It came out in 2004, and it's one of the best racing games ever

There is a subset of video games that are rarely played and ignored one or two years after their release. These games have no notable story, and are frequently iterated upon. Sports games and racing games lead this subset. Few would ignore the release of Gran Turismo 5, favoring to go back and play Gran Turismo 2. There’s no notable reason to do so, after all: Polyphony Digital is essentially remaking the same game every time, simply adding more features and polishing the controls to make the deal worthwhile one more time. Such a philosophy is easy for consumers to subscribe to. Such a philosophy puts great games of the past at risk.

Need for Speed: Underground 2 is one of the many games that has surely been forgotten over the years. To my mind, this is something that is extraordinarily unfortunate, because Underground 2 is one of the best racing games ever produced.

It is certainly one of the top three racing games ever made.

Looking at Underground 2, it’s not hard to accept that such a feat was achieved. Apparently, it’s not difficult to do. The developer just needs to get everything right. That’s what happened with Underground 2: all the cogs fit perfectly together, and the results are truly mesmerizing.

Design


    The game captures the murky, seedy promise of the metropolis that never sleeps.
 The game captures the murky, seedy promise of the metropolis that never sleeps.

Great environment

Underground 2’s strongest asset is the way the environment is rendered. To this day I cannot say that I have seen a better imagined city, a city bathed in the throes of midnight. The atmosphere is incredible and beautifully captured. It’s not that the buildings are amazingly rendered; it’s that the lighting is perfect -- the multifaceted colors, the way they all blend together, and the way they shine brightly. It’s that the city feel engaging. There are cars and taxis and trucks -- not an inordinate amount, because that would limit the player’s ability to move, but enough to make the city feel real. It’s that the city is well realized: there are districts, and there are suburbs, and everything is in its place and is easy to associate with. Above all, the effects applied to the environment are outstanding. Underground 2 has amazing rain. It plummets quickly, lands on the camera and blurs and stains; it coats the road with a fantastic glimmer and it feels like it’s really there. One can feel a tangible difference in how the car handles. Finally, rain gives rise to a peculiar mist, which, when mixing in with the light, adds a genuine layer of difficulty to driving in the rain. The atmosphere generated by the city is absolutely outstanding, and it is completely unlike anything else I have experienced from games this generation. For me, Underground 2 remains unmatched in this respect.

Good area variation

Although the area variation is a little traditional -- players start in the city and then unlock a side metropolitan area and then unlock the suburbs and then unlock the docks and factory burrows -- it works, and the areas are well distinguished. The city has short, sharp blocks, which the ever irritating winding roads of the hilly suburbs contrast well with.

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Product placement

I quite like the product placement as it is integrated in Underground 2. I am not referring to branded car parts, but am thinking more of the billboards and shops in the city that players will drive by. Burger Kings are quite prolific, but the billboards are well handled. If anything, they now serve to date the game, but that only harbors a fuzzy nostalgic feeling for me. It’s strange seeing Cingular billboards. I also drove past an ING billboard once in the game, which I find amusing.

    The speed is palpable.
 The speed is palpable.

The speed feels real

The way speed is handled in the game is quite unrealistic, but what’s crucial is that it feels real. It’s hard to convey speed in video games. Too often many games display the miles per hour in the bottom right corner of the screen but don’t reproduce that same effect that one feels when one is really driving. Look out the window of your car at any time when you’re going over sixty and the world is blurred and incomprehensible. The overwhelming majority of games fail to reproduce this. Underground 2 does not. The world does blur, but inexplicably it blurs in a way that provides the effect without actually hindering the player and making the game unplayable. The effect is especially impressive when nitrous oxide is thrown in. Though that too is unrealistic -- light flares, and cars suddenly explode with speed, which is completely unlike what actually happens -- it feels right, it feels good, and moreover, it’s fun, and that is what I find to be the most satisfying.

Great GPS system

Because Underground 2’s city is large and features many different races and shops, a GPS system to guide the player is necessary. Underground 2’s GPS system is good. It is good at guiding the player through the streets, always selecting the most logical route, even if not the fastest one. It does suffer from a few bugs. On at least two occasions I experienced the arrow trying to shepherd me in the wrong direction (always on the city’s highways). Also, the GPS system seems to have trouble navigating over great distances. The arrow won’t pop up until the player has made it half of the way to his destination. I recall some players being irritated at the artificial malfunctions that occur. At the time, cheaper GPS systems (in real life) were finicky, and the game was designed to reflect this. For instance, heading down side streets or driving on dirt paths will trigger the message that the GPS system is “searching [for a] connection”. It’s a gimmick, and one that probably doesn’t need to exist, though I certainly understand why that superficial design choice was made.

The game is massive

I typically prefer to finish a game before writing about it, purely as a matter of principle, but I can see that it will take me some time to complete Need for Speed: Underground 2, so I’ve elected to do my write-up now in the proceedings. I have played the game for approximately 18 hours and 10 minutes at this stage, and have managed to clear all of 42%, according to the game’s statistics. From this I am willing to extrapolate that, in total, Underground 2 is probably somewhere between a 42 and 45 hour video game. Perhaps that’s not the biggest feat for an open world racing game, but it’s such a pleasure to be able to sink time into a very fun and very well designed video game.

Lightning loads

Today we can expect loading times of over ten seconds for races, but Underground 2 typically keeps below this. I’m not quite sure how it manages this, but it’s certainly well executed. The game seems to load unreasonably quickly between the world and stores, for instance. No loading is required between areas of the map. I assume that this is handled by streaming. It certainly is a fine achievement.

Great licensed soundtrack

Underground 2 has an exceptional soundtrack. It very much rings of 2003, especially with regards to the rap and R&B songs, but that never matters. Every single song fits perfectly with the mood of the game, whether it’s just driving around town, racing, or in the shops spread across the city. The rap and R&B songs are automatically set to not play during races and only play in the shops, but I found that they fit just as well during races as the hard rock songs do. I suspect it will be difficult to find a more fitting licensed soundtrack for a racing game.
 
 

Graphics and animation


   Cars are beautifully rendered.
 Cars are beautifully rendered.

The car models look fantastic

Underground 2 was released in 2004, but because of the nature of what the game demands from the car models (because of extensive customizability) the cars look like they are from much later on in the PlayStation 2’s lifetime. They bear an impressive sheen, and the detail is extraordinary. There is a very large number of parts and modifications one can make to the body of his car, not just limited to the generic neon and window tint and wide body kits and spoilers -- there seems to be a near infinite amount of variations for vinyls, for instance. It’s very impressive for a game that was released the better part of a decade ago. I would be very interested to see the result of a up-scaling, re-mastering of the game for the current generation (as with the God of War Collection), because I would suggest that those cars would look just as good up-scaled as car models from early racing games of this generation.

Gameplay


The different race types offer great variation

Need for Speed Underground 2 features six different race types -- Circuit, Sprint (racing from point A to point B), Drifting, Street X (tight, short circuit racing), Drag, and URL, the “Underground Racing League”, which features more realistic racing courses which do not take place on the streets. The different types don’t just offer variations; they test different skills. One player may be great at winning Drifts, which essentially test handling, but the same player might be terrible at the Drag races, which essentially test quick control and fast reactions. It’s nice to know that there are different modes, and players that are terrible at one mode (whether it be because of an incapable vehicle or a simple inability to adapt to the gameplay) can jettison one mode in favor of the other four. However, URL races are compulsory.

Car handling can be a little generic

There are no problematic issues with the car handling in the game. Perhaps the only complaint that could be leveled at Underground 2 is that a number of the cars tend to feel like they handle identically. To a certain extent this is an artifact of the performance upgrades. By all accounts, players can (and perhaps should) make it through four of the game’s five stages using the same car and simply upgrading it. Around Stage Four a little more power is required, and I purchased a new car -- for me it was the Audi TT -- and fully upgraded it. Obviously, both cars are upgraded equally, but the TT has higher starting statistics so it has an edge over the first car. Despite this, because most of the cars have very similar performance statistics, they can feel the same. Is this a problem? I’m not entirely convinced. I have not finished this playthrough of Underground 2 yet, but I believe I will make it through the game using only two cars, and in the worst case scenario a third. The game has over twenty cars, so there is plenty of choice, and though it may be cynical to say so, because most players won’t go through a whole lot of cars, they won’t notice that some of them feel identical.

Power sliding

I really enjoy power sliding. The game makes it easy for players to break into the slips. Sliding around corners might not be as fast as breaking into corners and accelerating out, but it does allow for better positioning of the car on the road, and, if nothing else, it’s thrilling.

Crashing

I appreciate the fact that the game allows the player to recover from collisions mid-crash. It’s extremely hard to do, but with fine control it’s possible -- turning the wheel against the grain to cut down on speed and momentum, for instance. In most other racing games, a crash is a crash. Yes, it’s unrealistic that one might have any hope of recovering after a cataclysmic collision in oncoming traffic, but it’s fun, and it works, and I like it.

No rubber band AI

Many racing games today feature rubber band AI -- that is, the AI is easy to leave in the dust, but it will somehow quickly recover and catch up to the player and overtake them, only for the pattern to repeat itself continually. It’s nothing positive, at least not for me, and it’s nice to head back to a game where there is no rubber-banding. Instead, the game opts to almost perfectly match the player’s car with other cars of the same level. Then, if the player is good enough, there won’t be any difficulties winning races. Messy players, unkempt on the road and lacking skill, will find it difficult to win, especially in later stages. It is, to my mind, the best way to design a difficulty level for racing games, but one that few subsequent racing games seem to have adopted, which is unfortunate.

   Don't crash into civilian cars.
 Don't crash into civilian cars.

Civilian cars become cement after the player collides with them

One of the few unfortunate flaws I see in the game relates to the civilian cars. Upon colliding with them, they turn to solid stone. It is literally impossible to push them aside, and the player is tasked with driving around them. This can be devastating on tight roads, though it’s not as big a problem in wide, open areas. Despite this, I’m not sure why it happens. It is a very bad design choice, though to be perfectly honest it feels more like a prolific behavioral bug that would have taken too much work to correct.

Custom settings are saved

There are six different types of races, and the game allows the player to set custom performance settings for each type of race for every car. Obviously, a different performance is required for a car between a drift race and a drag race. Thankfully, the developers had the foresight to not only allow the player to use custom settings for each race type, but also to allow the game to auto-load and auto-reset the settings. That means that the player can choose to proceed with the game’s default (my choice, because I’ve got no idea what the performance setting numbers and figures mean) or he can choose to design his own settings and let the game deal with applying them to each mode and loading them. It’s just something which makes life easier, and makes the game considerate of the player.

Story


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Though the story is generic it is not bad

Underground 2’s story is quite pat, but thankfully it’s not remotely big enough to be bad or to have any legitimately flaws that ruin the game. It’s a simple story, very played, but executed acceptably. Though the story may seem prominent, in actuality it’s very much in the background. If anything it’s underplayed. There are cutscenes interspersed throughout the stages as well as at the end of each stage, but it never really matters. At its core, Underground 2 is really about racing and driving across the city going from race to race, as opposed to playing for the story.

The comic book cutscenes are okay

The graphic novel cutscenes aren’t spectacular, but rather like the story they function aptly. They are, at the very least, drawn well and rendered well. There’s not a tremendous amount of animation, but overall the cutscenes are packaged nicely.

   Brooke Burke is pretty good.
 Brooke Burke is pretty good.

Brooke Burke isn’t too bad

Perhaps Brooke Burke isn’t known for her voice acting prowess, but I found that she was more than acceptable in this game. She plays the laid back, smooth, throaty female very well. She also appears in the graphic novel cutscenes. The graphic novel medium typically does not allow for live-action acting, but Burke looks great. Without being vulgar, she is extremely pleasant to look at, but I don’t say that to somehow diminish her role. She plays her character well.

The dialogue can be a bit hit and miss

It is true that the dialogue can be a bit hit and miss, though overall I find that it’s generally good. It’s nothing if not fitting to the street racing vibe that Underground 2 tries to promote. Like with most things, players won’t notice the good things but they will dwell on the bad. The dialogue that meshes well is seamless and passes by instantly while the bad dialogue sticks out like a sore thumb. For instance, when secret car parts are unlocked, players are required to roll up to a specific store on the map and enter, upon which the same line is repeated: “Yo dawg, head inside and pick up yer uniques.” Yes. I will.


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Many Need for Speed games have been released since Underground 2. Most Wanted was highly acclaimed (and justly so), but most of the subsequent games did not fare as well. That’s not surprising. It’s hard to iterate upon Underground 2. Every facet of the game is fantastically handled. My only regret is that the game is not appreciated as it should be, while many current generation racing games that are plainly not as good get far more attention. Perhaps this can be boiled down to the fact that Underground 2 is a game from the last generation. But if you are a racing game fan, I implore you not to forget Need for Speed Underground 2. It is truly a marvel, and it is certainly one of my favorite racing games.
 
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