Need for Speed

Need for Speed Underground 2 2021 casual review

Recently (with some tips from this sub!) I finished Underground 2 for the first time. And I have a lot to say about it. If I had to pick one word to describe how Underground 2 makes me feel, it would probably be "frustrated". But not for the reasons one may think.

The Good
– Physics
Driving in Underground 2 is a joy about 70% of the time. Cars have enough weight to make cornering both satisfying and challenging in all the best ways. The crash physics are… garbage, but honestly that's not even close to being a big deal. And compared to Underground 1 these are an overt upgrade.
– Variety
Underground 2 has a lot of different event types, and while some of them are definitely better than others (and one of them really shouldn't exist at all), for the most part they are all appreciated because they do add some much needed variety. Street X isn't exactly my favorite, but I don't hate it. Drifting is great on the tighter circuits; it feels better than Underground 1 for sure (though I do wish they hadn't added opponents to those). And drag races are… well, we'll get to that.
– Soundtrack
This one is pretty self explanatory. There weren't really any tracks in this ost that got on my nerves, which is more than I can say for Underground 1, that's for sure.
– Car list
Underground 2's car list is awesome. It's not all that extensive for today's standards, but it really doesn't have to be. They got the heavy hitters and some fun, weird choices too. Personally, I went with a 240SX, Celica, Audi TT, and Evo VIII for my playthrough.
– Customization
While I prefer the Ghost approach to customization, Underground 2 is not far behind. In fact, it's probably a tie for me. What Underground 2's customization lacks in nuance it makes up for with sheer volume, and the result are cars that are definitely abominations, but fun abominations to make. Some options in Underground 2 honestly have no business not returning in modern games; such as NOS purge, custom doors, trunk audio, and custom gauges.

The Bad
– URL races
I'm not going to beat around the bush. URL races are Black Box NFS at its worst. There are way too many of them and not enough tracks to justify it, the races take forever, and the game's physics do not lend themselves well to the sanctioned tracks. Every single one is an absolute snoozefest of a race.
– Rep system
There are a ton of strange mechanics in Underground 2 that add little to the game. For example, the rep system. I read online that gaining more rep helps you get magazine covers and dvd covers faster. This is, however, blatantly false. To get dvd covers, you must increase your car's star rating. To get magazine covers, you must win races. That's it. So what does rep even do? I have no idea. It was a bad idea to begin with if you ask me, because rewarding a player for finishing way ahead of the pack discourages them from challenging themself.
– Freeroam
Perhaps one of the game's most notorious flaws: the various shops and lack of fast travel. You don't earn money fast enough to just buy everything the second it becomes available. As such, the game is a constant cycle of saving up for the thing you just unlocked, going to buy it, and then saving up for the next thing. One may forget they unlocked certain things. It also forces you to *constantly* visit different types of shops throughout the game. It destroys the pacing entirely.
– Level design
For a first attempt, the city of Bayview is… passable. But playing the game in 2021 really makes me wish I was playing a newer game. There are all kinds of oddities in the map design of Bayview that make driving on it a chore; from blind jumps that like to hit you with traffic you couldn't see, shortcuts that are more like detours, areas only accessible via one road (which I see as a cardinal sin of racing game map design, but don't worry Underground 2 isn't the only one. In fact, Forza Horizon 1 is guilty of this too, and has little excuse considering how much newer it is), and corners that actively make driving less fun by breaking up the speed for no reason (for example, you know that one highway leading into Beacon Hills in the west? Screw that thing). This kind of stuff makes the physics barely matter, cuz once you have a fast car say goodbye to having fun. Oh, and Coal Harbor exists. Tragic, I know.
– Outrun races
Everything about these sucks. Sure, they're something to do in freeroam. But they're broken, take forever, and are required to unlock certain upgrades and parts, including widebody kits. Come on.

The Ugly
– Presentation
Underground 2 looks far worse than Underground 1 did. To be fair, this is because of the transition to open world. It's true all the same, though. On Gamecube in particular, the game looks and runs atrociously; this port is downright inexcusable. On PC, the game looks and runs relatively fine. I played it on PC with the Extra Options and High Vision mods implemented and it's a mostly pleasant experience. However, the thing I definitely take issue with across all versions is the UI. It is tacky as all hell, and coming off of the stylish Underground 1, this is jarring.
– Length
This game drags on for *far* too long and doesn't do much to justify it. The map is not big or varied enough for the amount of game that exists here. Stage 5 in particular is a slog of an experience, as barely anything happens to spice it up at all, and it's home to some of the worst routes in the game. Oh yeah it's also when Coal Harbor fully opens up, so that makes things even worse.
– Tuning
It's awesome that Underground 2 included this at all. And it's awesome that it's surprisingly in-depth. However, the game does go wrong here. Drifting, especially in Jackson Heights, just isn't particularly fun unless you find the right tune. This is true irl of course, but in an arcade racer this is just a weird choice. I'd wager to guess that a large chunk of Underground 2's target audience has no idea what a dyno even is, let alone how to use it. Personally, I'm somewhere in between, and I feel a bit left out. Drag races are also particularly difficult without tuning. Fortunately, while those two event types are definitely improved by tuning your car, every event is *possible to win on Medium difficulty* without doing so. It's just weird that it would improve the experience so drastically.

Conclusion
Need for Speed Underground 2 frustrates me because it does so many important things right, only to be dragged down by questionable but easily fixable design choices. While I overall enjoyed my time with the game, there were many, many points where I wished I was playing something else, and that frustrates me because I can see the makings of this "best NFS game" that everyone claims this game is. Unfortunately, I disagree with that sentiment. Quite strongly, in fact.
It is easy to say that Underground 2 was great for it's time. And I can see how that could be the case. But it isn't because it's so much better than the competition… it's more so that the competition was so much worse. I honestly believe that gaming really wasn't ready for the racing genre until the Xbox 360/PS3/Wii generation. Consoles simply weren't powerful enough to make racing games fleshed out experiences. And so I do think that Underground 2 is an impressive feat. It IS fleshed out. It IS fun. And yet somehow it's packed to the brim with bullshit, too. And that just fills me with frustration, because the game really should have been better. So here is a list of things that I, personally, would have done design wise to improve the game.
– Rebalance prices and payouts. The player shouldn't feel like they're broke all the time.
– Remove URL races.
– Remove Outrun races.
– Rework the drift physics and rebalance the drag difficulty so that tuning still improves the experience, but isn't almost necessary.
– Make every shop sell everything, like in Most Wanted.
– Cut the game in half length wise.
– Remove the rep system.
While I do think this is a decent game, it isn't one that I will ever want to revisit. If you do play the game, however, I'd highly recommend the PC version and at least the Extra Options mod. Starting the game with a lot of money is cheap, but it's a lot better than driving back and forth between shops and races all the time. I'd also honestly recommend using the "Unlock all things" cheat once you get to stage 5 simply because it skips the need to do Outrun races.

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