Need for Speed Underground 2
The car-racing genre is dead. A bold statement you might think, and perhaps a trifle premature, but the omens are definitely there. Pure racing games are being pushed aside by a new breed of driving/action games, ones that offer gamers a lot more than just looping strips of tarmac. TOCA Race Driver, GTA, Midnight Club... The list goes on, and now the world's biggest publisher has weighed in with its newest offering.
Need For Speed Underground 2 takes the formula of the first game (illegal street racing and boy racer-ish car tuning), and adds a drive-anywhere city, resulting in a mixture of freeform exploration and non-linear racing that's sure to get GTA fans thinking.
"The game is all about discovering the tuner culture," says executive producer Chuck Osieja. "You have to explore the city to find out where the races are, how to get the best cars, how to find the best races and how to get all the best parts for your car."
This is a significant shift from the original Underground, which presented the illusion of a coherent city but was really just a series of interconnecting tracks. NFSU2's go-anywhere urban sprawl is three times the size of the original, with five distinct neighbourhoods to unlock and a much wider variety of race types. "We're making sure this is a proper sequel and not just a kind of 'Underground 1.5'," says Chuck.
The core aim of the game is to grow and develop your reputation as a street racer, earning new parts and upgrades along the way to hot up your ride and hopefully impress some chicks. This time, the number of potential car modifications has been massively expanded, and now embraces performance tuning as well as visual changes. More licensed cars will be on offer, but the selection of car types has also been broadened far beyond the traditional Hondas and Toyotas. "We're trying to anticipate where the tuner scene might be in a couple of years, not just follow what's already out there," claims Chuck.
New game modes are also promised, though these are being kept under wraps in case they're nicked by the competition. What Chuck can tell us is that the variety of driving styles is set to expand and change as the city opens up, with short, technical races in the inner areas making way for longer, open races in the surrounding hills. A freeway system run around the entire length of the world, and Chuck is particularly excited by the prospect of LA-style spaghetti junction; "I didn't think this was going to be very cool, but it's insane when you see it. I about messed myself." Ahem.
With no pedestrians, cops or guns, NFSU2 is not out to beat GTA - but it is taking cues from it, as well as building on its own heritage. It's an intriguing prospect we're looking forward to.
Download Need for Speed Underground 2
Until Tony Hawk's came along, extreme sports games were dull. We didn't realise it at the time, but looking back, how could we have wasted our time with games that didn't allow you to get vertical on a rocket-powered lawnmower, pull air off a steaming pile of bull manure and shoot fireballs out of your skateboard? And all to the tune of Johnny Cash's mesmeric Ring Of Fire?
Indeed, it's hard to believe how much fun, stupidity and mayhem the Hawk series has managed to elicit from a four-wheeled plank, and THUG2 is the most comprehensive and inventive yet. For a start, the inclusion of Bam Margera (of Jackass notoriety) as guest star is a masterstroke. You may not be a fan of his puerile and malicious brand of humour, but it's a perfect fit for the game's anarchic ethos, and adds a strong sense of character where the clean-cut Hawk could not.
Ridiculous trick combos are still the order of the day, now bolstered with sticker slaps, post-crash tantrums and slow-mo 'focus' mode. Like THUG, you also spend a bit of time off your board, and there's a range of climbing and hanging (and graffiti tagging) actions to help you get around.
While THUG veterans might find it all a bit too familiar, it's still impossible not to enjoy - even disenchanted traditionalists are catered for with the return of Classic mode. The online game is brilliant too.
In short, it's probably the best extreme sports game ever made, the only real caveat being that it's rubbish without a decent gamepad.
Last Year's Need For Speed: Underground pretty much came out of nowhere, resuscitating a flagging brand while simultaneously kickstarting the whole car modification genre. A shrewd move by EA - it's a huge market, with top-selling magazines featuring a winning combination of neon piss-flaps and impressionable young girls exposing their breasts. The bestselling racing game of 2003, it was no surprise to learn that a sequel would follow, and you can bet your modified camshaft that as you read these words, an anonymous game factory is currently slaving away on number three.
In a break with EA tradition, this sequel does actually differ slightly from the previous game. Whereas Need For Speed: Underground was a largely abstract series of events, number two embraces the current trend for so-called emergent gameplay', placing the action in a living, breathing' city, with even a vague storyline to back it up.
Arriving in the fictional city of Bay View following an unsavoury incident six months previously, a car is waiting for you at the airport. No sooner have you put the keys in the ignition than some Doris comes on the blower telling you to give her car back. Voiced by Brooke Burke, her CV also involves appearing naked for the gratification of men. In the game, she's a sassy broad' who introduces you to Bay View's thriving underground racing scene.
In time-honoured fashion, you start the game with a nice little runner. It may be adequate for picking up a selection of lonely meals from Sainsbury's, but it doesn't really cut the mustard in the high-stakes world of street racing. Some low-grade races soon earn you a few quid though, enabling you to pimp your ride, tweaking the performance as well as earning points for artistic merit, thus eventually securing magazine covers.
It's a tried and tested format, but one that works supremely well in this instance. Simply touring around the enormous city is a joy in itself, with a map directing you to the various shops and races, of which three new types are added. The story won't win any Oscars, particularly as it also features a cameo from Kelly Brook, but it does make it more of a rounded experience than previously. Musically, the EA Trax are again in full effect, this time featuring less hip hop and more shouting.
Ultimately though, it's all about the racing, which is rarely less than gripping. For an arcade game, it's even surprisingly playable with a steering wheel, with near misses causing no small amount of amateurish flinching. If you can't afford to attach largely pointless gadgets to your otherwise moribund vehicle, this is the next best thing.
If I hadn't spent the greater part of the last few months playing Burnout 3: Takedown I would have loved Need for Speed Underground 2, and in many ways Electronic Arts latest racer is better than Takedown, but just not in the ways that matter most to me.
Underground 2 is all about street racing and it excels at giving you a world of options for tinkering with your ride and having pick-up races however I just didn't find the mechanics that appealing and the story line seemed absolutely flat to me.
If you're an absolute gear-head, there is no question you are going to love this game. You can purchase and upgrade parts for everything from your engine to your exhaust system. You can even tinker with the look of your car with new spoilers, neon kits and rims.
The game itself is not nearly as exciting. While there are 125 miles of road to tool around searching for pick-up races, cash and plot, there's still not much to do on the roadway. Instead of adding to the game, this addition of more space feels like it waters down the original game, making it a weak-sister imitation.
The best add-on to the game, online play, is fairly stable and gives players a lot more to do but just doesn't go far enough to make this game shine in a year of blockbuster games. In addition, the game's graphics and sound are both solid, but again far from anything worth talking about.
The game does excel in one way: marketing. I've never seen so much product placement in one game, from billboard lined streets, to name-brand fast food restaurants to a well-known cell phone interface; this game is the master at selling everything but itself.
If you're just a fan of console racing, then Underground 2 isn't for you. If you're a gear-head into the street scene that is willing to put up with a lot of play to get to the good stuff, then pick this bad boy up.