Every year when we see the regular raft of EA franchises making their annual appearance and of course no Christmas charts would ever be complete without the inclusion of a Need For Speed title. Entitled Need For Speed Underground, you take the role of an undercover cop working his way into the street syndicates of the “Tri-city”, not the most original concept but is the constant reuse of “The Fast and the Furious” storyline its undoing?
kicking off, you begin the game in a top of the range Audi sports car only to have that taken away, you’re then forced to watch one many poorly executed film clips which sees you start with a lower range car, winning street races, adding performance upgrades and getting yourself noticed by the said syndicates, all feeling very déja-vu.
So you win races, win time trials, evade the ever more vicious cops and dig yourself deeper into the underground racing scene until you don’t know whose side you’re on. All of this spilt up with a range of dreadful filmed intros and acting that wouldn’t be out of place on a 15 year old Sega CD title. On a project with this much budget and by the worlds richest gaming publisher you simply expected better.
But enough of the story, we just want to race and dodge some cops so the first thing that gives any concern would be the handling, which is certainly among the worst of any version. The steering response feeling like you’re driving a unicycle rather than a 400bhp 4 wheel drive sports car. They feel like toy cars at best, that doesn’t mean arcade handling shouldn’t be simple but whenever you drive a car in a 3D environment it should work by a basic philosophy so you really feel in control, you know when to brake, when the car will slide, when the car will grip. That feedback simply doesn’t feel consistent, the whole execution having a feeling of being poorly tested and unimportant, so on the whole you just turn in, let off the power and it should all take care of itself. Of course if you are exceptionally rubbish at racing games EA have provided the opportunity to purchase additional car improvements with Microsoft points, so for just 300 points you can feel like a winner, this is a novel use of the points system but not necessarily a positive one.
Environments though vast in scale are again simply poor versions of those seen in NFS Most Wanted, but this time appearing drab, lacking in creativity and lifeless, to feature racing in one form of lighting is simply lazy, to virtually copy an older title in the series is without recourse. This is a real aspect of design where the time of day could have affected many aspects of atmosphere and game-play requirements, again the lack of room for imagination never ceases to amaze or is that disappoint?
Graphically the initial screenshots of the title were very promising, visually capturing a look similar to the aforementioned and excellent NFS Most Wanted, with a 3 year old graphics engine being solid, surely building on that would make this a very polished experience? Unfortunately the graphics are among the worst of any version; the title is well below average in every aspect of its realisation and a terrible disappointment to fans of the genre and of the series. We have to kick off by mentioning the dreadful frame-rate often falling well below 20fps, to an extent that driving becomes more of a “hope for the best” experience rather than a skilful one. The situation deteriorates as more powerful cars are unlocked, this is all most apparent in the bumper cam view, again disappointing but all the more so by a publisher that also brought us the visually astounding Burnout Paradise, EA know better.
Another appalling example of how poorly this game runs is “pop-up”, yes this was an aspect of gaming we felt had long since passed but alas NFS Undercover suffers here too. Tress and buildings popping in to view on many freeways but the most notable instance being the traffic ahead, this involves black blobs appearing all over the road while racing at high speed; a tragic display of some of the worst graphical issues seen in years.
A photo mode is included and your pictures can be uploaded to EA’s official community website, but this is one of the most limited photo modes you will ever see. The camera axis is attached to the centre of the car, you can never get the angle you want, and if the road is narrow it forces the camera in awkward positions. It offers nothing in the way of after-effects seen in a wide range of titles and gives the impression of a last minute add-on rather than a well engineered asset to the game.
Online options are basic but functional with a range of scoreboards though this could have been better managed with a listing displaying the range of courses to make it easier to navigate and with no aggregate scoreboard there’s little impetus to really attack every track in the game. Online racing is good fun with a range of modes but cars do have a tendency to fall off the road, if you do loose some control from contact it’s almost impossible to regain that control and this brings us back to the overall handing issues. It’s good to see EA getting involved from a community standpoint but we’ll have to wait and see how they intend to support the title over the year ahead.
Electronic Arts have long been blamed for rushing out poorly made titles and using their marketing power to generate sales, as a company they’ve worked very hard in recent times to change this image and prove they do car about the games they produce and are willing to take risks on innovation. In this regard NFS Underground is a significant setback for both EA and the Need For Speed brand, EA clearly have some of the best developers in the world but this title looks and plays worse than the 3 year old NFS Most Wanted and to all intense purposes this is the same game with different presentation and a lower quality finish.
On the whole NFS Underground is below par and disappointing, the potential was here for something special but unfortunately it fails in every regard. If you don’t own NFS Most Wanted you’re probably much better off going for that title and saving the rest of your money for something much more deserving.
6 out of 10