I have a strange relationship with EA’s Need for Speed Underground games. Despite always being a big car person (or ‘petrolhead’), I looked down on these games when they were current because they tapped into a street racing subculture which appeared far more glamorous in Japan or the US while here in the UK, it was associated with ‘ricers’ or ‘chavs’ building ugly, thunderous monstrosities out of Citroen Saxos or Peugeot 206’s. I was busier playing my intellectual JRPG’s and skillful fighting games while the masses were buying NFSU in droves.
There was also a stigmata associated with EA during the PS2 era if you ran in certain gaming circles. It was the impression that they only slapped their name on yearly cash-cow updates, average licensed fare and software that they could sell via cynical marketing which tapped into what teenage boys of the mid 00’s wanted. So football, loud cars and tits then.
It probably didn’t help that I eventually played the original Underground and wasn’t that impressed. However, I have been heavily re-involved with cars and the ‘scene’ over the last 6-7 years and in an ironic twist of fate, I now actually MISS the days of The Fast & The Furious movies, street racing culture and magazines like Max Power with topless models draped over ridiculous cars. Most of this has evaporated and with the constant droning message about road users needing to be responsible as well as the ‘lads mags’ being killed off (because sexism…whatever), the world feels like a more sterilised and straight place.
So I was ready to give NFSU2 a chance after snagging a cheap copy in a bundle of PS2 games. It is after all, one of the better-regarded games in the series with a bit of a following.
The first thing that hit me was how good the game still looked. ‘Jaggies’ and outdated textures are pretty minimal and the car models are fantastic. As a petrolhead, I can safely say that all of the cars in this game are modelled highly accurately with a nice level of detail down to the correct badges and original exterior equipment. This was a nice surprise because I admit I was expecting worse from an annual EA update, perhaps a mistaken presumption that the game would have been blasted out by the developers in time for its intended release with a lack of polish. But no, the visuals and those cars look a lot better than many other racers of the generation and hold up incredibly well today.
EA added in a free-roam structure to NFSU2 as well and this really elevated it above the first game. Simply speeding about the city to different race events is enjoyable and even though the ‘free’ aspect is obviously limited by being stuck inside a car, it’s much more preferable to selecting races from a menu. Most circuit and sprint events use sections of the city too so getting familiarised with the many corners and shortcuts while in free-roam mode definitely helps when it comes to the races.
Race events are varied with circuit and sprint events joined by drift challenges (score more points than opponents), drag races and the new ‘Street X’ event which consists of small, tight courses that take place in car parks or (for some reason) building sites. These are more about acceleration, handling and taking the best racing lines. Finally there are the Underground Racing League events. These are the biggies that take place on proper race tracks and progress the game’s career mode. You are able to use a dyno and test track(s) to custom tune your car for each event, settings that are auto-loaded upon entering each style of event which does at least offer a bit more depth.
Progressing the career mode also means meeting the requirements of various sponsors that sign up to your cause. These demands are pretty straightforward and involve winning a set amount of events as well as sponsor races which pay out a lot more cash. You also need to get your car featured on a set number of tuning magazine and DVD covers and this is achieved by raising the star rating of your ride’s visual appearance until the call comes in for you to hightail it to the photographer’s location.
The only crappy thing about this aspect in my personal opinion is that it forces you to go all in and fit every conceivable modification possible such as neon underlighting, carbon body panels and hydraulics. So if you’re like me and prefer minimalism or a stock appearance then it ain’t going to cut it with the sponsors. It also means paying for components then having to continually replace them with ‘better’ versions down the line as parts are gradually unlocked, an artificial method of extending the game’s life but completely expected. I kept a separate Nissan 240SX that received the visual mods purely for this side of things then spent the rest of my cash on performance upgrades for my other cars that I could then ‘tastefully’ modify on the outside.
Still, the magazine and DVD covers made me smile and took me back to that period in time that I talked about earlier. They might look ‘laddish’ and chauvinistic by 2018’s easily offended standards but I like ’em.
It’s a shame that the game’s AI didn’t make me smile as much. If you want to take the proper racing lines and overtake opponents cleanly as you would have to in real life then forget it. Towards the beginning of the game this is entirely possible but later on as things take a turn for the challenging, you’d best forget it. Rivals launch themselves up the inside of your car kamikaze-style in the corners and pile into the back of you for braking zones as if this is a Destruction Derby sequel, not Need For Speed. Worse still, they have no qualms about punting you off the track or even utilising the police-approved PIT maneuver to spin you out. Cheating bastards!
I tried to race fairly because I hate winning in racing games by abusing a lack of damage modelling to bash my way to the front but unfortunately, you have to lower your standards with this game and fight fire with fire sometimes, especially since the game’s AI has another crafty weapon up its sleeve: the dreaded rubber band effect. Opponents seem a lot less inconvenienced by collisions with civilian traffic (whereas a single smash can ruin YOUR entire race) and can somehow take tight corners at impossible speeds, sometimes while using nitrous. You can leave them several seconds behind by getting out in front and driving perfectly but the game allows them to catch right back up to you on the last lap as if they have been handed a secret performance boost. This sort of thing makes sense in a game like Mario Kart but in a proper racing game involving real cars that have real performance figures and capabilities…well, it just sucks.
It also blew my mind to witness heavy muscle cars like the Mustang and Pontiac GTO leaving me for dust on twisty, technical circuits that should never favour such vehicles. Losing drag races to Vauxhall Corsas and Ford Focuses somehow capable of reaching near-200mph speeds was another mind-boggling development.
The game can also strategically place a taxi or van around a blind bend and this is unbelievably frustrating after investing seven-or-so minutes into a race, successfully keeping those shady opponents at bay for three long laps only to lose it all and have to start again because there was a unavoidable crash around the final corner. I’ve even experienced a white van speeding over an intersection right into my path as if God himself decided that I wasn’t allowed to win the race. Whether this was EA’s subtle commentary on the infamous “White Van Man”, I can’t say but I swore quite a bit!
There is a lot to like about Need For Speed Underground 2 and thankfully, the good bits just about outweigh the rotten AI-related elements. There was of course the added bonus of getting a far more polished game than I was expecting but it definitely helps if you consider the racing to be more of an arcade game than a serious sim. For me personally though, I really enjoyed being transported back to that era of street racing and the JDM craziness inspired by what was happening in Japan and the Fast & Furious movies. NFSU2 perfectly captures that subculture – just don’t expect gentlemanly conduct from the game’s AI.