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Need for Speed: Underground is one of the more interesting games in the Need for Speed series to me because it has yet to leave my memory despite the fact I played the game once for less than an hour. At a friends house. Around the time it came out. I was fourteen when it released and my friend who is a little younger than me, was the kind of kid who would occasionally go through what I’m calling phases and when he got Underground, he was suddenly an expert on cars. He was on a car phase. So I played it once on his GameCube and then moved on because it didn’t feature police pursuits. But for some reason I never forgot my experience with it. I think it’s the style and atmosphere that stuck with me more than the gameplay and since people still bring it up in discussions about the series, I figured I would give it another shot and see what all the fuss is about.
Developed by EA Black Box and published by EA Games, Need for Speed: Underground was released for PC, Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2 in November, 2003. There were also versions released for Game Boy Advance and Arcade which were worked on by different developers. For this review, I played the PC version. I did consult the game’s PCGamingWiki page to see what I would need to do to get it running on a modern system. I installed ThirteenAG’s widescreen fix which actually does more than just support higher resolutions. It improves controller support, adds controller button icons and allows the player to adjust the controller stick deadzone, among other things.
I did play the game with an Xbox Series X controller and am happy to report that I encountered no issues with the controls. My only issue with ThirteenAG’s fix for Underground in particular is what I’m guessing is debug text visible on the sides of the screen when navigating around menus. I looked for a fix but couldn’t find a solution that worked. The text doesn’t appear during races so it’s not a huge deal.
Underground marks the start of Need for Speed’s what I’ll call edgy period. This period includes what many consider some of the best games in the series – Underground, Underground 2 and Most Wanted (2005). Possibly Carbon as well but I’m not too familiar with many of the games that released after Most Wanted. I did play Most Wanted a lot back in the day and remember enjoying it’s over-the-top style, cut scenes and edgy characters. This type of edgy attitude started in Underground although it’s not as prominent. Underground seems to be more about style.
Underground is the first game in the series to feature a storyline. Although, I can’t say the plot very good or interesting. In fact, I often forgot there was a plot. Set in the fictional Olympic City, the player competes in various events to become the best Underground racer in the city. There are some cut scenes peppered throughout the Underground mode that showcase some ridiculous and over-the-top characters but you primarily go from event to event.
Underground is EA’s attempt to give players a window into the import scene and the illegal street racing associated with it. However, I never got the sense I was doing anything illegal because there are no cops to worry about. Underground is primarily about three things – cars, racing, and customization. It’s also a very stylized game. You always race at night and the city is full of lights and what appears to be wet roads. It all makes for a very atmospheric experience.
The Underground mode is where you should start. After finishing the first race which is a dream sequence, you’ll have to select your first car. After that, you can begin competing in events for Style Points which act as a form of currency. Style Points are earned by driving well and stylishly and are awarded to you for winning events. Before starting an event, you can choose the difficulty and the higher the difficulty, the more Style Points you’ll earn for winning. After earning enough, you’ll unlock customization items for purchase. You can even earn style awards like unique vehicles that can be accessed in the Quick Race mode and have your vehicle featured on Magazine Covers. There’s a lot to unlock in this game. It felt like I was unlocking something after every event and it can become addictive.
Each car in the game has different stats in acceleration, top speed, and handling and you can customize them. Sadly, they don’t showcase much visual damage and will remain rather pristine after crashes. I’ve read plates and mirrors can come off but I never noticed. You will unlock new cars in the Underground mode by winning certain events and the vehicle customization is extensive. You can not only install performance upgrades but apply decals, up to four layers of vinyls, change the rims, paint job, and various parts of the body. The game offers an impressive amount of customization options. Whenever you change your car, your customizations are carried over so I would re-customize every car I got and I think I spent up to fifteen minutes with each car just messing with different options and combinations.
Underground contains a decent amount of vehicles from a variety of manufacturers, most of which are Japanese. Changing vehicles in the Underground mode requires you to trade in your current one which is a minor disappointment for me. I like the idea of collecting cars that I can swap out at any time. Luckily, I always had enough Style Points in the bank to trade in my vehicle whenever I wanted and all unlocked vehicles, customizations and upgrades are carried over to the Quick Race mode.
Underground includes several event types including circuit races, sprint races, tournaments, lap knockout, time trials, drift events and drag races, and the Quick Race mode features a Free Run event which enables you to practice on any track of your choosing. The Drift events and Drag races are the standout events simply because things are different. The physics in the drift events are altered so you can break loose a little easier. The objective is to drift around the track and rack up more points than your opponents and I found these events to be extremely addictive.
Drag racing in Underground is very trial-and-error. You can only change lanes during a race and doing so rapidly can cause you to spin out of control. Shifting at the right time and using nitro when necessary is important but you also have to be mindful of traffic vehicles and hope one doesn’t drive into an intersection at the last second. One crash and your totaled. These races can become annoying because of how narrow some of the roads are, plus you have to contend with opponents and other vehicles on the road, and sometimes it felt like there was no way to avoid danger which is just frustrating.
The car you choose and performance upgrades you have installed will affect how you perform on the road. I always had enough Style Points to swap out my vehicle for another with better stats and I always installed the latest performance upgrades so I was always driving one of the better vehicles available or at least had the option to. That said, the game does feature obvious rubber banding and the AI performance seems to vary, depending on the event. This means it doesn’t always matter how fast or well you drive, sometimes races can prove to be challenging or frustrating because of rubber banding and/or cheap AI behavior. The Quick Race mode actually allows you to disable the “catch up” option but you don’t have that luxury in the Underground mode. Thankfully, I can’t say things ever got so difficult that I felt the need to drop the difficulty down to Easy.
I completed a lot of events on Hard and most on Medium. If I kept losing an event on Hard, I would eventually drop it to Medium and sometimes I didn’t really notice that big of a difference between the two. On both difficulties, I’ve seen AI opponents rapidly catch up to me at various points sometimes upon reaching the finish line, I’ve seen them zip around corners without slowing down and I’ve seen them noticeably slow down after getting ahead. I’ve also witnessed them crash frequently and sometimes recover extremely quickly. During some races, one crash can be the difference between winning and losing. Sometimes an opponent would pass me and I felt like I couldn’t catch up. I would even use nitro but still couldn’t close the gap. Other times, I would get an insane lead.
A lot of the challenge comes from the tracks themselves. There are plenty of obstacles and things to avoid but also shortcuts to take. Traffic vehicles populate the roads and were the cause of many crashes for both me and the AI. Many times they drive into an intersection just as your approaching. So how well you do in a race is not just about how fast your car can move but also avoiding all the dangers and taking shortcuts when possible. Any time I got a big lead, and I mean a really big lead, it was because I avoided crashes or bumps into barriers and other things and I can only assume my opponents crashed, maybe frequently. Most of the time, even if I drove well, the rubber banding ensured AI opponents were never too far behind and/or that they would showcase cheap behavior like turning sharp corners at ridiculous speeds.
Unfortunately, Underground’s biggest flaw is the track selection. I love the city the developers created and I love the style but I don’t like that the game is seemingly set in only a small portion of the city because you’re going to race on the same tracks and segments of tracks repeatedly. You’ll unlock tracks for the Quick Race mode as you progress through the Underground mode and most of them are just variations of each other. You’ll drive on the same city streets, pass the same buildings and take the same shortcuts over and over again. Plus, you only race at night so there’s a serious lack of environmental variety.
Underground does come with online multiplayer but the servers were shut down some time ago. For what its worth, I did see a mod out there that enables LAN. Luckily, Underground offers a good amount of single player content. The Quick Race mode is best enjoyed after beating the Underground mode simply because everything you unlock in Underground is available in Quick Race. This means you’ll have access to numerous cars and customization options. Furthermore, you can store or save customized vehicles in this mode.
The presentation is one of the reasons Undeground stands out even today. It’s actually what I remembered most about my initial time with it years ago. It’s slick, it’s sexy and it still holds up, visually. Running the game on a modern system, you can see some aspects look dated but for the most part, it still looks pretty good. The presentation has a nice sheen look. When you get close to things, you can see some blurry textures but it’s not as easy to notice when you’re on the move and anything in the distance looks crisp. Underground is another Need for Speed title with an EA Trax soundtrack which means it’s full of licensed tunes. Engines are loud and roar as you speed down the tracks and bumps and crashes are typically accompanied by the sounds of metal scratching and crunching. On the technical side, I encountered no major issues.
I can honestly say I had fun with Underground. I still prefer the Need for Speed games with cops but I was impressed with what I played. The racing is fun but I think it’s everything else about it that’s going to stick with me. The style, presentation and customization. The presentation is what stuck with me the first time. It’s the reason why Underground is one of the more atmospheric Need for Speed titles. Using your own customized ride to speed past the competition and weave through traffic in illegal street races in a neon-lit city – it’s all very cool. You can spend a good chunk of time just pimping out your ride. There’s so many options, it can be overwhelming but you’re eased into it because most of it needs to be unlocked and it’s accessible. The performance upgrades are pretty straightforward. It’s all the cosmetic stuff that consumed most of my time. As fun as Underground is, it does have some problems. The track selection lacks variety and the rubber banding can be frustrating. Rubber banding is nothing new to the genre but constantly racing on the same streets over and over again can become boring. It would be worse if the game wasn’t as stylish as it is but it’s still hard to not notice.
I would recommend Need for Speed: Underground to anyone that likes racing games. It’s fun, it comes with plenty of content, it still holds up and if you search, you can find a good amount of quality mods out there. Underground is not only one of the better games in the series but also one of the most important. I wouldn’t use the term “reboot” but it was kind of a new start for the series. Despite the unremarkable storyline, it was the first to feature one at all and it has style coming out the ass. Definitely check it out.