Reviewed: June 17, 2005
Released: May 10, 2005
EA is determined to make sure you play Need for Speed Underground 2 regardless of which system you own, even if itís the Nintendo DS. They put this task on UK developer, Pocketeers, who has a long history with the NFS franchise on the GBA, but now they get to flex their muscle a bit with the more powerful DS and even add some touch-screen elements to the game.
The DS is already home to several good racing titles, so the first thing youíre probably asking is just where does Need for Speed Underground 2 fit into the scheme of the competition. Need for Speed Underground 2 is a solid racer with a surprisingly complex garage system in place to visual and performance upgrades. The touch screen makes navigating the garage a lot easier than the GBA version and there is a nifty interface for creating your own custom vinyls.
So to answer the question, I liked it better than Asphalt: Urban GT, but not quite as much as Ridge Racer, although this is still the most complex racer currently available for the DS.
Need for Speed Underground 2 does succumb to the limitations of the GBA, mainly the digital-only input. Thankfully, they didnít try that virtual wheel analog input of Ridge Racer. Instead, we have the tried and true digital steering that will likely have you over-correcting for the first few races until you learn the subtle nuances of the D-pad.
Fans of the console version will certainly miss the free-roam mode where you could drive around the city looking for competition. The DS version is laid out much like the PSP version where all the races are presented in a massive menu tree with new races becoming available as you win previous ones.
You have your standard circuit races, knockout races, time trials against the clock, drag racing where you have to shift, and an innovative ďOwn the ZoneĒ mode that divides the track into segments and you must get the fastest time through each zone to add it to your collection. Itís almost like a game of domination, but the trick is that the computer cars can always steel a zone away from you by besting your time.
While you are free to enter any available race in any available event type, the game is structured so you have to sample all of the events in order to earn enough upgrade points to remain competitive throughout the entire Underground mode. It's a nice balance that keeps the game flowing evenly.
Opponent AI is brutally harsh, so you will need to visit the garage often to keep your car competitive. Even so, one major wreck on the final lap and itís all over. There is no rubber band AI in this game. If the computer pulls ahead you can only pray they hit another car or you will never catch them, even with perfect laps.
The computer is also not afraid to run you down. On more than one occasion while coming off a wall rub a car (or cars) would nail me from behind and knock me around the track or even flip me over. This usually stops all the cars involved but anyone already in the lead or anyone sneaking through the pile-up will have a huge lead before you can get back up to speed.
There is an impressive list of upgrades, both visual and performance. The performance upgrades are divided into standard categories like wheels, turbo, engine, exhaust, chassis, etc. Each of these is further broken down into sub-categories and each of these can be upgraded for a certain amount of points. Itís fairly complex for a handheld game, but at the same time equally as cryptic since you have no immediate feedback on what these upgrades do.
I basically just started leveling up each sub-part of each section for as much as I could afford, and when I was all done the display showed me a percentage of improvement. Itís pretty arbitrary and there is no specific horsepower info or even a weight class when you start hacking away at your chassis. I suppose this is great for kids who know nothing about cars and can easily recognize improvements by a growing bar graph, but for anyone coming off the console versions, itís a bit of a let down.
There are plenty of racing modes including standard arcade racing, the career Underground mode where you unlock everything for all other parts of the game. There are also multiplayer racing modes for single and multi-card games and an interesting sampling of mini-games, some that are loosely based in racing, like the Gravitar game where you guide a blip through a jagged course of high and low RPMís.
The touch-screen is implemented with moderate success. It doubles up on some already-accessible commands like Nitrous, but during races itís better served as your status screen and track map. But with so much space available I would have liked even more info on the bottom screen and perhaps the removal of the HUD from the top. There is also a nifty art program that uses the touch-pad to create custom logos. Just watch out for the tricky icon placement. Itís pretty easy to delete your designs and there is no ďundoĒ command.
What the DS version of Need for Speed Underground 2 lacks in overall quality and detail it more than makes up for in blinding framerates. This is a solid 60fps racer that blows the doors off the PSP version, and itís this fluid framerate that keeps the digital steering tolerable. The sensation of speed is also most impressive and there where times where I felt like I was hanging on for the ride; almost out of control.
You are tearing through rather complex city environment at speeds in excess of 100mph, and the DS does have its limitations. Expect a bit of pop-up on the horizon, usually just buildings and such. Itís not too annoying and if you are concentrating on the tracks youíll probably not even notice.
Now comes my huge complaint with the graphics. Need for Speed Underground 2, by its very definition of street racing, takes place at night and the night is dark, and dark doesnít exactly work on the LCD screen, especially when you are trying to play in any type of ambient light. The very nature of handheld gaming dictates youíll be playing someplace other than a dark room, and this game is virtually impossible to see and play in typical lighting.
So unless you are playing in near total dark conditions, you can expect a lot of vision problems with cars and barriers and sharp turns in the road suddenly appearing without warning. Even the first race has you zigzagging through a detour with all sorts of obstacles, and itís more about memorization than seeing and reacting. I was able to get through the first 8-10 races playing in normal fluorescent light, but I ultimately had to finish the game at home in the dark.
One final note; the game surprisingly has no replay mode. Since all of my other DS racers have replays we canít blame the DS for this oversight. There were some truly exciting race moments that I would have loved to relive after the race was over.
The story has been removed from the game along with the comic book panels of the console version. Brook Burke lends her visage to the title screen as well as some subdued background arts, but that is about the extent of the presentation.
Need for Speed Underground 2 trades its massive collection of licensed music found on the console for a more handheld-friendly collection of generic samples that arenít that bad. Most of it is energetic and upbeat; the perfect tunes for racing.
The sound effects package is mostly generic engine whines that donít change regardless of the car you are driving or any upgrades you perform. Where is my turbo whine? And youíll grow to hate the civilian traffic with their incessant horn blowing as you drive down the oncoming lane.
There is a lot of racing to be had with Need for Speed Underground 2. Expect at least 20 hours of racing to get through the Underground mode, and all those mini-games and multiplayer modes will likely keep you playing a bit longer. This is one of those games you'll want to keep on you for those rare occasions where you find yourself in a dark area and some time to crack open your DS.
Thankfully, Need for Speed Underground 2 is not just another GBA port to the DS. The touch-pad is a bit gimmicky but Iím starting to expect that from anything other than first-party Nintendo titles. It does offer a nice input for creating custom logos and a spiffy way for navigating the garage menus.
I had a bit of deja vu with this game. The tracks were very similar, perhaps outright copies, of many of the ones I had raced a few months ago on the PSP. The framerate is amazing for a handheld racer and if you donít mind the low detail and dark color pallet you will find a lot of challenging racing in Need for Speed Underground 2.