Retrospect: Need for Speed Underground

Today I’m writing about my favourite racing game, Need for Speed Underground.

Why is it my favourite game? It’s a complicated answer really.

NFSU was a relatively simple racing game by today’s standards, in where lies the appeal. You started as someone on the bottom of the underground street racing ladder, working your way up to the top. While it’s not the most complicated story in the world it is incredibly appropriate for a racing game, where you don’t want story, you want to gorram race. You get to race in Standard Laps, Sprint to the finish, drag races, drift courses where you had to get the most points, each type of race with several tracks suited for the race style.

There’s a couple of factors which make it an incredible game.

First factor, Dialogue
You got some random chick called Samantha at the start of the game, who occasionally helps you out or explains things, but mainly is in the background, doing her own thing, you only occasionally run into her.

This pleased me greatly, because the game gave you some measure of freedom, where other games have a tendency to hold your hand for the first hour or two and after that always keep an eye on you, this game basically lets you work it out for yourself.

To give an example of this you start the game with one of a number of stock cars that could barely pull the skin off a custard, then you get a short cinematic where Samantha gives you a short intro to how the racing ladder works. She finishes with:
“Got it? Good.”

It was an awesome idea to make the person who explains stuff to you not spending a second more than she needs to on you, while in other games the tutorial character tends to spend every waking moment on how to improve your interaction with the game, which kind of kills the immersion.

The dialogue in general follows the same rule; it’s quick, punchy and straight to the point. In a ten second cut scene I was told this guy ran a car modification shop, was over confident, and was a bit of a dick. Current gen games usually take ten seconds to do a camera pan from the characters shoes to their face. It’s a brilliant style of cinematic, for a racing game especially.

Second factor, interface
More specifically how it didn’t try to copy GTA and have you drive everywhere to do your next race or customise your car, which tends to turn an awesome racing game into something where you feel like an errand boy.

To get to a race, you access a race menu, pick a race, pick a difficulty, get a loading screen, and get to race. By comparison the following games in the NFS series, and practically all racing games, have gone open world, and your drive everywhere. To modify your car, you have to drive to a mod shop. To get to race, you have to drive to the start line, each action taking you 5 minutes to start what you really wanted to do.

Realistic? Yes. Fun? No.

This also meant that the game wasn’t restricted when it came to distributing Nitrous Oxide. While this seems like a finicky thing let me clarify; In NFSU you got a tank of NO2 when you started a race, how much you got depended on what level NO2 upgrade you had. This makes sense, doesn’t kill immersion. While in NFSU 2, whenever you earned style points (which I’ll explain later), your NO2 tank got a bit of a top up. While this was due to the needless open-world game style, it begs the question of how exactly the NO2 got into your tank, and that’s when immersion is taken out of the car and brutally beaten with a blunt object, cause it doesn’t make sense.

Third factor, Style Points.
You earned style points by drafting, drifting, taking shortcuts, hang time, narrowly missing traffic, and other misc actions. You got a modifier based on how stylish your car is, and you get new parts after a certain amount of style points. Earning style points actually added to the fun of playing the game. Even if you lost a race, you still earned enough style points to unlock level 2 tailpipes, better paint colours, etc. This always added a feeling of accomplishment, even if you lost a race.

Forth factor, Car customisation (You can tell I like a game when there’s a forth factor).
Customising your car in this game is incredibly deep, the number of different combinations of paints, vinyl, roof scoops, tail lights, spoilers, neon lights, is incredible. You’re constantly adding, changing, upgrading, and the best bit is that it’s incredibly fun. You get a better style points modifier on how stylish you make your car, and you’re constantly getting new parts to make it look better. It’s like a vicious cycle, but fun instead of destructive.
Customisation has since taken a hit in racing games, where again the open world design means that it takes forever to get to a mod shop and start the actual customisation. In addition the options and add-ons have been reduced, so it feels hardly worth making the car look better.

Fifth factor.
My mum plays it.
While this may not seem a big point, this is a game so well designed and user friendly that a person who hasn’t played video games since Doom 2 can play and fun with it.

It was a decent racing game when it came out, and a lot of things we took for granted in racing games became prevalent after the recent racing games which feel more like work than fun. For me it’ll be the pinnacle of racing games, when graphics started to become terrific, and before stupid design decisions were made.
I would gladly pay $200 for a remake with current gen graphics (minus brown filter), physics engine upgrades, and absolutely NOTHING else changed, because I feel it might very well be one of the best games ever created.

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One Response to “Retrospect: Need for Speed Underground”

  1. “My mum plays it”.

    LOL, that is a great factor right there.

    It’s gotta be my favourite racing games too (ok, so one of the only ones i seriously played, but still my fav.

    Although i do find it funny how your style multiplier goes up depending on how many layers of paint is on your car and how many modifications you’ve made. so you can make a horrible piece of junk that looks like it was left in a microwave for 10 minutes and still have it deemed ‘stylish’.

    peace.

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