Here's a little memo to Viviendi Universal: know when to seize the oppertunity.
In 2003, Universal released the sequel to "The Fast And The Furious", and the
games division of Universal (which is VU) was supposed to have a game by the same
name out around the release of this movie. While the company has piddled around with
the game and license, out from nowhere EA decides to cash in on the genre of street
racing in the form of Need For Speed Underground. And guess what? The game sold
big time. But is their brand of street racing have enough credentials, or was it simply
a lowly cash-in? Let's find out...
For starters, this is a huge departure for the Need For Speed franchise, almost
a 180 in it's design, if you will. In the six previous NFS games, it was about
racing "The Untouchables", exotic cars that never in my or your lifetime could
be able to afford. But I guess times change, and EA has realized this. Exotics
are out, compact and import sports cars are in. But these cars aren't your typical
compact cars. These cars are customized to no end, with wild body designs and powerful
engine upgrades. In NFSU, you not only need to have the fastest car (as well as
the driving skills to win), but to earn style and a reputation, you must, for a borrowed
term: pimp your ride. Install modified spoliers, front and rear bumpers, hoods
and more to gain more reputation, which can lead to more style points, which
unlock a load of decals to detail your car.
Detailing your car is pretty much half the game, and if your one of those people
that can't get into all of the small details of a car, such as how your spoiler
looks, or what color you rims are painted, then you probably won't have as much
fun with NFSU. But there's still racing, which is the other half of the game.
But there's not a whole lot going on in terms of geography. In past NFS games,
you had a handfull of cities from around the world to race on. In NFSU, it's
pretty much one city with multiple sections. It's great for maintaining a level
of consistency, but racing in the same city, in the same time of day does
become a bit repetitive. Plus the repetition of courses and areas is a problem,
too. You would think in such a large city, there would be plenty of possibilities
for courses, like the Project Gotham series.
So, now for the actual racing. The game design has also changed from the classic
NFS formula, except for a couple of racing events. Before, it was basically a
championship mode, an arcade mode and a knockout mode (and in later NFS releases,
a police chase mode). And these races really never felt that much different
from each other. Now, the racing modes have changed. In the Go Underground mode,
which is the main competition mode, you have classic events such as Circuit
and Knockout, and new additions such as Drag, Drift and Sprint. Circuit, Knockout
and Sprint races are pretty much typical race modes against other opponents. Drag
requires different skills to win, knowing when to shift gears and change lanes.
Drift is all about drifting, and the bigger you drift, the bigger you score. NFSU
really has taken after the Project Gotham series in certain areas. You can earn style
points for jumps, powerslides, drafting, near-misses and 1st place laps, much
like the Kudos system of the PGR games. The system is not as good as the Kudos
system in PGR, but it's certainly a welcome addition from just getting record times
and what not.
The games controls/handling is a little better from previous NFS games. Before,
I found that the cars in previous NFS games were a little hard to control, like
they were too heavy. Here, they still feel weighted, but they turn easier (depending
on the car and the parts you have). The AI of NFSU is, how shall we say, an asshole.
Maybe not as unfair as the king of the A-hole AI, Test Drive, but their behaviors
are not really representative of the difficulty level you choose. I've selected the
"easy" difficulty many times, and on certain stages, I've had to repeat the race
three or four times to complete the race. Some opponents are determined to stop you
from winning, such as colliding into other cars so you hit them, or running you
against center dividers. Maybe some people will like the idea of an aggressive AI,
but I think they're a little too aggressive.
The visuals of NFSU are good, but not really representative of the Xbox's power.
Clearly designed with the PS2 in mind, the textures are not as high in resolution,
there is some aliasing present, and the framerate is a bit jittery. But this isn't
really that bad in terms of visuals. In terms of a PS2 game, this would look really
great, because of all the visual effects that are used. The Xbox version has pretty
much the same look with minimal changes. The overall resolution is higher, and the
framerate is much smoother in the chase-view, where as the PS2 version's framerate
was very inconsistent in the chase-view. But don't expect any of the great lighting
or bump-mapping effects we've seen in Xbox racing games such as Project Gotham Racing 2.
I will say for a game that takes place in the night, I have no problem playing the
game on my TV , which has a slightly dark picture. The game also has a pretty
colorful look to it as well.
The sound is pretty good, and loud, thanks to THX. There's a lot of "whooshes"
from all of the objects you pass by (as you would expect to hear if you're driving really
fast). The car sound effects are different from other racing games I've played, mostly
within the shifting noises when you have a turbo installed. Every time you change gears,
you'll hear a clunk, rather than an air sound. It's kind of cool, really. Then
you have the sound when you have the boost deployed, which is unique on it's own.
On the music front, EA really needs to let Xbox owners use their own music in
their games. The selection of songs are adequate, but there's not the same level
of customization in your music as you had with PGR2. But overall, this doesn't sound
too bad through your home theater (or stereo speakers).
NFSU is a radical departure from what the series has been in the past,
and I think that's a good thing. EA was willing to experiment and evolve the
series to a whole new experience. For those who love customizing their cars,
you'll really like this game. If you're looking for a game that fairly represents
the custom car culture, NFSU is definitely worth a look. I just wish that
the area of the city you race in (which is never named, and not totally identifialble)
was a lot larger than what is in the game. The PGR series can pull off 10 cities of
this size, so I wonder why this area is so small. At least there's 111 racing events
to participate in, and it's not a total cake-walk either. This is a pretty challenging
game, but maybe a little unfair at times.
For fans of street racing, or for those who like to customize cars, this
is definitely worth a look. But there will be those who will not like this game,
either because they don't understand that customizing your car is a big part of
the game, or that it's just not as broad in approach to the racing genre as Project
Gotham Racing 2. Or maybe they just don't like racing games. I would say to those
who are not sure about the game design to rent the game first. If you can get into
the customization aspect of the game, then go ahead and buy it. Overall, it's
a great racing game, and a really great way to re-energize the aging NFS design.