[10 February 2004]
Need for Speed Underground is about an authentic racing experience the way Abercrombie & Fitch is about durable, high-quality clothing. It might be the excuse, but it’s hardly the point. Make no mistake, Underground is a fun game. It’s exciting. It looks fantastic. Sounds great. Best racing game to date, and probably will be until Gran Turismo 4 rolls up to the line.
But when you get right down to it, Need for Speed Underground isn’t so much a street racing game as it is a game about street racing. That is, it’s as much about looking good on the track as it is about winning races. When you’re hurtling down those perpetually rain-slicked streets in a metallic blue Mazda RX-7 with three layers of vinyl decals, manufacturer logos, and custom-painted rims, underbody neon glowing dangerously against the black asphalt, you can’t kid yourself that you’re only there for the thrill of the race. There’s a point, somewhere around the fortieth or fiftieth race, when you’ve just spent a good half hour navigating among dozens of body, rim, and brake caliper paint swatches, and wondering if the NEUSPEED decal would look better across your rear window than the Kenwood decal, where you begin to wonder just exactly what Underground is really about. The race? Or the cool accessories?
I have a cousin who’s part of the underground racing scene in Los Angeles. His parents bought him a brand new Honda Civic on his 16th birthday. The first thing he did with it was rip out the seats. As someone who dithers about replacing the tires in his Accord with anything other than the factory-installed Bridgestones, I was profoundly horrified by the transformation of his Civic, from a perfectly presentable two-door coupe to a stripped-down Frankenstein monster with more decals than I’ve ever seen on a single car outside of a NASCAR race, and an instrument panel that looked like it had been boosted from the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet. When he told me how much cash he’d dropped on these modifications, I did a double take. Why, I asked him, didn’t he put that money toward buying a faster car, instead of souping up this one?
He just shook his head. I clearly didn’t get it. But I think I sort of get it now. Hey, I’ve seen 2 Fast 2 Furious. I’m hip.
If cars were only about performance, we’d all be driving around in identical steel-gray aerodynamic boxes. Of course, it’s more than that. It’s about brand identification and imagery. It’s about fashion. It’s about impressing your date, or the neighbors, or the guy at the next gas pump. There is a difference between a Hyundai and a Honda, dammit, and there’s an entire auto-magazine publishing industry built around enumerating that difference.
Street racing is the apotheosis of the automobile as fashion statement. Not that performance doesn’t count, but it’s expressed in the language of branding. You may know the technical details of why you want a certain model of Yokohama tires over a similar model of Michelins, or you may not. The point is, you speak the brand language, and the particular accent with which you speak it defines your tribal identity.
Need for Speed Underground gets it. It speaks the language. The racing itself is terrific: a nice range of cars to choose from; different modes of play, from the linear “Underground” mode to the individual drift, drag, sprint, and circuit races; gorgeous (if somewhat repetitive) visuals; addictive and immersive gameplay; and a propulsive soundtrack featuring hip hop and electronica artists like Mystikal and The Crystal Method. If you’re just out to play a solid racer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying game than Underground.
But the heart of the game is the mods. As you progress through the game’s “Underground” career mode, you’ll periodically unlock interior/exterior modifications ranging from the typical handling/acceleration mods to sets of vinyl decals, hood covers, neon lights, paint jobs, and the like. Performance tuning mods are offered in brand packages, such as “NEUSPEED/DC Sports/ACT” or “Jackson Racing/HKS USA/Stillen”. If you don’t know anything about these brands—or, frankly, even if you do—it doesn’t matter, because within each upgrade level there’s no difference whatsoever between the brand packages: it’s all about the names, and having cool labels on your car.
The surprising thing is how entertaining this can actually be. You come into the game focused on winning races, and the next thing you know, you’re dying to unlock the Level 3 paint jobs. I have no idea what makes the AEM/NEUSPEED/Jackson Racing brake kit better than a KVR Performance/Stillen/Wilwood Engineering brake kit, but hey, I’ve already got the NEUSPEED sticker on my windshield, and it looks cool, so I’m going with NEUSPEED. Whatever! We’re talking about a game that offers “style points” for pulling off especially cool moves. It’s no longer about style vs. substance; in this game, style is substance. You’ll never feel more vaguely ashamed to enjoy playing a racing game.
Two things that will bother you about Underground. One, it cheats. This becomes especially vexing toward the latter half of the career mode races, in which one mistake can render the entire event moot and send you scrambling for the replay button. The enemy A.I. is fairly realistic up to a point, that point being whenever you pull a significant distance ahead of your opponents, which apparently triggers some kind of super-secret all-you-can-eat supply of nitrous oxide in their cars so that they effortlessly pull up behind you no matter how absurdly wide your lead. Of course, if you’re lagging behind, they’ll graciously slow down at certain points to let you catch up—a little, anyway. All of this appears to be designed to ensure that every race is a white-knuckled scramble to the finish line, which is nicely dramatic but may leave you feeling a trifle manipulated. What’s the point of memorizing tracks and learning shortcuts if none of it ultimately gains you more than a second or two of lead time?
The other bothersome aspect of the game is that, for as much bewildering variety as they’ve put into the selection of modifications (over a hundred styles of vinyl decals alone), there’s precious little variation in the race tracks. All take place in the same vaguely London-ish, wet-asphalt nighttime setting, and the tracks comprise a handful of sections presented in different combinations, forward and backward. Not bad if you want to memorize the nuances of the tracks, but it’s only the dedicated player who’ll get to, say, the 78th race without feeling a wee bit impatient for some fresh scenery.
Quibbles aside, it’s hard to imagine Need for Speed Underground disappointing anybody, from the diehard racing fanatic to the player looking to take a vicarious peek into the weird, wild world of street racing. I have a feeling my cousin would dig this game—that is, if he would spare the bucks from upgrading his rice rocket to shell out for something as stationary as a PlayStation.