursuit 2 arrived last year. NFS: High Stakes was a worthy follow up to Hot Pursuit, but Porsche Unleashed was a pretty lackluster title in comparison to the previous four (excluding the SE releases). Thankfully, EA brought the series back to its roots with a sequel to Hot Pursuit. But this year, EA has an all new agenda...
Capitalizing on the roaring success of the Fast and the Furious franchise and the trick-out craze that proceeded to evolve because of it, Need for Speed: Underground can only be described as an illegal-street racing sim...with slightly exaggerated arcade-esque physics. It may seem a bit confusing to think about, but that's most certainly the only way the game can be categorized. While the core gameplay is more akin to the series' brethren, the game also boasts a rather surreal amount of depth in its customizing portion. The Underground mode is the meat and potatoes of the game; it's where everything happens, and especially the one mode that rewards you with the game's finest treasures. Now, the best way to summarize Underground mode is as a sim that'll help you turn your 4-bangin' ricer into a work of art recognized by every other illegal street-racer on the streets, as well auto magazines. In essence, Underground mode is a lot like a very drawn out feature that makes you feel as if you're playing some Fast and the Furious simulation game. You start with a standard stock car (you'll have 6 to choose from), race, earn money, upgrade, race more, and repeat. As you race and accumulate points and complete certain branches or portions of the game, you will be rewarded with tracks, cars, decals, accessories, new upgrade parts, magazine covers, money, and restricted parts will become available for you to purchase.
Earning respect is all about how your car looks. You'll have to continually keep playing in order to unlock more and more visual accessories, so that your reputation meter increases. There are tons and tons of items for you to place on your car; the game has practically everything you could ask for. You can add side skirts, spoilers, front and back bumpers, rims, headlights, taillights, roof-scoops, hoods, neon glow, new muffler-tip, window tints, decals, and of course, vinyl designs. Every category is loaded with dozens of authentic parts/items for you to place on your car, making the amount of customization possibilities with this game almost never-ending. Aesthetic design aside, the larger focus of this game is definitely upgrading your ride's power and handling by equipping it with new performance parts. Included in NFS: Underground's performance section are the following package upgrades: engine/exhaust packages, drivetrain packages, tires, E.C.U. and fuel system kits, turbo packages, brake kits, weight reduction kits, suspension packages, and nitrous oxide (NOS, baby!). Every performance package of the game is labeled with actual manufacturers, so if you're looking at street-performance engine/exhaust package #1, you'd see itís composed off of parts made by AEM, Aerospeed, DC Sports, Injen Technology, and HKS USA -- that's only one example. Among other brands included are: NEUSPEED, Jackson Racing, Stillen, Venom, HP Racing, NOS, Skunk2 Racing, Street Glow, Borla, A'PEXi, GReddy, Yokohoma, B.B.S, Enkei, Toyo Tire, and many, many more.
All of the game's racing is done in one city that is broken down into a whole bunch of various tracks. The tracks are superbly done, as they're all filled with short cuts, jumps, and other time-shaving routes. While you play the Underground mode, you will not only race standard circuit races that require you to place 1st after a few laps of driving on a track. Need for Speed: Underground features a couple of different racing styles, and they are: circuit, point-to-point, sprint (timed-run), drag, drift and lap-knockout. Most of these are self-explanatory, except for drift, perhaps. Drift is a short little competition where you have to score thousands of points by throwing your car around by performing dangerous powerslides, without any traction control -- the technique is called drifting. You'll be placed on a tiny track all by yourself and you'll have to fight off the scores of 3 other racers, it's rather simple and a lot of fun. Though, what's easily the most fun, is the game's mindlessly addictive drag races and it goes without saying that Need for Speed: Underground has the best drag races of any racer to date. All of that said, lastly, I'll mention that NFS: Underground's quick-race mode is directly affected by the progress you make in Underground mode, which means you'll only be able to use parts in quick-race that you unlocked in Underground. Still, it's pretty cool, because you can customize a quick race car and save that too.
On the subject of cars, while it isn't too much, NFS: Underground's 20 cars are still a blast to drive, and because the game's customizations are so deep, it's something that shouldn't really off-set anyone. The cars featured in Underground are: Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus ZX3, Mazda Miata MX-5, Mazda RX-7, Nissan 240SX, Nissan 350Z, Nissan Sentra Spec-R, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Dodge Neon, Honda Civic Si, Honda Integra Type-R, Acura RSX, Honda S2000, Hyundai Tiburon GT V6, Subaru Impreza WRX 2.5, Mitsubishi Lancer (not the Evolution), 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse, Peugeot 206 GTI, Toyota Supra and Toyota Celica GT. Lastly, don't forget about the game's online mode, that's always a fun mode to kill time with -- too bad there is no voice support, though.
Visually, at first Need for Speed: Underground may turn some people off. The car models don't seem to be on par with what EA offered in last year's Hot Pursuit 2. They still look very good, just not as good superb as Hot Pursuit 2's. Either way, by the time you're done toying with your rice-mobile, it won't look anything like the car it started out as, so it's a bit of a moot point. Since Underground is set during one timeframe and takes place all in one city, you're not getting much diversity in terms of atmosphere. All of the roads are slick and reflect anything and everything around them. The lighting effects are what really make Need for Speed: Underground stand out, but at the same time, the same thing that makes it suffer. At first Underground can be a bit of a nerve-testing game because its lighting is so bright and uses so much motion blur, that often times you'll find yourself misjudging turns and ramming straight into a wall. It takes some time to get adjusted to Underground's rather boastful lighting effects, so just bear with the game, don't give up.
It's unfortunate that Underground doesn't run at 60 frames per second, or even a steady 30 frames, because there will be times when all four cars are on screen and the game's framerate will noticeably begin to take hits. It seems to die off once you progress deeper into the Underground mode and are racing at a quicker pace, but the game has framerate problems, regardless. Lastly, reflection mapping on the cars is poorly done, and it's obvious that EA was over-achieving here. The reflections are completely out of synch with the environments, as it looks like a slide show is being reflected. EA should've really toned down on car reflections, it could've helped the framerate stay more stable and they could've avoided that slide-show effect. Still, when you look at the big picture, Underground is a very sharp looking game, with an incredible sense of speed, awesome motion-blur effects, and some very clever lighting effects (excluding car reflections).
As expected, Underground's soundtrack is nothing to remember. EA's "Trax" [dis]grace yet another one of EA's superb games. There are a few somewhat decent tracks on the soundtrack, but 'somewhat decent' is about as far as it goes. The car engines and other sound effects sound awesome, and since Underground is THX Certified and Pro Logic II compatible, it all sounds even better with a nice sub-woofer and 4 surrounding speakers.
Need for Speed: Underground, while very high on its ups, is not without its downs. The gameplay is utterly addictive, to put it short. I managed to pour 7 hours into the game, not realizing how much time I had actually spent. Right before I sat down to write this review, I spent another 3 hours playing the game, thinking I had played no more than 45 minutes tops -- it's almost magical when a game can do that to you. Even though the framerate can be funky here and there, and the game's visual style requires time to adjust, NFS: Underground is still a splendid looking title. If you're a racing fan, you absolutely must pick up Need for Speed: Underground. Oh, and if you happen to notice that a replay mode is missing from the game, you didn't get a defective copy. EA, stupidly, never implemented a replay mode into the game. Go figure.