Need for Speed Underground II is the inevitable sequel to Need for Speed Underground developed by Electronic Arts's "EA GAMES" brand, and the second to latest game in the destined-never-to-end Need for Speed franchise of racing games. It's available on PC, Nintendo DS, PS2, and Xbox. This writeup, incidentally, refers to the PC version.
The basic premise of NFSU2 is that, having got the girl, ruled the streets, and generally kicked arse in the first NFSU, some shadow bloke named Caleb in a Hummer H2 crunches your expensively tricked-out ride to death. You, however, are unhurt, and fly to meet a friend of the girl in NFSU, whose name is Rachel... and I think you can guess the rest of the storyline from here on in. It's typically predictable and shallow, and its only major function is to give the game some form of structure. You can forget about it really (although the way it's presented, in comic book type form with some small animation, is certainly interesting.) Thus, you are inflicted upon the city of Bayview (which is quite, quite, quite obviously an amalgam of San Francisco and LA - the large Hollywood-style lettering saying, "BAYVIEW" on a nearby hillside implies LA, but its name "Bayview" and the name of the "San Francisco Bay Area" implies the other.)
From here on in you tool around the city (though not all of it at first; certain areas are blocked off until you pass a certain stage) and enter races, buy modifications for your cars, and so on and so forth. There's four major areas in Bayview:
The city centre. It's a fairly large, mildly irregular grid-like pattern of streets, some dual-carriageway, and with a large ring road-type motorway round it. If you're familiar with London, it's roughly equivalent to the North Circular and its equivalent south of the river. Sights to see include the roundabout with the five fountains on it and a large gaudily-lit canopy overhead, the barrio-style "El Norte" district, and a stealthily placed UK "Ongoing Roadworks" sign (delays for 28 weeks, avoid where possible.)
Beacon Hill. North of the city centre, this area consists of a number of rather upmarket-type shopping areas, and a nice leafy park with a greenhouse in it (which you can smash into, charge through, and come out the other end in front of the opposition.)
Jackson Heights. Super exclusive and super expensive residential area. It consists of just three or four very twisty uphill and none too wide roads. So taking a wrong turning while cruising can confuse you as to why you're back at the observatory again.
Coal Harbour. Grimy industrial zone. Twisty and rather haphazard roads. The eastern end of this area forms the docks, and there's a railway yard you can race through. Needless to say, there are also plenty short cuts in this area, including one bit where you can go up a slag heap, down the other side, and drop off into the street just ahead of the opposition.
I have to say that of all these areas, the Heights are certainly my favourite, simply because racing up there is more about skill than about having plonked ninety grand's worth of performance parts under your hood.
The cars you can choose between range from standard hatchback and saloon cars (albeit the "hot" or at least "lukewarm" versions) up to moderately expensive and speedy models. No supercars mind. Pretty much all of them (with a few exceptions) are respected as tuner cars and accordingly IRL have some aftermarket parts available for them. Before you pick a car, you can see a few statistics about it, such as horsepower, how well it handles, top speed and similar, and as you advance, more interesting vehicles become available. I can't be bothered to list every single car available here, but they range from a Peugeot 206, VW Golf, Nissan 240SX and similar to the new Pontiac GTO, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII, Subaru Impreza WRX STI and, of course, the Nissan Skyline R34 GTR. Unfortunately, however, I must say that the make and model don't really matter too much since, if tuned correctly and driven well, just about any car will turn out to be competitive in the game. This I disapprove of, since I have yet to see a Vauxhall Corsa tuned enough to beat a Skyline GTR, Mazda RX8, Ford Mustang, Nissan 350Z, and Pontiac GTO, all of which are equally highly tuned, around a track, by six seconds. And I doubt I'm likely to see it either, unless the drivers of the five competitors are all hopelessly inept.
You can customise what's under your bonnet with various aftermarket parts, which can either be bought individually or in packages. These range from removing the electronic limiter in your ECU to allow a higher top speed to adding a full-on turbo kit and a direct port of nitrous oxide, as well as tweaking the brakes, gearbox and suspension set-ups. I do like the extent to which you can tune your car's performance, especially (and rather unrealistically) while in the middle of practice laps on a test track. So, for a blisteringly quick dragster you might tweak the gearbox towards acceleration in the lower gears and top speed in the higher gears, and set your nitrous oxide for a quick burst of unbearably intense power. While, for a long circuit race, you might tune it to accelerate quickly in the 60-120mph speed range and set your nitrous oxide to deliver lots of low, sustained power.
You can also customise your car's appearance and indeed, the game practically forces you to at times, with features in a magazine or a DVD netting you money according to how nice it looks. Unfortunately the game cannot decide for itself what the boundaries of good taste are, so pumping your "visual rating" is often reduced to slapping as much stick-on crap, eye-watering paint jobs, blingy rims, spinners, and a half-ton ICE install (which surely ought to weigh your car down, but doesn't.) Occasionally you can get something which has both a high visual rating and looks rather good (such as my French flag Mustang) but more often than not, it looks like the offspring of Darth Vader and a Jackson Pollock painting.
Eight different types of racing abound in NFSU2:
Circuit.Self-explanatory. Go round and round a road course until everyone gets dizzy, and be prevented from deviating from it by floaty glass barriers with red neon arrows on them.
Sprint.See above, but you just get from A to B as quickly as you can, on a route marked out by floaty glass barriers with red neon arrows on them. I do think they should have made this more interesting by giving it an orienteering-type feel; just get from the start to the finish before everyone else using any route you feel like. That would have brought in questions of, do I go the sensible route, via the freeways, which is long, but wide and thus speedy, or do I try to go directly through side streets?
Drift. Go round and round a smallish course gaining points for how big and epic your drifting is. I'm not enthralled by this personally.
Downhill Drift. Same as drifting, but you start at the top of a hill and drift down to the bottom. These ones are quite fun, especially as you get bonus points for almost being crunched by oncoming traffic or going through mud.
Street X. Circuit racing on something the size of a kart track. You really do have to fight for position on this one, and nobody ever gets above third gear.
Drag. Charge down a long straight road dodging other cars, obstacles and catastrophic engine failure.
Outrun. This is something you do while in exploration mode. Pull up behind or alongside a fellow racer so they "buzz" you, then whack the F1 key to race them. The winner is the first person to get 1000 feet ahead of their opponent, and it must be said that the computer does seem to cheat on this one. If you're a long way ahead of your opponent and you are doing your top speed, the opponent seems to speed up massively and suddenly start eating huge holes in your lead. I think this is deliberate, though, to prevent people from just bombing round and round the freeway until they lose their opponent.
Underground Race League. Circuit racing on dedicated and traffic-less courses.
Entering any race is achieved by, in Exploration Mode, driving into the floaty beacon area and whacking the F1 key. You then get some information about the course, the number of opponents, and a short paragraph of trash talk by the person behind this race, which features some of the most outrageous and incomprehensible urban slang ever committed to a computer screen. (Just what is a "flammy run" anyhow?) Then if you accept, it's 3, 2, 1, and go. If you win, you get money, if not, you can try again until you do.
The physics of the game seem pretty sound, with front- and rear- and all-wheel drive cars handling as one might expect them to handle. However, accidents and similar leave something to be desired. You can - and I have screenshots of this - run headlong into an armoured van and be catapulted 50 feet into the air in a crash that would make J. G. Ballard squeal in excitement and cause you to be able to see outside the confines of the map, but when you land and re-orient again there's not even a scratch on the paintwork. Okay, during the crash the windows get a bit cracked, but that's about it really. I suppose that the manufacturers wouldn't allow their products to get written off at all. However, it does mean that you can be spectacularly cavalier at times, especially on the airport tracks, where there are concrete barriers all over the place, using them to guide you round difficult corners with nothing but a slight loss of speed.
I also can't say I like the way in which one's nitrous oxide works. You have to perform stunts and challenges, like J-turns, near misses, power slides and jumps to recharge it.
Product placement. AaaaAAAarrggh! Because of NFSU2, I now eat at Burger King on a regular basis, shave with Edge gel, have a mobile phone provided by Cingular, wear Old Spice aftershave, bank with ING Direct, and I just test drove a new Pontiac GTO, which, incidentally, is also the car which the shady mastermind Caleb drives in the very last race of the game. Product placement is one thing, but having billboards for random products - and having a large Cingular logo in the upper left of the screen at all times - gets grating after a while. Okay, I can see how Old Spice and a Cingular mobile phone and Burger King are "urban," but an advert for a bank...
Really bad urban slang. "Yo wassup hayseed? We gonna be runnin' sprints and we don't want that sled blockin' my win when I lap you. This ain't no flammy run y'know bammer." Nuff said. The constant use of the word "bank" for money also grates.
Really bad voice acting. With the exception of Brooke Burke, the customary low-rent actress they use to play Rachel in the game, all the voices must have been done by people in the EA office, and it shows. It's even more irritating with the urban slang they misuse...
Background music. They used licenced tracks. Riders on the Storm is the theme tune. No, not The Doors' song. A Snoop Dogg cover of it with heavy sampling of the original. It sucks. They also have three tracks by rappers I had never heard of marked "Need for Speed Exclusive" on the "EA GAMES TRAX" box which pops up at the bottom when a new song comes on, all of which centre around how "I need speed when I ride through da hood the brotha's say I look good..." etc. As well as this, they have third-rate punk rock tunes and the odd dance bit here and there. Small wonder, then, that I set the music volume to zero and have MusicMatch Jukebox on in the background with a selection of my favourite songs to race to. Incidentally, Manowar's song Return of the Warlords is a great racing tune, and Blind Guardian's song Nightfall is good for cruising. Pity you can't import your own choice of song into the game.
Limited aesthetic customisability. With about 30 different body kits, 1000 or so different vinyls, and 50 or so spoilers and 200 or so paint chips, the visual customisability of the in-game cars is huge. But it's still limited because all the vinyls fall into far-too similar "categories" such as Splashes, Flames, Lightnings, Tribal Graphics, Flags, etc. And you can't even have viper stripes, much less import your own JPEGs into the game to plaster on the side of your whip.
Safety First! The third screen you are treated to in NFSU2 (after the EA GAMES logo and the title screen) is of Brooke Burke telling everyone how, although "playing a racer in the game was fun," she drives sensible, like an old lady taking the car out once a week to do her shopping. And she always wears her seatbelt. I find this part patronising and self-defeating; after all, I bought the game to rush around at 170mph in the wrong lane, not to be lectured on road safety.
I wouldn't recommend getting it new, for NFSU2 is rather a flawed gem. It's pretty accurate with the performance parts and the physics and whatnot, and graphically it is very impressive indeed, although you really need something with more than a 2GHz processor to make the most of it. But it's the small things that irritate me the most about this game, the mangulation of urban slang, the music, and the lack of replay value. Yes, lack of replay value. The first day I got this game ended in the exhortation, "What do you mean, it's time for breakfast?!" The second day was rather similar. After five days of increasingly earlier bedtimes, I had finished the Career Mode. I started again, but I didn't have the inspiration or motivation to go very much further. In short, I found it repetitive the second time round.
Online play I cannot comment on, as I got my copy second hand and thus the CD key didn't seem to register with the EA server.
This isn't really a "must buy" game I don't think, but it is indeed a good second-hand buy, and, in years to come, will be quite the bargain bin treasure. Worth a look at least, if you can put up with third-rate hip hop, dodgy colloquialisms, and some bits which are just plain unrealistic.