Review: Need for Speed: Underground (Playstation 2)

In this review, things get rather shiny in the Playstation 2 game Need for Speed: Underground. We find out if this racing game is worth a play.

This game was released in 2003. We are growing familiar with this rather large series. We first tried Road & Track Presents – the Need for Speed and that game got an OK score. Next up, we tried Need for Speed II. That game got a barely passable score. We then tried Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. That game also got a mediocre score. After that, we tried Need for Speed: High Stakes. That game got a fairly mediocre score. We then played the final game on the Playstation by playing Need for Speed – Porsche Unleashed. That game pretty much bombed for us.

Moving over into the Playstation 2, we tried Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. That game got a great score. So, we thought we’d try the next game in the series to see if the series continues on with this positive trend.

There’s two main modes. There is the single race mode as well as the main campaign of Underground. While you can play a few races in the single race mode, almost everything will be locked until you beat the races in the Underground mode.

When a player starts Underground mode, the player will get an introductory circuit race. If the player beats the race, the player will then start things off from the beginning. The player will have a limited amount of cash and a small selection of cars to pick from. All of the cars do have rather poor stats, but will start as a base for improvement. After that, the player will get to take on a small number of races.

There are a number of modes that is rather familiar with the franchise. There’s the classic circuit race where players take on a race with a limited number of laps. First car across the finish line on the final lap wins the race.

Another mode is lap knockout. The race starts off with the four racers (including yourself). After each lap, the racer that is in last is eliminated from the race. The race continues until there is one driver remaining.

Additionally, there is a sprint race. This race features a start and end point. As the game so adamantly puts it, there is no chance to catch up on another lap.

Then, there is drift mode. This is seemingly a new mode for the franchise. In this mode, you are alone on the track. Instead of speeding through trying to be the first to cross the finish line, the idea is to rack up the largest score drifting.

If you earn a score higher than the target in a single drift, you’ll earn a multiplier. You can earn a maximum of x5 before being maxed out. The faster the speed and extreme the angle, the higher your scores. However, if you go to slow, not only will your drift eventually stop counting, but also, your multiplier will fall down gradually as well. This forces you to re-earn those multipliers again. Finally, if you hit a wall, not only will your drift not count, but also, your multiplier will instantly reset to 1x again.

You’ll no doubt notice that, in certain places, your drift score will turn orange and seemingly increase much more quickly. This is thanks to bonus zones. These zones are the striped lines on the sides of the track near the walls. If you drift in these areas, not only will it add to your total drift score, but also your overall style points as well (which is earned separately).

Another type of race is drag racing. This is another new feature in the Need for Speed series. There are no real turns in this race. It is a one mile straight track from beginning to end. To make things more interesting, all cars are manual. As you reach certain speeds, you’ll need to shift up to the next gear manually. Too soon and your acceleration will suffer. Too late and you’ll over-rev your engine. This race is also slot car style where left and right will allow you to change lanes. Changing lanes is critical because you’ll not only encounter traffic on the road, but also obstacles such as construction zones and parked semi’s.

There are three ways of losing this race. The most obvious is simply not coming in first at the end of the race. A second way of losing is by colliding with something. If you hit something such as an obstacle or traffic, you’ll become “wrecked”. The third and final way of losing is blowing your engine. This is caused when you hit the accelerator and you simply don’t get around to shifting up. Your heat meter will rise. If you fill your heat meter, your engine will blow. So, either get a faster car or remember to shift up.

Finally, there is championship. Championship gets you to race multiple races in the same type of race. The higher your ranking in a given race, the more championship points you earn. The player with the most championship points wins the event. This generally gives you the most cash.

As you advance through your career, you’ll notice there are two different things you can earn along the way. For one, you can earn cash. Cash is earned from winning races. Each race will feature a difficulty selection of easy, medium, or hard. The harder the race, the more you’ll earn in cash. Just know that once you win a race, you can’t earn any additional cash from that race. You are forced to move on.

The other thing you can earn is style points. Style points are earned by earning various achievements in the race. This includes an early start, leading laps, a victory, and shortcuts. These will net you fixed extra style points (note that you can’t earn shortcut bonuses on the same shortcut multiple times in a given race). There are other non-fixed bonuses one can earn as well. The longer a period of time you are earning it, the more you earn. This includes air time, drafting, and power sliding. Near misses is another way you can earn points. This involves coming close to traffic, but never actually hitting it. If you chain your near misses, you can even earn some temporary multipliers as well.

Note that it is possible to lose style points as well. Hitting traffic is often the biggest cause of losing points.

While you can earn a number of points on the regular races (and drag racing for that matter), you’ll earn the most points in the drift mode. You can earn style points by drifting in the bonus zones. Additionally, you can earn style points based on how big a drift you do. There’s great drifts, super drifts, colossal drifts, and outrageous drifts. The better the drift, the more points you earn. Chained drifts work in multiple drifts into the same drift. The easiest way to earn this is to swerve left and right quickly on a straight section. Note that hitting walls gives you penalties in style points.

There are two ways of unlocking things in this game. The first way is through filling the style point meter. At first, you just earn general vinyls and other ways of customizing your ride. Towards the end, however, you also earn some cars for single race mode. There are a lot of things you can unlock with this. In total, you need to earn a massive 3 million points just to unlock everything through style points.

One interesting quirk in this game is that every time you reset a race, you retain your style points from the previous attempt. If you win a drift race, for instance, you can restart the race anyway and grind away at those style points. You’ll retain your win regardless, but you do have the chance to rack up style points anyway. Do know that grinding isn’t necessarily all that important in this game. Chances are, you’ll make it to 3 million just by playing the game regularly as there are plenty of drifting courses to run throughout the game. Still, grinding doesn’t hurt anything either.

The other way of unlocking things is through winning races. Not only will you unlock races in single player mode, but also various parts for your car. Some improve performance while others improve reputation. At first, you are simply improving your reputation, but you’ll also find yourself unlocking performance enhancing parts as well.

In your car customization screen, you’ll notice a reputation meter and stars. Certain car parts such as hoods, side skirts, and spoilers don’t really enhance your car stats. However, they will enhance your reputation meter. If you fill up your reputation meter, you’ll earn your first star. The highest you can go is building a 5 star car. 2 starts will multiply your style points by two. Every subsequent star will continue to multiply your style score. So, it is certainly worth it to upgrade non-performance traits of your car. Decals and vinyls are purely for looks.

Now, in the big upgrades, you’ll notice many different parts you can buy to upgrade your performance. There are three main statistics you can improve along with a fourth more hidden way of improving vehicle performance. There’s top speed, acceleration, and handling. The higher the meter, the better your car can perform on that particular stat. As you improve those stats, you’ll see an arrow with a line to show you how much you are improving your car. So, the game is very good at telling you how much you are improving things. The fourth hidden way of improving your car is braking. You can buy improved braking, though it’s not obvious how much you are improving based on the stats screen.

A side feature is buying “unique” mods and improvements. These are earned through the special time trial sprint races. Complete the sprint race and you’ll earn a unique upgrade. There are a number of upgrades you can get, but you’ll only have a limited number of parts you can claim. So, choose your parts wisely tailored to your driving style. The performance parts are added to the car over top of your main upgrades, so you don’t have to, say, choose between a unique drive train and a regular drive train.

While you can keep improving your car, you’ll notice an ability to “trade in” your car. You do earn a few additional cars throughout the game, but not a lot. The base cars only influence the cars statistics in a limited way. As you select your car, you can get a rebate or pay a little extra for the car, depending on the trade value on trade-in. Just know that the upgrades and changes you made to your car will apply to your new car as well. No re-buying anything required. Some cars have a better high speed and other cars have better handling, so it may be to your advantage to trade back and forth between certain cars depending on the event you are headed to next.

Regardless, by the time you are done tricking out your car, you won’t even recognize it from your original base car.

If there’s anything each race has in common (minus the time trial races), it’s that you’ll have three opponents. Drift races have three opponents, but each car races one at a time.

Another common thread is that the races all take place at night in a particular fictional setting. At first, it may seem like you are occasionally racing different courses within a particular city. However, after a while, you’ll realize that all the races take place on the same general map. With the exception of drag racing and drift modes, every course takes place on the same interconnected highway systems throughout the city. Each race just takes different chunks of the city for you to race in. You’ll find yourself racing through the same areas, but each course has, largely, a slightly different layout.

Some routs feature barriers that force players to take a specific rout. Other races have neon arrows that direct racers in a specific direction. Go down the wrong road and you’ll eventually reset back on the main road.

Drift mode also features a similar system, but everything takes place on two different layouts.

Throughout the city, there are a number of different routs. The main routes are obvious, but there are also a number of shortcuts. Some shortcuts add an additional seconds. Others are just easier to drive through. Some shortcuts, however, are very hard to drive through (i.e. the skate park). A few shortcuts aren’t even shortcuts at all. They just add some distance to your course.

In the map layout, you’ll note some of the shortcuts are included on the map. Not all shortcuts show up on the map, however. Some shortcuts go well off the beaten path as your arrow glides across open space on the map. So, always be on the lookout for alternative routs you can take.

On a final note, if you obtain nitro’s, there are two ways to deploy it. You’ll know if you have a nitro capability based on the green bar added to your speedometer. The first way of deploying it is to tap the nitro button. This will add a very small amount of boost to your speed. Still, you’ll be able to save your nitro’s the most. The other way is to hold down the nitro button. This will maximize the use of your nitro’s and give you the most speed and acceleration. However, you’ll quickly run out of nitro using this method.

This game is definitely a bit on the larger side. It’s not surprising given the previous Need for Speed game is quite large. In total, there is 111 official races. This makes it sound like a massive game. There is a downside to this. There is only one interconnected city and every race takes place at night. So, even though you get some variety in the races, all you get from beginning to end is the glowing chrome and neon light city. Many sections are driven through repeatedly over and over again. Yes, in reverse as well, but there is a certain degree of repetition involved here.

Meanwhile, the difficulty of this game is interesting. At first, you can easily challenge the hardest modes without breaking a sweat. As the game progresses, the hard difficulty becomes more and more unforgiving. By the time I reached somewhere between race 40 and 50, taking on the hard modes became too much save for drift races. Even drift races, after a bit after that, became excessive. So, eventually, you’ll be ushered to the easier race settings because the harder modes, though they net more cash, become not worth it. The opponents driving becomes more flawless and the traffic becomes more chaotic. Sometimes, it even seems like every car on the road is sitting in your lane, waiting for a collision.

Ultimately, you can’t say the game is too hard or too easy because the difficulty is ultimately left up to the player. Still, the final dozen races are quite difficult even on easy settings.

The balance, in the mean time, is a bit odd. At first, money is a bit in short supply depending on how much you choose to challenge yourself early on. However, after a while, cash just seems to be a superficial thing. This occurs part way through the game. You’ll eventually find yourself sitting on a pile of cash just waiting for the next upgrade to be unlocked. My grinding earlier on in the game caused me to max out my style points unlockables long before I reached a 5 star rating. As a result, style points instantly became, well, pointless.

So, it was weird sitting on so much cash with nothing worthwhile to spend it on so early in the game.

Generally speaking, there is definitely a lot to experience in this game. There are a number of different things to unlock and a lot of ways to trick out an otherwise seemingly boring car. This game features a lot of races and even a difficulty system that allows the player to choose how hard to push things on a per race basis. On a downside, the races all take place in the same night time city setting. So, even though there is variation in the races themselves, it all seems to get repetitive after a while anyway. So, there is some decent qualities to be had in this game, but it is by no means a flawless game.

The graphics has its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, the cars do look quite nice. There are a lot of ways you can trick out your car without it looking to ugly. The way the game sets things up, even a novice car builder can make some pretty good looking cars. I was able to build one sleek looking green dragon car myself. The tracks themselves look well done. There’s some reflections on the street, lights, neon glow, and a whole lot more. The downside is that there’s really only one environmental theme. So, the graphics do have their limits. Still, the effects are decent enough. Nothing huge, but nothing too terrible either.

The audio is pretty decent. While I’ve never been into hip hop or crunk music, this game does feature some rock and even a few general electronic tracks as well. Some of the memorable tracks include Rob Zombie – Two Lane Blacktop, Jerk – Sucked In, Fuel – Quarter, Lost Prophets – Ride, Static-X – The Only, and FC – Glitterball. All of these tracks work quite well for this game. There are some other good tracks in here as well too. Meanwhile, the sound effects and voice acting work pretty well. So, definitely a good game on that front.

Overall, this is a pretty solid game. While it doesn’t quite make me excited like Hot Pursuit 2, this game still holds its own pretty well. The ability for players to customize the difficulty on a per race basis is a nice feature to have. While the concept of an interconnected city to set up races in a similar fashion to Road Rash 64 is an interesting idea, it is unfortunate that everything takes place at night. So, there is a sense of repetition even though there is variety in the races. The customization of your cars seems limitless here, though it is very limited due to the gradual dripping of unlocking. The style points is an interesting feature, though a lot seem to be taken from Burnout.

The graphics are pretty good, but do suffer from the repetition of being in a single setting. Meanwhile, the audio is pretty decent, though. So, an overall pretty solid game.


Furthest point in game: Completed Underground mode.

General gameplay: 19/25
Replay value: 6/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 4/5

Overall rating: 74%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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