Review: Need for Speed: Underground 2 (Playstation 2)

In this review, we drive into the night as we play the Playstation 2 game Need for Speed: Underground 2. We find out if this racing game is worth a play.

This game was released in 2004. Our familiarity continues to grow with this particular series. We first tried Road and Track Presents: The Need for Speed. That first game was OK. Next up is Need for Speed II. That game earned a barely passable score. Continuing on with the series, we tried Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. That game wound up being quite mediocre. From there, we tried Need for Speed: High Stakes. That game also earned a mediocre score. From there, we finished off the original Playstation series by playing Need for Speed – Porsche Unleashed. That game ended up bombing for us.

Nevertheless, we forged ahead and continued to follow the series on the Playstation 2. First up is Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. That game was the first to impress us since it earned a great score. With renewed hope for the series, we tried the next game in the series which was Need for Speed: Underground. While it isn’t quite as impressive, it still wound up being a pretty solid game. So, now we find ourselves continuing on with the series by playing the next game in the series, Need for Speed: Underground 2.

The story begins with the protagonist becoming a top racer in the Underground world. Note that the plot from the previous game is pretty much entirely a daydream, so the plot ultimately is separate from the previous game. When the protagonist drives away, he gets a phone call from Samantha. As he answers the phone, a Hummer driven by Caleb blinds the protagonist with his high beams. Disoriented, the protagonist totals the car and winds up injured. When he later leaves the hospital, he escapes from it all to the countryside.

Moving to the present, the player’s insurance finally comes through, so he returns to Bayview to meet Samantha again. When he arrives, Samantha leaves her car and instructs the protagonist to drive to her garage. With the GPS reset for first time use, the player drives off only to get phone calls from other drivers. Some drivers don’t realize they are talking to the protagonist and think they are talking to Samantha. From there, the player takes over to decide whether or not to take on opponents in some early races or simply pulling up to Samantha’s garage.

For players who are familiar with the series, or more specifically, familiar with playing the original Need for Speed: Underground game, there are a lot of familiar elements. Some of these elements are carried over from earlier games in the series, but other elements are entirely new to the series.

The obvious new element is the ability to drive around the city. You can activate the GPS to help you navigate the city. Sometimes, it seems redundant to activate the GPS. Other times, it can be necessary to save some time – especially if you are new to the game. This is, in part, thanks to some of the highways overlapping other roads and some highways intertwining so much, it becomes almost a spaghetti factory of lines on the map.

There are a number of features on the big map. First, there are regular coloured dots on the map. These dots are places where you can buy or modify your car. The purple spot is your main garage where you can switch out your ride for another ride you picked up.

Cyan dots are the car dealers that sell you cars. Buy a car here or pick one up if you can earn a free car (this happens in the game).

Blue dots are the body shops that allow you to improve your cars performance. You can improve acceleration, top speed, breaking, and other things here.

Yellow dots are the specialty shops that allow you to add features to your car. These features improve your cars star rating. You can pick up speakers and a few other additions to your ride.

Green dots are the body shops. These shops allow you to pick up other items that improve your cars star rating. This includes hoods, side skirts, back bumpers, mirrors, trunks, doors, and a whole lot more. Carbon fibre is also sold here which enhances your cars star rating more than regular parts.

Finally, red dots. These are the paint stores. You can buy things like a new paint job on your car or even layered vinyl. This also improves your star rating.

In addition to the coloured dots on the map, there are also coloured dots with black centres. These are the available races. Pull up to these to get yourself in one of the many races this game has to offer.

A lot of the races are classic to the series. This includes drag racing, circuit, and sprint racing. Meanwhile, some races are also here, but are slightly modified from the previous game.

The first modified race is the drift. While a lot of the mechanics are the same, the game changes the important fact that the other racers are also joining you on the road. This can add a bit of challenge to the race as you might find yourself having to work around opponents. The other important difference is the fact that as soon as one opponent crosses the finish line, you have 30 seconds left in the race. You don’t actually have to cross the finish line as the only real goal is to score the highest in the race, so finishing might not be as important, however, failing to finish the race means you don’t have the chance to take advantage of all the features in the road. A minor issue, but something to keep in mind nevertheless.

The second modified race is, once again, drift. Yes, there is two different types of drift races. The second version is the downhill drift. These races are found more in the second half of the game as certain areas are unlocked. Unlike the first version of drift, this version doesn’t feature opponents on the track. It’s just you and the road. While this sounds hugely advantageous, there is a catch to this: regular cars are on the road. The good news is that if you drift close by these cars, you’ll earn bonuses just like a normal bonus zone. The bad news is that crashing into them means you lose everything you earned in that drift. So, it is more difficult in that regard. Also, there is a beginning and an end just like a sprint. This is also new because drift races are otherwise just short circuit races.

A third modified racing mode is championship. Of course, in this game, the name is changed to URL races (Underground Racing League). A lot of this type of race is the same including having to earn championship points at the end of each race. The only real difference is the fact that the races are featured on closed circuit courses, so there is no traffic involved.

A new race is called the X races. X races are basically circuit races held on drift-like courses. Instead of earning points from drifts, your goal is simply to cross the finish line. It should be noted that some of the tracks are actually drift races from the previous game re-used.

There is one returning feature that has been modified: reputation points. While reputation points seem to help unlock parts, it’s not only more difficult to earn these points, but it is also much more difficult to keep track of them. While extra style allows you to earn reputation points in the previous game, the only way to earn reputation points here is to win big. You can earn 0, 100, 200, or 300 points at the end of a race. For regular races, the more gap you have between yourself and second, the more likely you are to earn reputation points. In drift, it’s racking up a monster score over second place. For URL races, it’s simply winning every race that earns the points.

In addition to all of this, there is no meter and no tally of the points at all. So, you are simply left guessing as to how many points you have and how close you are to earning a new unique part.

Of course, earning reputation points isn’t the only way to unlock unique parts and mods. There is a bunch of side-races you can compete in. Simply drive around town and look for orange arrows. These are opponent cars randomly driving around. Drive near them at roughly the same speed and you’ll be given the option to challenge them. Accept the challenge and you’ll take part in a one-on-one outrun race.

Outrun is a bit like police chase races in previous games. If you are in second place, the goal is to catch up and overtake your opponent. If you are in first, you are free to take any rout you like. The goal is to simply lose your opponent. Win the race and earn a bit of extra cash in the bank. Lose the race and you’ll lose a bit of your bank. Win enough of these races and you’ll get the chance to earn a unique part or even a mod.

As you progress in the game, you’ll have a chance to catch the attention of sponsors. Samantha will ring you up and give you a chance to choose between different sponsors. The only real difference between sponsors is slight variances in signing bonuses, prize purses in specific races, and what kind of races you need to complete to satisfy the sponsor. There’s really nothing much different between the sponsors, so you can’t really go wrong with any of them. In addition to this, you’ll get to pick up a free car and place it in your new empty slot in your garage or drive your new ride around instead.

One thing to keep in mind about contracts is the fact that you do have the opportunity to control how fast or slow you progress through the game. This is thanks to your ability to manipulate the rules to some degree. You are required to win three specific races, beat a certain number of URL races, and wind up on a certain number of covers. If you leave just the three required races, you can beat every race in the entire map if given enough time. The advantage here is that you earn the most bank this way and you are given the best opportunity to unlock the most parts. The disadvantage is the fact that the game takes the longest to complete this way.

Alternatively, you can simply beat the three designated races and complete the URL races as quickly as possible. From there, you are simply waiting for the special events to unlock as you take on other races. The advantage here is that you can skip a number of races and go through the game more quickly. The pitfall is that it’s much harder to earn some of the parts and uniques in the game. It’s ultimately how you want to play it, but let’s just say you’ll not likely find yourself starving for cash unless you feel like blowing a lot of it on cars you’ll never race with.

In all, you’ll find yourself completing a total of four contracts. One of the stipulations is that you need to end up on a designated number of DVD and magazine covers. This is a returning feature, though you actually earn cash for being in one (and you can finally get out of a contract with these to advance through the game). Getting on these covers requires taking part in a special event. There are two types of special events, but all are denoted by a yellow star on your map.

The first special event is simply getting to the star on your map. No real restrictions, just get to the star and have your picture taken.

The second special event (which is the same kind of deal when tracking down unique parts for your ride) is a time trial sprint from one location to another. Sometimes, photographers just can’t find anything and are about to hang things up for the night. Get from the start location to the other location before time is up to get on that cover.

There are two types of pictures you can get. The first is a simple generic cover. You have no control over the cover other than what your car looks like.

The second allows you to play director. You can change camera angles, drive your car around, and even “show off” by opening your doors, trunk, or hood (or all of the above if you want). Ultimately, it is you getting that perfect shot. When done, take a picture and the magazine will be complete.

From here, you’ll earn some bank for making an appearance. This is where your cars star rating comes into play. Unlike the previous game, you can build a whopping 10 star ride. The higher your star rating, the higher the bank you earn for each cover. Obviously, you won’t be able to get a 10 star car right at the beginning, but it does give you a motivation to make your car look super cool. Some covers actually require a certain star requirement, so you actually do need to make your car look very good. One cover does require the maximum 10 star rating. While not difficult to achieve, you’ll practically need to play through the whole game to get there.

In addition to all of this, there are other small incentives to explore the city. First of all, there are multiple kinds of the same shop. Just look for the coloured street lamps to find them. Not only is it going to increase the convenience of buying new parts, but just finding the new shops actually unlocks a number of the parts.

Another motivating factor is the fact that the game populates cash on the street. Just look for the dollar bills. If you drive into it, you’ll earn a small bonus to your bank. The denominations are 50, 100, 200, and 400. What you can find does depend partly on how far you are into the game.

There are also hint icons spread throughout the city. These hints offer information that helps players (mostly new players) figure out the game.

Of course, the biggest incentive to explore is to find the hidden races. These races don’t appear on your map, but the bank reward is much higher than their more normal counterparts.

Going back to the parts you can unlock and buy, you can improve your car in a number of ways. This includes the more obvious acceleration, top speed, and handling. A number of parts will improve these, though most curiously, the CPU improves things the most more than anything else including engine improvements. The less obvious way includes improving your breaking capabilities as well as your nitro.

Nitro is a lot like the previous game. You can fire a little at a time or a lot. It’s totally up to you. The big difference in this game is the fact that you can refill your nitro throughout the races. This is earned by the ways you earned reputation points in the previous game. This includes through accident avoidance (sometimes referred to as “near misses” by some thanks in part to the Burnout games), powerslides, and drafting.

Other ways you can earn nitro is through a spray show (e-break and a tap of the nitro button), reversing, and 360 turns. Using your hydraulics also earns you nitro by simply holding down on the e-break and using your steering. This, of course, requires a hydraulic upgrade on your car.

Sometimes, you can earn nitro simply by racing well. This includes “burnouts” from the start of the race (can be earned by slamming onto the accelerator at the start), moving up in the rankings (can only be earned once like the spray show), or earning a head start. Later on, you can earn nitro by either getting your best lap time or leading a lap.

Crashing into other cars reduces your nitro by a small amount. If you powerslide into a wall, you lose what nitro you are earning from that slide.

One important note is the fact that nitro is disabled for X races and drifting races.

While some of the ways of earning nitro seems useless in a race, these more “useless” methods are very useful on the regular free roaming map. If you want to earn nitro before a timed race, you can simply do some 360 spins, reverse, or simply mess with your hydraulics to max out your nitro before the event. So, this does have a use outside of races.

Another note about nitro is that if you are transported from one part of the game to another, your nitro is reset to half full. This looks like a full tank, but you can earn a second “tank” worth of nitro. The only events you can transfer nitro into is going from the world map to a special event. Otherwise, you’ll always have the default amount.

One final aspect to discuss is your garage. The good news is that you can own multiple cars now as opposed to simply being only able to own one car. The bad news is that, unlike the previous game, you can’t transfer parts from one car to another. This means that if you earn a unique part and install it on one car, you can’t simply move it to your new ride. While this sounds like a very big deal, chances are, you’ll only need to make a single transfer from one car to another.

Moving from one car to another is a fairly big deal, but not as big of a deal as you might initially think. The thing to keep in mind is that stock cars will have certain stats for top speed, acceleration, and handling. This is basically your “base” stats. From there, you can build up from there, so the stronger the base, the stronger the car will be in those stats when you reach those level 3 limits. For the most part, once you unlock a better car part way through the game, that car will be reasonable to take all the way to the end as long as you are applying your upgrades.

For me, this game has its advantages and drawbacks from the previous game. One of the drawbacks is the fact that the learning curve is much steeper than the previous game. In the previous game, you have one shop for everything. Just select what you need, pay if you have the bank, and go. In this game, everything is divided up into a whopping 4 different stores. Trying to learn what each store sells takes time. If you are wrong, then you need to do a whole lot of extra driving until you finally get what you are looking for.

In addition to this, you also have to explore a rather large area. The city is divided into different areas, so if you are trying to find something in a certain location, it takes a bit to finally figure out the city layout. The airport is somewhat obvious while things like Beacon Hill and Hotel Plaza are less obvious. By the end of the game, you’ll pretty much memorize all the locations, but you can easily be confused at the beginning of the game. On top of that, the “action in [insert location here]” hints are almost useless because these races show up on the map. While interesting to know when new races populate, these hints are otherwise almost completely useless.

One feature that a game like Elder Scrolls 2 – Daggerfall features is a “fast walk” feature. This permits the player to instantly travel from one point to another. In this game, you can only travel instantly to your garage – the one location you’ll travel the least to. Otherwise, you are forced to drive from one location to another. While you get used to this after a while, this does artificially inflate the length of the game.

What is extremely confusing is why reputation points are so poorly implemented in this game. This is because you have a clear bar and a clear progress goal in the previous game. In this game, all of these features are wiped out completely. I don’t know why the developers felt the need to make this feature less clear, but it gives the players more question marks then necessary in my view.

Having said that, there are advantages to this game. One advantage is the fact that this game does manage to remain fresh from beginning to end. In the previous game, races get quite repetitive and players can easily find themselves more just going through the motions by the end. In this game, the races are varied enough to stay interesting from beginning to end. This is thanks in part to the larger play area and progressive unlocking of locations. As a result, I never felt like I was just “going through the motions” to beat the last set of races. I actually was kept reasonably entertained the whole time which is nice.

Another improvement is a somewhat more involved storyline. It’s not much of an improvement over the previous game, but it’s something. Instead of brief cut scenes and comments made by drivers driving the story, this game features a comic book style of story telling much like the Max Payne games. While the storyline is a bit on the light side, it is still a minor improvement over the previous effort.

Generally speaking, this game features improvements and drawbacks. The improvements include a much better variety in races. Another improvement is the storyline even if it is only a minor improvement. A drawback is the dismantling of how players can track reputation points and a much steeper learning curve. Still, it is an enjoyable game from what I’ve been able to see.

Graphically speaking, this is a pretty solid effort. The animation sequences and special effects are improved to keep this game nicely relevant. The models are pretty decent. I also think the fact that this game has such a large playing area also speaks to how great the graphics are because each area has its own unique features. Very rarely, if ever, do I see any real repeating features. The rain and changing sky is a nice touch. Sometimes, the sky has a midnight feel to it while other times, it looks like you are just entering dusk or dawn. The simulated height in some areas is also a nice touch. So, solid effort on that front.

Meanwhile, the audio is a step back for me. The various engine sounds, scrapes, crashes, and voice acting to give a lot to the overall experience of the game. Where this game does fall flat is with the music. The previous two games had either a lot or some great music of different genre’s. In this game, it’s hard to find anything that stands out in any special manner. Even Paul Van Dyk and Fluke surprisingly couldn’t deliver on something memorable. The only real memorable track in the game is Rise Against – Give It All. It’s a pretty good track, but, by far, can’t carry the whole game. So, a disappointment on this front.

Overall, this game is a nice instalment to the series. It has advantages and pitfalls over the previous games of the series. The advantage here is that this game stays interesting from beginning to end thanks to the huge variety of tracks. The somewhat improved storyline certainly didn’t hurt anything either. Pitfalls include the steeper learning curve, artificial increase in play time, and degraded handling of reputation points. The graphics are pretty solid, but the audio is a step back for this game. So, a pretty decent one all around.

Furthest point in game: Beat the game.

General gameplay: 17/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 70%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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