Last year, EA took its long-running Need for Speed series in an exciting new direction with the release of Need for Speed Underground, a racing game that focused on making the import tuner scene the star of its arcade-style racing show. The game worked really well, combining the right level of car customization with good track design, challenging opponents, and impressive graphical effects. Now, one year later, a sequel is on the streets, adding some new race types and a big, open city to cruise around. The actual racing in Need for Speed Underground 3 is still pretty good, but unfortunately most of the stuff you do in between races keeps you away from the game’s best moments.
Need for Speed Underground 3 tries to inject a story into your career mode using static-image cutscenes that pop up before some races. The effect is similar to what the Max Payne series does with its noninteractive sequences, though that game pulls it off much better than Need for Speed Underground 2 does. Dopey story short, you’re sent off to a new town after getting ambushed by a rival racing crew, and you’ll have to start from scratch with one car and a handful of races to get you going.
The biggest change made by this year’s game is that the action now takes place in one large city. You’re given free rein to drive around wherever you want, and you’ll have to drive to races to drive in them. You’ll also have to drive to different parts shops to customize your ride–in fact, you’ll have to find most of the game’s shops by cruising around the city, looking for the right type of colored lights. The game gives you an onscreen map, but shops don’t show up until you’ve found them, and some races don’t actually appear on the map, either.
On paper, this whole open-city thing sounds like an interesting idea. Someone probably sat down and said, “Well, everyone likes Grand Theft Auto, and it has an open city, so our game has to have an open city as well. In fact, let’s even make it so that different sections of the city are locked away until you progress to a certain point in the career mode.” In practice, driving around the city is a real drag that keeps you out of the action longer than you’d like. The game also rarely takes advantage of the open city for racing purposes, staging a majority of its events on preset tracks, rather than attempting to go for a Midnight Club-like “get there however you can” feel. There’s a menu in the garage that lets you jump to a handful of different events, but most races don’t show up here, and none of the shops do, either, making it completely useless.
You’ll start out in some pretty slow cars, so the racing isn’t very exciting until you earn enough for a full set of upgraded performance parts. But once you’ve done so, the racing is fun and the cars handle well. The cars are fast, and things like turning, powersliding, and proper corning technique are easy to pick-up. Like in last year’s game, there are a handful of different race types: Circuit races are long lap-based events, sprints take you from point A to point B on a set course, drag racing lets you live your life a quarter mile at a time, and drift races rank you based on how squirrelly you can get on the track. New in this year’s game are the street X races, which are essentially regular races that take place on drift tracks. Outrun races take place in various parts of the city–you roll up behind another racer, tap a button, and then try to pass and outrun him or her. You’ll also encounter a few races against the clock, in which you’ll have to get from one point in the city to another before a photographer leaves the area. Make it, and you’ll get to put your car on the cover of one of the game’s magazines or DVDs for extra cash. The big new race type is the “underground racing league.” These races are the sort of mysterious events where you’ll see most of the game’s cutscenes. They mostly involve some knucklehead breaking the lock on a race track and then swinging open a gate so your street-racing posse can race on a “real” track, though you’ll also bust into airports and such, too. These races are essentially circuit races with racetrack scenery instead of cityscape scenery.
Though there are three different difficulty settings for the career mode, none of them put up a particularly good fight. As a result, most of the races simply boil down to getting in front of the opposition and then doing what you can to not make a mistake. Between nitrous boosts and drafting, gaining the lead isn’t very difficult, and the game doesn’t seem to employ any heavy rubber-band AI routines to retake the lead from you, so you can usually stay in front without any trouble at all. When you consider that it will take you about a minute to get in front, and that some of the circuit races can last six minutes or more, this means that a great deal of your race time is spent just cruising along, dodging traffic and not paying any attention to the other cars unless you screw up and get into a wreck. In the event that you do crash, regaining the lead usually isn’t too tough, especially if you’ve purchased a nitrous-oxide upgrade, which shamelessly lifts concepts from the Burnout series, translating powerslides and near-misses into extra boost for your tank. The opposing cars will slow down quite a bit if they take a big lead, making them very easy to beat.
Need for Speed Underground 2’s crashes are laughably weak. While high-speed collisions with other cars trigger a slow-motion, cinematic shot of the crash, the game doesn’t model any damage at all. It’s like you’re watching two plastic car models bump up against each other, accompanied by the sounds of an actual car crash. While it practically goes without saying that modeling damage in a game with licensed cars is still a tricky proposition, that fact doesn’t make these wrecks look any better. Fortunately, the game’s car customization features somewhat make up for this lack of visual detail