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All reviews - Games (111)

Need for Speed: The Run review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 07:09 (A review of Need for Speed: The Run)

It comes to a halt too frequently, but when it's speeding along, Need for Speed: The Run makes cross-country racing a joy.

The Good

Diverse assortment of cars that handle well
Gorgeous, varied courses modeled on real locations
A good number of race types keeps events enjoyable.

The Bad

Lengthy load times sap sense of momentum
Quick-time events and mob chases aren't enjoyable
Frustrating limitations on returning to the cross-country race.

There's a whole lot of America between San Francisco and New York City. Need for Speed: The Run's greatest achievement is the way it sometimes captures the thrill of hitting the open road and experiencing the varied beauty of the American landscape, from the mountains and the prairies to the small towns and skyscrapers. Unfortunately, issues arise that sap some of the momentum from your cross-country trek, but The Run spends enough time doing what it does best to remain an enjoyable journey.

You play as Jack Rourke, a racer who has gotten in way over his head with the mob. His friend Sam promises an end to his problems if he can win a cross-country street race and the huge payout that comes with victory. Sadly, The Run's attempts to make you care about Jack's plight fall flat. The talents of actors Sean Faris and Christina Hendricks as Jack and Sam are wasted; their voices emanate from character models with mouths that move oddly and faces that express no emotion. What's more, the story doesn't even make sense. Certain rivals whom you pass early in the race show up again when you're in the home stretch. Thankfully, after an early cutscene that sets up the premise, the game wastes little time with its flimsy storytelling and lets you focus on driving.

The cars in The Run feel good to drive. The wide range of vehicles on offer includes sports cars that respond tightly to your every command and muscle cars that are tough to tame, but regardless of what you're driving, racing in The Run is about balancing speed with control. Sure, you've got highways on which you can gun the throttle and cruise at top speed, but more often than not, you're on stretches of road with some tricky turns. Using your brakes effectively, maintaining a smart racing line, and speedily exiting the turns is crucial to maintaining a good time, and it feels great to put these powerful cars through their paces.

Unfortunately, you may sometimes find yourself in the wrong car for the job. With a few story-related exceptions, Jack can only change cars at gas stations, and in some stretches, these are few and far between. As a result, you may get into a muscle car to power through a stretch of highway, only to wind up facing a particularly twisty road that the muscle car is not ideal for in the next event. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there's no easy way to return to an earlier event that offered a gas station and choose a different car. If there's no gas station in your current event, you're stuck, and must make do with what you're driving.

Jack's got to make the entire drive from San Francisco to New York, but of course, you're only responsible for driving a few hundred miles of that journey. The Run keeps the pressure on in each event by requiring you to meet one of a few objectives. On some stretches of road, you need to pass a certain number of other racers before reaching the finish line. In other events--called battle races--you also need to pass opponents, but here, you need to face them one at a time, getting ahead of one before a timer reaches zero and then moving on to the next. And some events are checkpoint races; just you against the clock. Many events are challenging tests of your driving talents, and it's a thrill to pass a checkpoint in the nick of time or slingshot past an opponent in the final stretch of a race.

It's not just the cars themselves that make driving in The Run enjoyable. It's also the places you go. Starting in San Francisco, your path takes you through Yosemite National Park, the Rocky Mountains, downtown Chicago, and plenty of other locations. The roads in The Run aren't entirely faithful to the real roads that inspired them, but they admirably evoke the beauty one might witness on a scenic trip across the United States. From driving in the Las Vegas dusk to speeding across the rolling Nebraska plains, the varied surroundings for your travels convey the feeling that you're covering a lot of ground, and part of the fun lies in seeing what richly detailed natural or urban landscape you'll be driving in next.

You need to contend with more than just your aggressive fellow racers as you travel through these beautiful settings. In some events, police try to stop you by doing brake checks and setting up roadblocks. You can hear their chatter, though, and see upcoming roadblocks on your minimap, so while it's fun to trade paint with these officers, they don't pose much of a threat. Then there are environmental hazards, such as an avalanche that occurs as you're heading down a mountain. Like the cops, these events aren't likely to cause you much trouble, but they make for an impressive spectacle.

Unfortunately, as exciting as the racing can be, it's too often interrupted. When you wreck or go too far off the road, you're automatically reset to the last checkpoint you passed, and these resets can take several seconds. It's especially frustrating when these interruptions occur after your car goes ever so slightly off the asphalt. In some places, you can go off road without penalty; in others, even a slight deviation from the course immediately triggers a reset. These interruptions, coupled with the long load times that occur before races and for resets, sap some of the speed from a game that's all about forward momentum.

Other interruptions come in the form of The Run's much-publicized on-foot sequences. These extended quick-time events make up a small part of the game, which is good because they're not much fun. There are also a few sections of The Run where you need to worry more about avoiding gunfire from mafia cars and helicopters than racing effectively. These attempts to bring some Hollywood excitement to The Run backfire; it's just not enjoyable to constantly swerve to avoid the attacks of your mob pursuers.

Your total clocked, competitive time driving coast to coast will probably be a little more than two hours, though that doesn't factor in checkpoint resets and events you fail and need to redo. The Autolog system tries to fuel the fires of competition by constantly showing you how you're stacking up against your friends. But unfortunately, the game doesn't make returning to the cross-country race a welcoming experience. You can't jump to individual events; rather, you need to replay entire stages, which are collections of anywhere from four to seven events. This means you also need to replay any on-foot sequences and rewatch any cutscenes that occur in that stage. It's enough to make the prospect of hitting the road again a lot less attractive. You can also put your skills to the test by trying to earn medals in a series of single-player challenges that you unlock as you make your way across the country, and success here can unlock new cars for you to use on the cross-country run itself.

Racing online against human opponents is more exciting than revisiting the single-player experience. Online races are divided into playlists that are centered on things like urban-street racing and muscle-car battles, so you can easily jump right into the kind of action you want, though you're locked out of a few playlists until you complete a certain number of multiplayer objectives on other playlists. These objectives include things like completing three passes using nitrous and placing fifth or better in three races, and it doesn't take long to open up all of the playlists. Flaws do mar the experience--your opponents' cars sometimes teleport around the road a bit or appear to fly through the air unrealistically--but it's nonetheless satisfying to leave human players in your dust.

It's frustrating, though, that whether you're playing solo or multiplayer, distracting text constantly appears onscreen to inform you that you just earned 30 experience points for drifting or 50 XPs for cleanly passing an opponent. Early on, you unlock driver abilities like nitrous and drafting with XPs, but once that's out of the way, most of the rewards you earn are just new icons and backgrounds for your Autolog profile. This makes the XP system seem entirely unnecessary, nothing more than a hollow way for the game to try to keep you playing.

It's a shame that The Run doesn't deliver more fully on the potential of its premise. It's bogged down by unnecessary quick-time events and annoying mob chases, a halfhearted attempt to tell a story, and frustrating interruptions to your racing. In spite of these burdens, the game frequently makes you feel like you're tearing across the varied terrain of this vast and majestic country. There are enough of these good moments--moments when you put the pedal to the metal on a desert straightaway or nail a hairpin turn on a twisty mountain road--to make this a road trip worth taking.

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Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 06:58 (A review of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit)

This fast-paced racer keeps you glued to the TV and on the edge of your seat regardless of which side of the law you're playing on.

The Good

Exhilarating races and cop chases
Autolog system makes competing with friends more compelling
Tight controls make it easy to take corners at high speed
Loads of licensed supercars
Great online options.

The Bad

Camera cuts occasionally mess with your driving
No traditional leaderboards.

Hot Pursuit is a Need for Speed game in name only. This blisteringly fast racer has more in common with developer Criterion Games' own Burnout series than it does with any previous Need for Speed offering, despite lacking a number of features that are commonly associated with Burnout games. This isn't a game in which you're rewarded for crashing spectacularly or for jumping through billboards, but it is a game that encourages you to drive dangerously and to take down your opponents by any means necessary. The option to play both as illegal racers and as the cops that are chasing them brings some much-needed variety to the action, while spike strips, road blocks, and other satisfying countermeasures ensure that Hot Pursuit doesn't feel quite like any racer that you've played before. Regardless of whether your interest in Hot Pursuit stems from a love of Need for Speed, Burnout, or neither, you won't be disappointed.

If you're familiar with the Burnout series, you'll immediately feel at home with the handling in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Licensed cars from the likes of Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and Porsche can be made to slide around corners with only the briefest of touches on the brake, and you earn nitrous by driving dangerously close to other vehicles and into oncoming traffic. Furthermore, there are plenty of shortcuts available if you stray from the Seacrest County roads, and should you wreck your ride while attempting to take one, you're treated to a glorious slow-motion shot as panels buckle and debris starts to fly. A similar slow-motion treatment is used to alert you when additional cops show up to chase you down and when you successfully take out an opponent, which adds a welcome touch of Hollywood to these high-speed chases. Not that they need it.

Even in the Career mode's time trial and rapid response events where you have no cops or racers to worry about, the potential for disaster is ever present. Oncoming and slow-moving traffic, risky shortcuts, and sharp corners all conspire to keep you on the edge of your seat, and other event types add so many additional hazards for you to concern yourself with that your heart will likely still be racing long after you cross the finish line. As a racer, you find yourself being pursued by cops who can organize roadblocks, hit you with EMP blasts, drop spike strips in your path, and even call upon helicopters armed with spike strips to slow you down if you get too far ahead of them. And as a cop, you're expected to chase racers who have their own EMPs and spike strips, as well as powerful turbo systems and jammers that render all of your equipment useless for a short time. The good news is that as your opponents slowly gain access to more and better equipment in Career mode, so do you.

Equipment is mapped to the D pad and is available only in limited quantities. This keeps events of the same type from feeling too similar because, for example, taking down racers by overtaking them and then dropping spike strips is very different from hitting them with EMP shots that take a few seconds to lock on after you position yourself directly behind the target. You always have the option to just bash into other vehicles in order to take them out, but these cars are much more resilient than their Burnout counterparts, and it generally takes several hard shunts to put them out of commission. Incidentally, as a racer you're free to run your opponents off the road or even to use countermeasures against them, but when there are cops in pursuit, it's best to save your aggression for your common enemy.

Cops and racers in Hot Pursuit benefit from impressive AI that makes them both formidable and occasionally unpredictable opponents. Both are smart about using their countermeasures effectively and are appropriately aggressive. But they're also fallible, which can make for some exciting moments when racers collide into each other directly in front of you, for example. Racers won't always take shortcuts, but it's not uncommon to see them doing so; impressively, when you're tailing them as a cop, they often wait until the last second to turn off the road, which makes attempting to follow them much more challenging. Cops will take shortcuts as well, but only when they're pursuing racers down them. Interestingly, not all of the alternate routes actually save you time, and how effective they are as shortcuts is in part determined by how well your car handles off-road. If you're in a four-wheel drive Subaru Impreza or Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, loose surfaces don't slow you down much, but if you're in a low-slung exotic like the Koenigsegg Agera or Pagani Zonda, you're probably better off staying on the tarmac.

Predictably, though AI opponents do a great job of keeping things interesting, they're still no substitute for other players. Hot Pursuit doesn't support local multiplayer, but its three online modes are so much fun that it can be hard to tear yourself away once you start playing. Online races support up to eight players, and since they don't feature any weapons or cops, they are a test of your driving skill and nothing more. Hot pursuit events, on the other hand, are four-against-four races in which a team of cops with full arsenals must try to prevent equally well-equipped racers from reaching the finish line. These events never play out the same way twice, and therefore you're unlikely to tire of them anytime soon. Similarly, you never know what's going to happen next in online interceptor events, which pit just one cop against one racer. The difference here, other than numbers, is that you're free to drive anywhere on the map. As the cop, you obviously need to stick close to your target, but as the racer, it's extremely satisfying to outwit your pursuer by taking a shortcut, using countermeasures to gain an advantage, or just doing something as simple as performing a quick U-turn. The chase ends either when one of the cars gets wrecked or when the racer manages to outrun the cop, at which point you have the option to switch roles and start over.

Regardless of whether you're playing online or in Career mode, your performances earn you bounty points that increase your overall cop and racer ranks. These ranks aren't just about bragging rights; as your bounty increases you unlock additional cars and, just occasionally, upgrades for your countermeasures. Cars are sorted into five classes according to their performance, so you never gain an unreasonable advantage by having access to cars that other players don't, because everyone uses cars from the same class. Equipment upgrades do afford you a noticeable advantage, but it's not so significant that you're going to dominate as a high-level player in a room full of newcomers. Longer spike strips still need to be dropped at the right time to be effective, and even being able to drop two simultaneously doesn't change things much. EMPs that lock on more quickly are definitely easier to use, and high-level road blocks are tougher for targets to avoid, but nothing feels unbalanced or unfair. In fact, equipment upgrades are more likely to impact your results in Career mode than online, and unlocking them can be a good incentive to replay events that you've yet to achieve a gold medal time in.

Bronze, silver, and gold medals are up for grabs in all 70-plus Career mode events, and even after you've earned yourself gold in an event, there's a good chance that you're going to be replaying it at some point in the future. That's because Hot Pursuit's autolog system does a great job of constantly comparing you to your friends and compelling you to compete with them. Events in which you're losing to friends who have played recently are highlighted on the career map, and postings on your "speed wall" alert you when your best times are beaten. Furthermore, you can easily jump straight into events that autolog recommends to you via an option on the main menu, so if you hear that your time in an event has been beaten, you don't have to go looking for it on the map before attempting to reclaim your crown. It's a good system, and the option to post taunts on friends' walls after you beat their times is a nice touch. It's unfortunate that the autolog completely replaces rather than complements traditional leaderboards though, because there's no way to know how your times compare with the best in the world, and ultimately the autolog is only as good as your friends are competitive.

One of the few frustrating features of Hot Pursuit, especially when you're trying to shave seconds off a time to beat one of your friends, is that just occasionally the slow-motion shots used to show off crashes and such can mess with your driving. Most of the time, when the camera switches away from you to show an opponent hitting your spike strip or perhaps another cop entering your pursuit, control of your car is handed over to the AI, and it does a good job of keeping you moving. That's not always the case, though; you might regain control of your car just as it's about to slam into the back of another vehicle or a split-second too late for you to take a high-speed corner without straying from the tarmac. It doesn't happen often, but it's annoying when it does. On the flip side, you might also miraculously avoid spike strips or road blocks when the AI is in control, so it all evens out.

Awkward camera switches aside, Hot Pursuit does very little wrong with its presentation. All of the licensed cars look superb, and the varied environments that they race through are far more detailed than you can appreciate at over 200 miles per hour. The frame rate is silky smooth even when your driving isn't, and the heads-up display, while busy, is never distracting. The audio is also impressive; the roar of engines, the wailing of police sirens, the whoosh of nitrous, and even the chatter on the police radio sound great. It's odd that the default audio levels place more importance on the loud and lively soundtrack than on the sound effects, but that's easily rectified in the options menu.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is one of the most thrilling racing games around. It doesn't matter which side of the law you prefer to play on; the unpredictable nature of these events and the sheer speed at which they're played make this a tough game to put down. If you're in the market for a ride with superb handling, great looks, an impressive top speed, and more than enough room for all of your friends, this is the one you want.

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Need for Speed: Shift review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 06:27 (A review of Need for Speed: Shift)

In trying to offer something for everyone, this jack-of-all-trades racing game is unlikely to completely satisfy anybody.

The Good

Makes a point of rewarding you, regardless of your driving style
Very good assortment of tracks
Sense of speed borders on scary at times.

The Bad

Default controls are overly sensitive
Modest car selection
Drifting events are prohibitively difficult
Career mode is very bare-bones
Online play rewards other drivers for spinning you out.

Need for Speed: Shift is a racing game that tries to do a lot of things, and the good news is that it does most of them well. The bad news is that Shift does very little that other racers haven't done before it, and it excels at nothing. The racing, the car and track selections, the vehicle customization and damage modeling, the career mode, the online play, the opponent AI--all of these things are good, but none of them are great.

Depending on what kind of racing game you usually play, being thrust into the driver's seat for a flying lap at the start of Shift's Career mode might go well, or very badly. Your performance on this lap determines your default difficulty level and handling model, and it's appropriately named the "Trial of Fire." There are no opponents to worry about, but getting a handle on Shift's controls can be a challenge on their own. Like a simulation game, Shift encourages you to brake early for corners, punishes you for straying too far from the racing line, and, at least by default, presents you with a steering setup that's extremely sensitive. But, like an arcade racer, Shift rewards you for sliding around corners, for "trading paint" with opponents, and even for forcing those same opponents into a spin or off the track. It's an awkward middle ground that you might never feel comfortable with.

When playing solo, your only options are Quick Race and Career mode. Quick Race lets you set up races, time attack contests, and drifting events on any of 36 different courses with variables that include car class restrictions, the number of opponents and laps, and the time of day. The Career mode amounts to little more than 150-plus of these events, set up as themed competitions between cars of certain classes or from certain countries and then arranged into a tier system that matches the one used for cars. You start out as a tier 1 driver with a tier 1 car, and as you progress you move into tiers 2 through 4 before unlocking the anticlimactic 10-race World Tour, which marks the pinnacle of your career. Oddly, you need to complete only a fraction of the events available to you in order to unlock the World Tour. In fact, if you're winning races and completing bonus objectives along the way, you can unlock both tier 4 and the World Tour before you've even finished everything in tier 2.

That's because you progress through Career mode by earning stars, and because the number of stars you're awarded at the end of each race isn't just based on where you finish. You earn one to three stars for a finish on the podium, and typically there are two extra stars available for reaching experience point milestones (earned through acts of "precision" or "aggression"), plus one for completing a bonus objective. The bonus objectives are varied and include stuff like mastering every corner, performing a clean lap, reaching a certain speed, or spinning out a number of opponents. These objectives are a neat feature because they encourage you to focus on different aspects of your race craft, and it's great that you can return to events to try for any stars that you missed.

Unfortunately, adding more stars to your tally isn't the only reason you're going to be repeating events in Career mode. Even on the easiest AI setting, your opponents are a competitive bunch, which can make for some thrilling starts to races, but the flip side is that they're not bashful about trying to find a way past you--even if that means forcing you off the track. There's no second-chance flashback option like that in Dirt 2, so if you end up in a gravel trap, you've just got to deal with it and almost certainly watch a number of opponents race past as you do so. It's entirely appropriate that straying off the course slows you down considerably, but when you combine that penalty with aggressive opposition and controls that make it tough to recover quickly, it can make for some extremely frustrating incidents. Adding insult to injury is that AI drivers seem able to drive on gravel and grass almost as quickly as they can on asphalt, which isn't consistent at all with the way your cars handle.

Getting involved in a big crash or straying too far from the track toward the end of an event can be disastrous, and feeling the need to restart a 10-lap endurance race because an overzealous opponent forced you into a tire wall is no fun. However, if the race still has plenty of laps left to run, you shouldn't be too quick to give up. Your opponents, it seems, while clearly eager to compete with one another and get to the front of the pack, also like to keep things interesting for you, so if you lag too far behind them, they'll invariably start driving at a more sedate pace until you can catch up. Clearly it's a good thing that one early mistake doesn't have to mean the end of your race, but at the same time it's not particularly satisfying to beat opponents who slam on the brakes if you get in trouble.

For a more authentic racing experience, your best bet is to head online, where your opponents will afford you no such courtesy. Online options include a Driver Duel tournament mode, in which a series of head-to-head races pit you and an opponent against each other in randomly selected identical cars, and ranked and unranked races for up to eight players. The variables that you can play around with when setting up an online race are the same as those that you get in the single-player Quick Race mode. Once you're with a group of players in a lobby, you have plenty of time to see what the next race is going to be and to choose a car either from your own Career mode garage or from a selection of stock vehicles.

Online play is lag-free for the most part, and if you approach it with the right mentality, it can be a lot of fun. If you go into an online event hoping for a clean race, though, you're probably going to be disappointed. Like Career mode, online play awards you experience points for both precision and aggression, so when you race alongside people with very different ideas about how the game should be played, things can get ugly. Furthermore, cutting a corner while playing online results in being slowed down to a crawl by way of punishment for a few seconds that feel like an eternity, regardless of whether or not you gained any advantage as a result of your actions. It doesn't sound like a terrible system on paper, but it's frustrating for drivers coming up behind you because you effectively become a slow-moving chicane that they have to navigate.

In addition to races, this jack-of-all-trades game incorporates drift events into both its Career and online modes. Only 11 of the cars that appear in the game can be used for drifting, and finding one that you feel comfortable with is even more difficult than finding one for racing. These cars are automatically tuned to slide so easily that pressing down on the accelerator even a fraction more than you absolutely need to can send your car straight into a donut. With practice it's certainly possible to perform some satisfying drifts around corners, and because the events aren't timed, you can win them by employing some cheap tactics and just swinging from side to side on the straights. Sadly, no matter how good you get at it, drifting isn't one of Shift's strong points, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that it's easy to avoid entirely without feeling like you're missing out on much or hindering your Career mode progression.

Another of Shift's features that doesn't realize its full potential is car customization. There are around 55 cars to collect in Shift, though you never have enough spots in your garage for even half of that number. These cars can be painted, you can apply a handful of different racing liveries to them, and some of the performance upgrades you can purchase for them include cool-looking bodykits, but the custom livery designer is awful. Vinyls at your disposal include the usual assortment of primitive shapes, logos, flames, and tribal designs, as well as plenty of creative groups that you unlock as your career progresses--including badges that show off some of your accomplishments. The problem is that applying these vinyls and working with the tools that you can use to rotate, resize, and reposition them is a real effort. There's no option to constrain a vinyl's proportions when you resize it, there's no way to mirror a design from one side of your car to the other, and, worsening that problem, there's no Forza-style coordinates system in place to make transferring your design manually anything but a painful process.

Fortunately the preset racing liveries, like just about everything in Shift, look pretty good. This isn't a game that's going to wow you with incredibly detailed car models or photo-realistic environments that stretch as far as the eye can see, but it's not a bad-looking game by any means, and the sense of speed when you get on a long straight in a fast car is so good that impending turns become daunting prospects. On some tracks, those same corners can be made even trickier by opponents who make a mess of them in front of you, because they kick up great-looking clouds of sand and dust in the process that partially obscure your vision.

Outside of races, Shift's presentation is functional but lacks any sense of refinement. Dark backgrounds work reasonably well when the white text of menus is popping off them, but when you're shopping for cars with paintjobs that are reflecting the dark environment all around them, the lack of light really doesn't do the vehicles justice. The Lamborghini Reventon that appears in this dimly lit showroom is dark gray, and you might need to adjust the contrast on your TV to make it out. The dark-blue-and-black Bugatti Veyron doesn't fare much better. Shopping for cars should be fun in a game like Shift, but it's actually a bit of a chore because the models take a second or two to appear as you scroll through the list, and for some reason you don't get to move the camera around them yourself. You also don't get control of the camera when you come to put new bodykits on your cars, so you have to wait for them to do a full rotation before you can check out both the new front and rear wings.

Like the visuals, Shift's audio fares better on the track than it does off it. Some of the cars' engine noises are a real treat, and they change as you upgrade your cars with new exhausts, turbo systems, and the like. The sequences of sound effects and radio chatter that play while you're navigating menus are bizarre, though, and anytime you think they're going to transition into something resembling a tune, you're wrong. The short, looping track that plays during loading screens is less offensive, but the frequent load times can be so long on occasion that even that will start to grate after a while.

Need for Speed: Shift has a good selection of cars and plenty of varied tracks (ranging from small ovals and a figure-eight track to lengthy street and grand prix circuits) to race them on. Other than a somewhat interesting experience system, though, it offers nothing that hasn't already been done better elsewhere. Shift is neither an arcade racer nor a simulation; it's stuck somewhere between the two, and while there's plenty of good racing to be had here, it's unlikely to completely satisfy fans of either.

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Need for Speed: Undercover review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 06:16 (A review of Need for Speed: Undercover)

Need for Speed returns to its roots with hokey cutscenes, wild cop chases, and solid racing action.

The Good

Plenty of cop chases
Instantly join races with press of a button
Doesn't take long before you're driving a cool car.

The Bad

Lots of quirks and nagging gameplay issues
Emulates Most Wanted, but doesn't necessarily improve upon it
Story isn't much to get excited about.

For the most part, the reaction to the last few Need for Speed games was the same: "Why aren't they more like Need for Speed Most Wanted?" "Where are the cheesy cutscenes and the over-the-top cop chases?" It seems as if EA heard those cries, because for better or for worse, Need for Speed Undercover feels like Most Wanted.

In Undercover you play the role of...wait for it...an undercover officer. Along with agent Chase Linh, played by the attractive Maggie Q, your job is to take down a group of street racers that have somehow become involved in an international smuggling ring. The story is told via campy cutscenes that fail to capture the charm of Most Wanted thanks to uninteresting characters and a predictable plot. Having a story provides incentive to make it through race after race, but the whole "this is cheesy so it's cool" thing feels kind of forced this time around.

Like many other Need for Speed games, all of your racing will take place on the streets of a fictitious open-world city--here it's the Tri-City Bay area. You'll start with a lousy vehicle, but it won't be long before you're able to snag a pink slip to a nicer ride. As you progress you'll earn cash, which can be used to unlock (50+) new vehicles from manufacturers such as Nissan, Dodge, Cadillac, Ford, Porsche, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin, Mitsubishi, and more. If you're into tuning individual aspects of your ride or purchasing individual parts you can do that, but if you're not into tinkering you can purchase an upgrade package and be on your way.

Not only will you earn money for winning an event, you'll earn driving points for dominating it--basically beating it really, really bad. You can power up a number of your driving attributes, but they don't have a noticeable effect on how your car handles. As long as you drive fast you'll probably dominate, but there are occasional races where you'll totally obliterate the time needed to dominate an event, but you'll still lose to the CPU. The game also encourages you to drive with style and drift, draft, and drive really close to other cars, but other than increasing your nitrous there's little to gain from doing so. That said, the new J-Turn mechanic, which lets you bust quick 180s, is invaluable when chasing down rivals or evading the cops. You'll use it because it's useful, though, not because it gets you heroic driving points.

The cops are back in full effect in Undercover, and for the most part, their return is welcome. The challenges in which you must ram and take out a certain number of police cars are great fun, as are the challenges where you must cause a certain monetary sum of damage. Of course, you don't always have to ram cars to take them down; you can also run into log trucks, electrical towers, billboards, and more to leave a little surprise for your pursuers. It's too bad that some odd quirks hamper the cop chases. The environmental hazards that you can unleash certainly look cool and are effective, but quite often you won't see any police cars get hit by the objects, yet when the cutscene ends the cars are trashed. Sometimes you won't have to do anything at all to evade police--the game says "go" and you stay still and nobody finds you. Cops are capable of laying down spikes, but you can go the entire game without them ever doing so. The biggest problem, however, is that the cops don't do much other than bang on the side of your car and yell at you, so if you last long enough they sort of fade away on their own. This makes the chases less challenging than they could have been and also makes them feel artificial, like you're just fulfilling some sort of time requirement until the game decides you've done well enough to escape.

Undercover isn't just about messing with the Man. There are events where you need to maintain a lead for a specific amount of time or get a certain distance ahead of your opponent. Sometimes you'll have to shake the cops while trying to keep a stolen ride in pristine condition, and there are checkpoint races and circuit races as well. There's not a whole lot that's original here and the races are generally extremely easy--you might not see another car for an entire race once you've cleared the starting line. They're difficult on occasion, but this is usually because of the occasionally choppy frame rate, which makes the otherwise great-handling vehicles a chore to drive when it rears its head. What's odd is that there's really no obvious reason for the game's sometimes poor frame rate; the city doesn't look much different than those in Carbon and Most Wanted.

That said, the game does do a few things very well. The online cops and robbers mode, where the robber tries to pick up money and take it to a drop-off point while another person plays the cop and tries to ram them, is quite a bit of fun. But mostly what the game gets right is its pacing. The races are short--sometimes as short as 20 seconds, and almost never longer than five minutes. Another cool thing the game does is it lets you instantly jump to the closest race by pressing down on the D pad. If you want to find a specific event you can press up and you're taken to a GPS map, where you can instantly go to the race of your choice. It'll save you a lot of needless backtracking, and combined with the short races, makes sure that Undercover never gets boring.

If you're one of the many people who loved Need for Speed Most Wanted, flaws and all, you'll find a lot to like in Undercover. It's not very original, but there's no denying that it's just good fun to run from the cops and wreak havoc on a city in the process.

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Need for Speed ProStreet review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 06:07 (A review of Need for Speed ProStreet)

ProStreet is a solid racing game, but it has some performance issues and is missing most of what made the previous games in the series interesting.

The Good

Nice online options
Car damage looks nice and makes totaling your ride fun
Solid, albeit unspectacular racing.

The Bad

Doesn't run well unless most visual options are turned down or off
Missing much of the elements that made the last few games fun
Races start to feel the same after a while
Announcers will make your ears bleed
Covered in advertising.

It can't be easy to be a game developer in charge of releasing a new game in a series every year. People don't want the same game over and over, yet they're unhappy if the game strays too far from the established formula. EA deserves credit for trying something different with Need for Speed ProStreet, but the new direction of the series fails to live up to the level of the previous games. There's still a solid racing experience here, and the online component of the PC version is quite good. But the game's premise is uninteresting, the in-game advertising is over the top, and it doesn't run particularly well. In the end, ProStreet is just another decent but uninspired racing game.

Unlike the last two Need for Speed games, which told the story of an underground street racer through campy yet entertaining cutscenes, ProStreet follows the legal street racing career of Ryan Cooper. The game still uses cutscenes to try to instill some story into the proceedings--something about Ryan getting dissed by a big-time street racer--but it's uninteresting thanks to terrible voice acting and unlikable characters. Ignoring the story, it's your goal to head to different events, dominate them, challenge the best of the best, and then take on Ryo, the man who disrespected you after your first race.

Thanks to the sheer number of race days you'll need to win, it will take a long time to get to Ryo. Each race day consists of a number of different events. Most of these will be familiar to anyone who's played previous Need for Speed games. Grip races are standard races with eight cars on the track, and your goal is to finish first. Other events have you trying to get the fastest time or highest speed through checkpoints, or the best time out of your class of cars. Drift racing is back, but has been revamped and is actually fun this time around since you don't lose all your points for going off the track. You'll also be doing a lot of drag racing. It's fun for a bit, but gets old quickly thanks in no small part to the preceding minigame in which you have to heat up your tires; it's lame, and you have to do it before each of the three rounds. While there's no shortage of events, there isn't a whole lot of variety. Many of them feel the same--you just want to go fast. This makes the game grow old quickly, a problem when there are so many events to slog through before you reach the end.

The game also grows tiresome because the action on the track just isn't that exciting. Some of the later cars you unlock, like the Lamborghini and Zonda, are superfast, but for the first 50 races you'll be racing some rather pedestrian vehicles. Since you're on a track there are no shortcuts, so many of the courses end up feeling the same, especially since a "new" course is just an old one with a few different turns. Most importantly, there are no cops. Getting chased by the five-0 was easily the best part of the last few games, so its omission here is huge. Damage plays a more pronounced role this time around; you'll have to repair damaged cars, but you always have enough damage-repair markers to take care of things. We encountered a fair amount of lag when we used a controller with the game, which made car damage a more significant factor with the PC version.

While you always want to win a race day, that's not your only goal. You'll need to dominate as many race days as possible to unlock new events. After each race you're awarded points based on where you placed, how fast you finished, and how much damage you took. If your combined score for all the events breaks the old record, you've dominated the race day and you're awarded with a prize like cash or parts for your ride. You don't always have to race perfectly, but you'll have to win most of the events to dominate. This is made difficult because you can bring only a few cars into each race day--one for each event--so if your car can't hang with the other rides, you're in trouble. All is not lost, though. Like in other NFS games, you can purchase new cars or upgrade your ride to improve performance. And like in the last game, you can sculpt certain aspects of your cars' bodies to make them more aerodynamic. This time you even get to use a wind tunnel. It looks cool, but it's not that useful. Nor are all the visual customization options, because it seems that you can't use your rides online. The tool for putting on decals and vinyls is similar to what is found in Forza 2, but not quite as deep.

On the PC you can create your own race day by picking a location, race types, and even what cars can participate. You can then play these race days online in ranked and unranked matches. There was some lag, the racing was a bit choppy, and we had difficulty finding opponents, but it was still fun--you can really build up some good rivalries by racing the same people in multiple events during an online race day.

Every platform gets a piece of the avalanche of advertising that permeates the game. Sure, races in real life are heavily sponsored, but ProStreet takes it too far--there's nary a stretch of track where there's not some sort of advertisement for motor oil or car insurance. It doesn't seem possible, but 360 and PC owners get to enjoy even more advertising thanks to dynamic ads that will be downloaded when you start the game up for the first time. Even better, some of the achievements are sponsored by a car insurance company. It's too bad that the cost of the game and the ridiculous amount of advertising isn't making EA enough money--on the Xbox 360 (and according to EA, soon on the PS3) you can use real cash to unlock cars and upgrades. Every single time you go to buy a car, you're asked if you want to use in-game cash or real money. You don't even need to have unlocked a car to be able to purchase it with real cash, which is really unfair since you can use that unlocked car to zoom right to the top of the leaderboards on the early courses.

If you've got a rig that can handle it, the PC version of Need For Speed looks just as good as the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. With all of the visual options enabled the game looks very nice--particularly its cars, which look fantastic. They look great when they're shiny and new, but they look even better when they're all smashed up. It hurts your wallet when you total a car, but it sure is entertaining to watch the windshield shatter, the bumper fall to the ground, and the hood peel away like a sardine can lid. Unfortunately, enabling smoke effects, car damage, and bumping up the detail causes the game to run poorly. As mentioned earlier, the game doesn't give off a tremendous sense of speed, even with all of the bells and whistles turned off. This is partially because you'll spend a lot of time driving slower cars, but also because the frame rate isn't very fast and is frequently choppy. Everyone gets in on the terrible career menu, which is ugly and difficult to navigate. We also experienced numerous crashes, regardless of the visual settings.

ProStreet's audio isn't very good. This is mostly the fault of the game's announcers, who are poorly voiced, have a terrible script, yell into the microphone, insist on calling you by your full name every time they refer to you (which is hundreds of times over the course of the game), and basically do everything they can to get on your nerves. The cars sound OK, but there's not a whole lot of variety to the engine noise. The music isn't anything exciting, either, and you'll hear the same songs dozens and dozens of times over the course of the fairly lengthy career.

What it all boils down to is that without the story, cop chases, and open world of the last two Need for Speed games, ProStreet is just another racing game. Other than a nice online mode, its only truly distinguishing feature is its amount of advertising, which makes an already uninspired game feel even more soulless.

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Need for Speed Carbon review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 06:00 (A review of Need for Speed Carbon)

Even though the wingman mechanics and canyon races don't quite pan out, it's still a stylish and enjoyable street racer.

The Good

More-solid FMV sequences
Loads of customization options
Solid core gameplay.

The Bad

Frustrating boss battles
Underutilizes police chases.

After rebooting the franchise with Need for Speed Underground, EA has continued to produce some solid street racers under the Need for Speed banner. Last year's Need for Speed Most Wanted, which featured hilariously over-the-top live-action cutscenes and seriously tense police pursuits, proved to be a high watermark for the franchise. Now it's being followed up by Need for Speed Carbon, which downplays the role of the police chases, introduces some simple team-racing mechanics, and occasionally takes the action off the city streets and into the outlying canyons. The new gameplay doesn't always improve the experience, but the racing can still be quite intense and still has a pronounced sense of style.

Carbon continues the story where Most Wanted left off. For those just tuning in, Most Wanted ended with you recovering your stolen car and bailing out of the city of Rockport while the overzealous, anti-street-racing Sgt. Cross continued his pursuit. At the start of Carbon, you're making your way to Palmont City when Cross, now a bounty hunter, catches up with you and totals your car during the chase. Before he can collect his bounty on you, though, your old friend Darius steps in and pays off Cross. You are then put to work, taking over the turf of the other rival street-racing crews in Palmont City. It seems that you've got a history in this town that predates the events in Most Wanted. And during the course of the game, you'll learn more about that fateful night you skipped town. Different characters will give their takes on the night you supposedly ran off with a big red duffle bag full of cash. And by the end of the game, you'll not only find out what really happened, but you'll have taken over all of the street-racing territory in Palmont City.

Outside of the actual gameplay, one of the more endearing aspects of Most Wanted was the way it used live actors in CG environments for its story sequences. These sequences invariably featured plenty of actor/model types, trying a little too hard to talk tough and failing spectacularly at it. The technique remains the same in Carbon, though there are more story sequences now and a slightly more self-aware tone. The heavy use of flashbacks is an interesting idea, but the story ends up being kind of muddled. And none of the villains come off as particularly menacing. Although it's hard to really qualify any of it as sincerely good, it's just over-the-top enough that folks who enjoy stuff like The Fast and the Furious, ironically or otherwise, should get some enjoyment out of it.

Most Wanted had you racing to raise your visibility with the police and take on the most notorious street racers in Rockport. In Carbon, it's all about turf. Palmont City is divided into four major territories, each of which is predominantly controlled by a different street-racing crew. Each territory is then further divided into zones, and within each zone, you'll find starting points for a variety of different race events. Winning at least two events in a zone will put it under your control. And once you've taken over all the zones in a given territory, you can take on the head of that crew. As you continue to extend your reach across Palmont City, rival crews will come back and try to retake territory the same way you took it from them, forcing you to accept their challenge if you want to maintain control. Having to go back and rerace events that you've already won is kind of a pain, but the open-world structure is nice and gives you plenty of options to take on races at any given point.

However, you won't be taking on all of these crews by yourself, because Carbon lets you bring along a wingman into many of the races. These computer-controlled companions break down into three different behavior types--blockers, drafters, and scouts. Blockers will run interference for you, spinning out opponents at your command. Drafters let you slipstream behind them, giving you some extra speed from the reduced drag, and from there you can pull aside and slingshot your way past them. Scouts have a knack for finding the many alternate routes and shortcuts that can be found in most races, and they have short neon tracers that follow them, making it easier for you to take advantage. You'll definitely find yourself in races where your wingman's influence is the difference between winning and losing. But often, your wingman's presence is either unnecessary or an actual hindrance. Blockers are only really effective in taking out competitors that are behind you, and even then, they're not very reliable. Drafters work as advertised, but the lengthy straightaway needed to set up a proper draft is rare in Palmont City, which limits their usefulness. Scouts are the least useful of the three because the neon tracers don't seem to get longer as the cars you drive go faster, so eventually, there's just not enough time for you to anticipate an alternate route. If you didn't call on your wingman, you might expect him or her to just hang back. But we found ourselves getting bumped into and boxed in by our wingman on several occasions. It's not ruinous to the experience, but sometimes it makes you wish they would just go away.

The game relies on some pretty tried-and-true types of races, but it also throws some curves. You'll find plenty of common stuff, such as lap-based circuit races, point-to-point sprints, and checkpoint races. But there are also some unique races, such as the speed-trap race, where your standing is determined by your cumulative MPH as you race through a series of speed traps. Most races take place on the city streets of Palmont, but there are also drift events, which can take place either on a closed racecourse or on the winding canyon roads that surround the city. The goal in the drift events is to score points by making clean drifts around corners. The car-handling changes completely for the drift events and feels much more slippery than in the rest of the game, which recalls the drift events found in Need for Speed Underground 2.

You'll also face off with the different crew bosses in the canyons, and these events may test your patience. Once you've taken enough turf for a crew boss to challenge you, you'll first race against him in a standard city-street event. If you beat him there, you'll advance to one of the game's canyon courses, which are narrow and undulating. Here it's a two-part race, where you'll first have to chase the boss through a point-to-point race, and then reverse roles for the second part. Your score on the first half is based on how close you stay to your rival; then in the second half, your rival tries to outdo you. These events can be quite challenging because the courses are technically complicated, and the crew bosses tend to be better, more aggressive drivers than the average street racers. There are also a number of ways in which you can instantly fail. If, during the second race, your opponent manages to get ahead of you for more than 10 seconds, you automatically lose. But on the flipside, if you can get ahead of your opponent for more than 10 seconds in the first race, you automatically win both races. Also, each course is absolutely rife with cliffs. This means that if you take a corner at the wrong angle or speed, you can launch your car off of a cliff, immediately ending the race. All of these elements can make for a tough but fair race. However, failure takes you back to the first half of the canyon duel, even if you failed during the second half. It's kind of a minor point, but it's one that can turn a canyon duel into a real chore.

The structure of the canyon duels can be frustrating, but the way Carbon marginalizes the police chases that were so instrumental to the success of Most Wanted is even more disappointing. The cops still play a factor because each zone has its own heat rating that increases the more you race there. The higher the heat, the more likely it is that cops will start coming after you. While Most Wanted had you purposely baiting the cops, as well as attempting to rack up huge property damages and lengthy pursuits to advance the story, there's little reason in Carbon for you to attract the attention of the law. With the ability to hop directly to any race event through the world map, it's possible and quite easy for you to go through the entire story mode where you can count the number of police encounters on one hand.

Structural imperfections aside, the core driving in Carbon is really solid. There's a great selection of licensed real-world cars that you can purchase throughout the course of the game, which are sorted into three different groups--tuners, muscles, and exotics. And you'll find that each group handles differently. In the tuner group, you'll find a lot of souped-up Japanese sports coupes, like the Nissan Skyline, Subaru Impreza WRX, and Toyota Supra. The strength of these cars tends to be an ability to slide around corners. Muscle cars are all Detroit steel, including new stuff like the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Challenger Concept. They also include early 1970s classics, like a Chevy Camaro SS and a Plymouth Barracuda. And though they've got great acceleration in a straightaway, they're pretty loose in the corners. The exotics group is probably the most varied, with high-end offerings from Mercedes, Porsche, Alfa Romero, Lamborghini, and more. These cars also tend to demand a higher level of skill to use them correctly. You can buy cars from dealerships, or you can win them from crew bosses. And once you get them, there are all kinds of upgrades that you can apply to them. There are tiered performance upgrades, as well as a rainbow of paint colors, dozens of vinyl stickers, aftermarket rims, spoilers, and body kits. You can also fabricate your own body parts with the game's autosculpt system, which is oddly reminiscent of the Game Face feature in EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour games. It's a novel idea and great for making some really physically impossible-looking parts. But it takes too much incremental tweaking of settings to get something unique. And there's such a wide variety of prefab aftermarket parts that don't require all that toil, which means only the truly obsessed will get much out of the autosculpting.

If you keep your eye on the prize, you can see the credits roll in Carbon's career mode in well under 10 hours. But if you want to beat every event, as well as unlock every last car and upgrade, you can just as easily spend 20 hours. And there's even more racing to be done outside the career mode. There are 36 increasingly difficult races to take on in the challenge series, and the quick-race option lets you jump into something--no strings attached. The Xbox 360 and PC versions of Carbon also provide a pretty solid online multiplayer component, where up to eight players can participate in all of the race types found in the career mode, as well as multiplayer-exclusive modes, where players get to play as both cops and street racers. The rules in some of these modes aren't explained very well, which can make for some pretty confusing moments. But once you get past the learning curve, you can have some good, team-based fun. We also experienced some minor but pervasive latency issues, even when we were nowhere near the eight-player limit, as well as an odd bug where all in-game sound would drop out for the duration of a race. It's kind of flawed, but again, the actual feel of the racing still translates pretty well online. And an online experience system where you can unlock additional cars helps make it a little more interesting. By comparison, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions get split-screen multiplayer, which works poorly and makes the omission of online play almost feel insulting.

With Palmont City apparently living in eternal night, the game's feel recalls the Need for Speed Underground games, though the scenery changes in Carbon are much more varied. There's a distinct West Coast feel to Palmont City, and you'll find yourself in districts that recall the more posh parts of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. As different as it feels from the city of Rockport in Need for Speed Most Wanted, keen eyes and ears will notice a lot of recycled elements here. Vehicles, environmental objects, textures, and a lot of the sound elements have been cut and pasted into Carbon, making for some odd déjà vu. In some cases, it's a good thing because the squeal of the tires and the growl of various car engines still sound great. But hearing the same police radio chatter in Palmont City that you did in Rockport is just weird. There's some familiar, dramatic music in Carbon as well, although it's odd how poorly the game uses what is actually an interesting licensed soundtrack of rock, electro, hip-hop, and grime. You won't hear much of it, because the game seems to prefer its own music most of the time.

This is a game that seems as if it was developed for the Xbox 360 first and foremost, because the Xbox, GameCube, and PS2 versions feel compromised. One of the most telling points is the fact that the race-wars event type, which puts you in a field of 20 racers, isn't even an option in the non-360 versions. This is likely because of technical limitations. The 360 version looks great, with some heavy motion blur around the edges of the screen. It also has lots of good-looking bump-mapping, slick lighting and reflection effects, as well as a generally more stable frame rate and shorter load times than Most Wanted. The PC version has the potential to look nearly as good as the Xbox 360 version, though the motion blur is a bit more subdued. It takes a pretty high-end PC to get it looking that good, though, and even then the frame rate won't be entirely solid. While the Xbox version has a little less flash, it still looks sharp and runs smoothly. The GameCube version looks almost as good, though the frame rate can be a little inconsistent. The PS2 version, on the other hand, can be pretty ugly. Textures are muddy, there are a lot of jagged edges, and the frame rate is all over the place.

Ultimately, Need for Speed Carbon doesn't make the best use of some of the strengths from Need for Speed Most Wanted. Many of the changes made to the Most Wanted formula seem to be for the sake of change, but it all still just comes back to the solid driving action, which Need for Speed Carbon puts to good use.

Editor's note 11/06/06: Our review of the PC version of Need For Speed Carbon mistakenly scored the graphics lower than intended. The score has been adjusted accordingly. GameSpot regrets the error.

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Need for Speed Most Wanted review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 05:47 (A review of Need for Speed Most Wanted)

Most Wanted is great fun, from its hysterical cutscenes to its extremely tense police chases.

The Good

Outrunning the cops is extremely exciting
Outstanding sound effects
Sharp graphics
Tones down some of the over-the-top product placement found in the previous NFS games
Mindblowing full-motion video cutscenes.

The Bad

Racer AI isn't too bright at first, gets wicked smart later on
Not enough mindblowing full-motion video cutscenes.

EA's long-running Need for Speed series took a trip underground a couple of years back when the developer refocused the game solely on illegal street racing. While the nighttime racing series was certainly successful, the lawless world was always missing one key factor: cops. This year's installment crawls back into the daylight. The actual racing hasn't changed too much, but the ever-present police make this game a whole lot more interesting.

The game's career mode starts out with a hilarious bang. You take on the role of a nameless, faceless new racer attempting to hit the scene in the city of Rockport. An underground ranking known as the Blacklist governs who can race who, and when. You almost immediately run into a punk named Razor, who's definitely the sort of dude that lives his life a quarter-mile at a time. He's at the bottom of the list, but a few races later, he's sabotaged your ride and has won it from you in a race. Meanwhile, you're carted off to jail. Left with nothing but some mysterious help from a stranger named Mia, your task is to get back in the race game to work your way to the top of the Blacklist, which is now topped by Razor, who's using your old car to wipe out the competition.

The game actually has a great story hook at the beginning that makes you want to see the career mode through to completion. The early story segments are told through some sort of unholy mixture of computer-generated cars and full-motion video actors. The acting in these early segments is awful...awful good, that is. You'll scratch your head and wonder if these segments are intentionally bad and meant to be played for laughs or if they're just unintentionally funny. Either way, they're great. Unfortunately, after a brief prologue, you stop seeing video sequences, and the story is conveyed via voicemails from various characters. Are you a cop? Will you get to utter the magic street racing words, "Mia, I am a cop"? Or is the plot twist even more painfully obvious than that? You'll have to see the story through to find out where everyone's allegiances lie.

Working your way up the Blacklist is a multistep progress. Before you can challenge the next Blacklist racer, you have to satisfy a list of requirements. You'll have to win a set number of race events. And you'll have to reach a set number of pursuit milestones and earn enough bounty by riling up the police. The cops hate street racers and will give chase when they see you rolling around the open city. You can also just jump right into a pursuit from a menu, too.

Running from the cops is the best action the game has to offer. Chases usually start with just one car on your tail. But as you resist, you might find 20 cars giving chase, in addition to a chopper flying overhead. Losing the cops gets tougher as your heat level rises. Level one heat results in the appearance of just your standard squad cars. But by the time you get up to level five, you'll be dealing with roadblocks, spike strips, helicopters, and federal-driven Corvettes. A meter at the bottom of the screen indicates how close you are to losing the cops or getting busted. Stopping your car--or having it stopped for you by spike strips or getting completely boxed in by cops--is how you'll get busted. To actually get away, you'll need to get out of visual range...and stay there. The initial evasion changes the meter over to a cooldown meter. You'll have to lie low and wait for that meter to fill up to end the chase. This is probably the tensest part of the entire chase, since you never know when two cops might blow around the corner and spot you, starting the whole process over again. It all sort of works like some sort of strange, wonderful cross between Grand Theft Auto's open city and Metal Gear Solid's stealth mechanic. All the while, you'll be acquiring heat on your car. This means that you'll have to keep a couple of cars around, because acquiring heat on one car lowers the heat on your other ones. Also, getting busted too many times can result in your car getting impounded, though you can avoid that by resetting the system whenever you get caught (if that's more your speed).

There's also a lot of racing in Most Wanted's career mode--almost too much, in fact. You'll engage in multilap circuit races, point-A-to-point-B sprint races, drag racing, checkpoint-driven tollbooth races, and speed trap, where the winner is the player that accumulates the most speed while passing by a handful of radar cameras spread throughout the track. The races are solid but not spectacular. The artificial intelligence doesn't really help things along, because most of the game is rubber-banded like crazy. We actually set our controller down for 20 seconds--then picked it back up and caught our opponents on the final lap. And though the AI will occasionally crash and come to a complete halt, it'll catch up very, very quickly. Later on in the game, you get a voicemail message informing you that things are going to get tougher. At this point, the computer drivers magically start taking every single shortcut, and the rubber banding only seems to work against you. As a result, catching up after a mistake is much tougher. If this difficulty had gradually sloped up, it wouldn't be a big deal. But flipping the switch from "drive like crap" to "drive like a genius" is really annoying. Fortunately, the racing action itself is entertaining enough to keep you going, and of course, you'll be dying to find out what happens next in the story.

The game has more than 30 licensed cars that you'll be able to purchase or win from other racers. We started out with a pretty weak Chevy Cobalt, but eventually we picked up a much faster Supra, a new Covette C6, and so on. You can also find the Ford GT, a Ford Mustang GT, and other cars from BMW, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Lotus, and more. You'll buy your first car, but as you move through the Blacklist, you'll get a shot at the pink slip of the other racer, letting you ease right into the driver's seat of a new, tuned vehicle. Buying them from scratch means you'll have to apply enhancements yourself. You can buy a lot of different performance gear and a ton of visual stuff, like body kits, spoilers, vinyls, and so on. Applying visual upgrades lowers your heat level, making them pretty useful once the cops take notice of your faster cars.

Aside from the career mode, there's also a challenge series that gives you a car and a specific goal. Race goals are fairly easy to understand, but the pursuit challenges ask you to achieve specific milestones, like blasting through five roadblocks or racking up a specific amount of property damage. You can also just dive into quick races, or take it online. The online game is focused strictly on racing, which is a little disappointing. Teaming up to avoid the cops or letting some players drive police cars probably would have been more interesting. Still, the game offers sprint, circuit, and drag races for up to four players, and it keeps an online version of the Blacklist going so you can see who the most dangerous online opponent is. On the game-creation side, you can play in ranked or unranked games, and you can specify a disconnection or "did not finish" percentage, letting you manually weed out jerks. You can also turn off collision detection between players if you want to prevent people from just crashing into one another throughout the entire race, but that's only possible in unranked games. All in all, the online is functional, but without any sort of pursuit mode or other police-tinged races, it's awfully standard.

Graphically, the game looks great, overall. But when you break it down, some parts of it look better than others. For the most part, the game does the large city environment quite well. The different parts of the city give a nice sense of variety, and the car models look sharp, especially when you start painting them with crazy triple-colored paint. The game delivers a pretty good sense of speed and seems to scale reasonably well to fit different PCs. There's a level of detail setting that gets the image quality up to around the Xbox 360 version's graphics, but when that and the resolution turned all the way up, you're going to need a really tough machine to get a playable frame rate out of it. The game doesn't have much car damage at all. You'll see your rear window crack up after a few good wrecks, but there's never any real damage to your vehicle.

On the sound side, the game has outstanding engine noises that change depending on which car you're in and which upgrades you have. The rest of the sound effects are also of excellent quality. The game uses quite a bit of voice acting in the story, which is good. But the best voices come from the police. When you're being chased, you'll pick up the police band and hear them communicating and cooperating as they try to take you down. The cop talk sounds awfully authentic, and you'll eventually decipher the police 10 codes and figure out when they're going to lay out spike strips, set up roadblocks, and so on. While the 10 codes used don't seem to be the actual ones the real police use (at least that's what a little basic research told us), they sound good enough to be realistic. The music included is the standard mix of rock and hip-hop you've come to expect from EA's games, including a few songs from Styles of Beyond.

While the actual racing in Need for Speed Most Wanted is probably the weak link in the chain, it's still solid enough to keep you interested as you move from racer to racer, working your way up the Blacklist as you go. But the real stars of the show are the police, who give the series a much-needed shot in the arm. If outrunning the law sounds like your idea of a good time, you'll have a great time here.

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Need for Speed Most Wanted review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 05:45 (A review of Need for Speed Most Wanted)

Most Wanted is great fun on the Xbox 360, from its hysterical cutscenes to its extremely tense police chases.

The Good

Mind-blowing full-motion video cutscenes
Outrunning the cops is extremely exciting
Outstanding sound effects
Tones down some of the over-the-top product placement found in the previous NFS games
360 version looks good in standard resolutions, much better in HD.

The Bad

Racer AI isn't too bright at first, gets wicked smart later on
Not enough mind-blowing full-motion video cutscenes
Occasional skipping and stuttering from the graphics.

Every good hardware launch needs a great-looking driving game. With the increased graphical power that new hardware tends to provide, we've got yet another test bed for just how realistic computer-rendered cars can actually look. For the release of the Xbox 360, Electronic Arts is serving up the latest installment in its long-running racing series, Need for Speed Most Wanted. Its high-speed races and police chases make for an extremely exciting game, which is further enhanced by the game's terrific graphics. This is one of those games that makes the previous generation of hardware look older than it actually is.

This racing game is broken up into multiple parts, but the largest part of the puzzle is the game's story-driven career mode. You'll start out as the new guy in town, attempting to work your way up in the city's illegal street racing scene. That scene lives and dies by the Blacklist, a top-15 ranking list that lets you know who the most notorious racer in Rockport is. The beginning of the game serves as a prologue. You attempt to run up against the number-15 racer, Razor Callahan, but this jerk isn't about to give up his spot. When you attempt to take him on, his boys tamper with your BMW and you lose the race, your car, and your freedom, as the cops quickly haul you in. Before long, though, you're back on the streets and starting fresh, thanks to the help of a mysterious woman named Mia.

After you're back out and starting over again, the game's story is conveyed mostly via voicemail and text messages from the various racers. But the entire prologue is delivered to you as a series of easy races broken up by full-motion video cutscenes. These scenes mix CG cars and environments with live actors. It's a neat-looking effect, but the best part of the whole game has to be the characters and performances, because the acting--especially from Razor and his homeboy Ronnie--is completely over the top and ridiculous. They're amazingly hilarious, and really make you wonder if the comedy is intentional or not. Either way, they look neat and they're fully insane, and it's a real shame that there isn't more of it.

Your career mode goal is to work your way to the top of the blacklist and take out Razor, who has used your old car to get to the top spot. You'll have to take on each member of the list, one at a time, but you'll also have to prove yourself by completing a series of races and other milestones before you can face off against a Blacklister. The races are standard and come in a few different varieties. Circuit races and sprints are as basic as they come. Knockout races eliminate the last-place racer at the end of each lap until only one remains. Tollbooth races are checkpoint races against the clock. Drag racing is similar to how it's been in the last couple of Need for Speed games, focusing more on proper shifting and dodging traffic. Speed-trap races put a series of speed cameras on the track. Your speed is clocked at each point and added to your overall score, and the highest score at the end of the track wins. Each of the race types is slightly different, but the speed trap and drag races are the only ones to make you rethink your racing strategy.

The racing is fun, but the game's artificial intelligence sort of gets in the way at times. The three computer-controlled racers are definitely programmed to keep it close. If you fall behind, they'll usually slow up or make a mistake that lets you regain the lead. If you're in the lead, the AI rarely fouls up, ensuring that there's usually someone on your tail. It makes most of the races really easy--we set the controller down for 20 seconds and were still easily able to catch up and win the race. However, the game suddenly gets harder when you hit the top five on the Blacklist. The cars still stay on your tail, but they know every shortcut and don't stay too close after they get ahead of you. It's a sudden and dramatic shift, and a more gradual difficulty slope would have probably worked better here.

In addition to your race victories, you also have an overall bounty on your head and milestones to achieve on the open streets of the city. The police are a major presence in Most Wanted. They'll occasionally appear in the middle of a race, which makes the races more hectic and exciting. But the real excitement comes from engaging in police chases outside of races. Once you've been spotted, it takes some fancy driving to lose the cops. Chases usually start with just one car on your tail. But as you resist, you might find 20 cars giving chase, in addition to a chopper flying overhead. Losing the cops gets tougher as your heat level rises. Level-one heat results in the appearance of just your standard squad cars. But by the time you get up to level five, you'll be dealing with roadblocks, spike strips, helicopters, and federal-driven Corvettes. A meter at the bottom of the screen indicates how close you are to losing the cops or getting busted. Stopping your car--or having it stopped for you by spike strips or getting completely boxed in by cops--is how you'll get busted.

To actually get away, you'll need to get out of visual range...and stay there. The initial evasion changes the meter over to a cooldown meter. You'll have to lay low and wait for that meter to fill up to end the chase. This is probably the tensest part of the entire chase, because you never know when two cops might blow around the corner and spot you, starting the whole process over again. It all sort of works like some sort of strange, wonderful cross between Grand Theft Auto's open city and Metal Gear Solid's stealth mechanic. All the while, you'll be acquiring heat on your car. This means that you'll have to keep a couple of cars around, because acquiring heat on one car lowers the heat on the others. Also, getting busted too many times can result in your car getting impounded, though you can avoid that by resetting the system whenever you get caught (if that's more your speed).

The game has more than 30 licensed cars that you'll be able to purchase or win from other racers. We started out with a pretty weak Chevy Cobalt, but eventually we picked up a much faster Supra, a new Covette C6, and so on. You can also find the Ford GT, a Ford Mustang GT, and other cars from BMW, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Lotus, and more. You'll buy your first car, but as you move through the Blacklist, you'll get a shot at the pink slip of the other racer, letting you ease right in to the driver's seat of a new, tuned vehicle. Buying them from scratch means you'll have to apply enhancements yourself. You can buy a lot of different performance gear and a ton of visual stuff, like body kits, spoilers, vinyls, and so on. Applying visual upgrades lowers your heat level, making them pretty useful when the cops take notice of your faster cars.

Aside from the career mode, there's also a challenge series that gives you a car and a specific goal. Race goals are fairly easy to understand (just win, baby), but the pursuit challenges ask you to achieve specific milestones like blasting through five roadblocks or racking up a specific amount of property damage. You can also just dive into quick races, or go online. The online game is focused strictly on racing, which is a little disappointing. Teaming up to avoid the cops or letting some players drive police cars probably would have been more interesting. Still, the game offers sprint, circuit, and drag races for up to four players, and it keeps an online version of the Blacklist going so you can see who the most dangerous online opponent is. On the game-creation side, you can play in ranked or unranked games, and you can specify a disconnection or "did not finish" percentage, letting you manually weed out jerks. You can also turn off collision detection between players if you want to prevent people from just crashing into one another throughout the entire race, but that's only possible in unranked games. All in all, the online is functional, but without any sort of pursuit mode or other police-tinged races, it's awfully standard.

Most Wanted's graphics are one of the best things about it. The visuals certainly aren't perfect, but when you play it on the Xbox 360, there's no doubt that this is a next-generation game, especially if you're playing it on a nice HDTV. The car models look extremely sharp, and are rendered so that you can see the interiors of the cars through the windows--unless you've tinted them. The environments reflect off of the vehicles in a realistic fashion, and a lot of objects, like trees, cast realistic-looking shadows. The flashing lights of police cars also reflect quite nicely, and even the streets will reflect when the roads are wet. The city of Rockport is large, and there's a good deal of variety to be found on its city streets, its freeways, and its back roads. The customizable car parts give the game a real sense of style, and stuff like triple-colored paint looks really nice. The game makes heavy use of blurring effects when you're moving quickly, and this helps give the game a believable sense of speed. However, some of that sense is dampened by some skipping and stuttering that seems to show up in the horizon whenever you take a turn. We also noticed a few spots where textures would pop into view a little late. That visual weirdness holds the game back a bit--it's pretty noticeable--but it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay or anything like that. Even with those problems, this is still a great-looking game.

On the sound side, the game has outstanding engine noises that change depending on which car you're in and which upgrades you have. The rest of the sound effects are also of excellent quality. The game uses quite a bit of voice acting in the story, which is good. But the best voices come from the police. When you're being chased, you'll pick up the police band and hear them communicating and cooperating as they try to take you down. The cop talk sounds awfully authentic, and you'll eventually decipher the police's 10 codes and figure out when they're going to lay out spike strips, set up roadblocks, and so on. While the 10 codes used don't seem to be the actual ones the real police use (at least, that's what a little basic research told us), they sound good enough to be realistic. The music included is the standard mix of rock and hip-hop you've come to expect from EA's games, including a few songs from Styles of Beyond.

There's a lot to see in Need for Speed Most Wanted, but really, the best moments in the game come from the police chases, which are easy to get in to, hard to get out of, and addictive enough to keep you coming back, even if the racing itself doesn't stand out. It's also a shame that there aren't more insane cutscenes to drive the story along, but what's there is still most definitely worth seeing for yourself. All things considered, if you're in the market for an Xbox 360 and you require a driving game, Need for Speed Most Wanted is a great choice.

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Need for Speed Underground 2 review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 05:33 (A review of Need for Speed Underground 2)

Need for Speed Underground 2 is pretty good, but unfortunately most of the stuff you do in between races keeps you away from the game's best moments.

The Good

The actual races are fun
Strong online stat tracking.

The Bad

Too much meaningless driving to get between events
Heavy product placement makes the game feel like you're playing a big ad
Cross-genre soundtrack is too varied to give the game a cohesive sound.

Last year, EA took its long-running Need for Speed series in an exciting new direction with the release of Need for Speed Underground, a racing game that focused on making the import tuner scene the star of its arcade-style racing show. The game worked really well, combining the right level of car customization with good track design, challenging opponents, and impressive graphical effects. Now, one year later, a sequel is on the streets, adding some new race types and a big, open city to cruise around. The actual racing in Need for Speed Underground 2 is still pretty good, but unfortunately most of the stuff you do in between races keeps you away from the game's best moments.

Need for Speed Underground 2 tries to inject a story into your career mode using static-image cutscenes that pop up before some races. The effect is similar to what the Max Payne series does with its noninteractive sequences, though that game pulls it off much better than Need for Speed Underground 2 does. Dopey story short, you're sent off to a new town after getting ambushed by a rival racing crew, and you'll have to start from scratch with one car and a handful of races to get you going.

The biggest change made by this year's game is that the action now takes place in one large city. You're given free rein to drive around wherever you want, and you'll have to drive to races to drive in them. You'll also have to drive to different parts shops to customize your ride--in fact, you'll have to find most of the game's shops by cruising around the city, looking for the right type of colored lights. The game gives you an onscreen map, but shops don't show up until you've found them, and some races don't actually appear on the map, either.

On paper, this whole open-city thing sounds like an interesting idea. Someone probably sat down and said, "Well, everyone likes Grand Theft Auto, and it has an open city, so our game has to have an open city as well. In fact, let's even make it so that different sections of the city are locked away until you progress to a certain point in the career mode." In practice, driving around the city is a real drag that keeps you out of the action longer than you'd like. The game also rarely takes advantage of the open city for racing purposes, staging a majority of its events on preset tracks, rather than attempting to go for a Midnight Club-like "get there however you can" feel. There's a menu in the garage that lets you jump to a handful of different events, but most races don't show up here, and none of the shops do, either, making it completely useless.

You'll start out in some pretty slow cars, so the racing isn't very exciting until you earn enough for a full set of upgraded performance parts. But once you've done so, the racing is fun and the cars handle well. The cars are fast, and things like turning, powersliding, and proper corning technique are easy to pick-up. Like in last year's game, there are a handful of different race types: Circuit races are long lap-based events, sprints take you from point A to point B on a set course, drag racing lets you live your life a quarter mile at a time, and drift races rank you based on how squirrelly you can get on the track. New in this year's game are the street X races, which are essentially regular races that take place on drift tracks. Outrun races take place in various parts of the city--you roll up behind another racer, tap a button, and then try to pass and outrun him or her. You'll also encounter a few races against the clock, in which you'll have to get from one point in the city to another before a photographer leaves the area. Make it, and you'll get to put your car on the cover of one of the game's magazines or DVDs for extra cash. The big new race type is the "underground racing league." These races are the sort of mysterious events where you'll see most of the game's cutscenes. They mostly involve some knucklehead breaking the lock on a race track and then swinging open a gate so your street-racing posse can race on a "real" track, though you'll also bust into airports and such, too. These races are essentially circuit races with racetrack scenery instead of cityscape scenery.

Though there are three different difficulty settings for the career mode, none of them put up a particularly good fight. As a result, most of the races simply boil down to getting in front of the opposition and then doing what you can to not make a mistake. Between nitrous boosts and drafting, gaining the lead isn't very difficult, and the game doesn't seem to employ any heavy rubber-band AI routines to retake the lead from you, so you can usually stay in front without any trouble at all. When you consider that it will take you about a minute to get in front, and that some of the circuit races can last six minutes or more, this means that a great deal of your race time is spent just cruising along, dodging traffic and not paying any attention to the other cars unless you screw up and get into a wreck. In the event that you do crash, regaining the lead usually isn't too tough, especially if you've purchased a nitrous-oxide upgrade, which shamelessly lifts concepts from the Burnout series, translating powerslides and near-misses into extra boost for your tank. The opposing cars will slow down quite a bit if they take a big lead, making them very easy to beat.

Need for Speed Underground 2's crashes are laughably weak. While high-speed collisions with other cars trigger a slow-motion, cinematic shot of the crash, the game doesn't model any damage at all. It's like you're watching two plastic car models bump up against each other, accompanied by the sounds of an actual car crash. While it practically goes without saying that modeling damage in a game with licensed cars is still a tricky proposition, that fact doesn't make these wrecks look any better. Fortunately, the game's car customization features somewhat make up for this lack of visual detail.

A big part of Need for Speed Underground 2 is the ability to customize your car's performance and appearance. On the performance side, you'll purchase parts that have been organized into stages, which gives the game an easy way to lock the better parts away from you until you're ready for them. While the parts fall into different categories, like engines, brakes, tires, and ECUs, the only thing you really need to know is that you need them all to win races. The visual enhancements are a little more involved and give you a little more leeway, but ultimately you'll need to trick out the look of your cars to proceed, as having a flashy car is the only way to get noticed and end up on magazine and video covers. Each set of parts has a number associated with it, and these contribute to a meter that sums up how many pieces of flair you've bolted to your whip. Spoilers, neons, vinyls, roof scoops, spinner rims, custom gauges, and even speakers for your trunk are just some of the available modifications, and they all help your car stand out. This is especially handy online, where you can show off your stuff to the world.

Need for Speed Underground 2 is online on the PS2, PC, and new to this year's game, the Xbox. The online mode is pretty straightforward, letting you set up races in any of the game's race types, and it also features a free run mode, in case you just want to cruise around the city with other players. As you'd expect, the online mode works well over an average broadband connection, even with a full six players in a race. The game also does a good job with statistics and rankings, which can help you find evenly matched races. You can also limit races to cars of a certain rank, or just open it up and let people take their career-mode vehicles onto the track. The GameCube lacks online play, and to add insult to injury, the already-shaky frame rate gets a little shakier when you play in the GameCube version's splitscreen mode.

While Need for Speed Underground 2 is attempting to emulate an illegal scene of "underground" street racing, the game really tries to drive its product placement down your throat. Things like billboards on the sides of the roads aren't too bad (though with an ad for a financial service popping up on some signs, you have to wonder who EA's target audience for this game is), and the occasional real-life fast-food joint does its part to make the city feel a little more realistic. But basing the game's whole onscreen display around the logo for a cellular phone service provider crosses the line. Sorry, but there's nothing "underground" about forcing a bunch of non-car-related corporate logos on people. The game's hokey dialogue also adds to the counterfeit feel. The overzealous script is constantly throwing poorly placed slang at you, having Brooke Burke use her teleprompter voice to tell you that "you've got to be racing tight," constantly calling you "dawg," or being very careful to always call your money "bank."

Graphically, Need for Speed Underground 2 looks good, unless you're talking about the GameCube version, which has a wildly unstable frame rate that really gets in the way of the action in some races. But in the other three versions, the car models are sharp and the city looks fine. For the most part, the game keeps running at a smooth frame rate, even in the later stages, when you're moving much, much faster. But at the same time, it isn't quite the effects show that the last game was. You still get nice little effects, like the shaky camera used to show drag races, but the blur effects are much less pronounced now, which is too bad, because they were really well implemented last year. Now, you get blurring at very high speeds or when you kick in the nitrous oxide, but more would have been better. Like last year, the PS2 version is the heaviest on the effects, though the overall look is still a little subdued. For the most part, the different versions of the game look very similar, with the Xbox and PC versions allowing for slightly higher visual fidelity than the PlayStation 2 version, and the GameCube version bringing up the rear, but ultimately the only major differences come down to the GameCube version not having online support, the Xbox version's analog triggers being the best control scheme for the game, and the PC version not playing very well with the keyboard controls (you'll need at least an analog gamepad if you're planning on playing this game on the PC).

The game's sound rises above its lame dialogue and poorly delivered speech. The engine sounds aren't quite as deep or as throaty as you might like, but the game is great at changing the sound of your car as you purchase upgrades. Also, things like the whoosh of wind when you fly under an overpass really help sell the game's sense of speed.

Musically, Need for Speed Underground 2 is all over the place. The schizophrenic sounds start with the game's lead song, which is a remix of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" done by prominent rap producer Fredwreck. Snoop Dogg joins Jim Morrison on the vocals here. For some people that will be blasphemy, but the remix sounds pretty good. The part that ruins it, though, is that Snoop is rapping about the racing--Need for Speed is specifically mentioned in the lyrics. Again, if you're going to have a game with "underground" right in the name, showcasing a song that does double duty as both an ad for the game and as an extreme case of exploitation of an old favorite probably isn't the best idea. Other songs on the soundtrack include "Lean Back" by the Terror Squad, "LAX" by Xzibit, and tracks from Sly Boogy, Felix Da Housecat, Paul Van Dyk, Cirrus, Ministry, Queens of the Stone Age, Mudvayne, Helmet, and more. This is a textbook case of a soundtrack that tries to appeal to too many different audiences and ends up not including enough of any one style to please anyone. Xbox users won't be able to fix the problem, either, as the game doesn't contain custom-soundtrack support. However, you'll be able to at least turn off tracks that you don't like.

Need for Speed Underground 2 starts with last year's game as a template and builds from there. Unfortunately, almost everything that has been added to this year's game detracts from the overall experience. Once you're in and racing and customizing your cars, it's a lot of fun, but there are too many obstacles standing between you and the best parts of the game.

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Need for Speed Underground review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 April 2013 05:28 (A review of Need for Speed Underground)

Import racing fans should definitely check out Need for Speed Underground.

It's hard to talk about an import car racing game without mentioning the movie The Fast and the Furious. The movie put as much of a spotlight on tricked-out cars as it did on its cast, and the resulting effect caused a huge surge of interest in the import racing scene. In the wake of the film, a number of other properties have risen up to try to claim a piece of the lucrative scene as its own. Need for Speed Underground is EA's attempt to get involved, and it's mostly a success.

A driving game is only as good as its handling and physics model. In this respect, Need for Speed Underground does a pretty great job, though it's by no means a realistic simulation--nor is it trying to be. It's definitely been designed with accessibility in mind rather than focusing on realistic simulation aspects. In fact, the game probably controls best with an analog, console-style gamepad. As a result, the game is quite easy to pick up and play, though some portions require a little more finesse than others. Driving with finesse earns you style points in a system similar to the one found in the Project Gotham Racing series for the Xbox, though this one is much more lenient and awards points for the simple acts of powersliding, drafting, and catching air. Style points accumulate regardless of the mode you're playing in, and you can unlock rewards each time the style points meter is filled.

Need for Speed Underground contains a decent-sized car roster. Right off the bat you'll find a Honda Civic, which is one of the more popular rides in the scene. But the inventory doesn't stop there. You'll also find a VW Golf, Acura Integra, Toyota Supra, S2000, Ford Focus, Dodge Neon, Mazda Miata, and a few more. Though the different cars are rated in handling, acceleration, and top speed, in practice the cars don't drive all that differently, especially once you've purchased some upgrades in the career mode.

The import racing scene is heavy on modifying cars with aftermarket parts, and Need for Speed Underground duplicates this aspect pretty well. The car upgrades are broken down into visual and performance upgrades. Performance upgrades come in multiple levels and must be unlocked before you can purchase them. These upgrades include turbocharge, better engines, weight reduction, enhanced braking, computer-chip tuning, nitrous oxide boosts, and so on. The game contains a lot of actual aftermarket brands for its parts, so when you purchase an upgrade, you'll have limited control over which brands you're buying, but the brand makes no difference--all the brand packages perform equally well.

The visual upgrades also have a positive effect on your car. Purchasing spoilers, body kits, replacement hoods, neons, headlights, taillights, or window tinting for your car, or making other major changes to your car's appearance, increases your reputation rating. As your rating gets higher, the multiplier bonus you get on your style points increases, which lets you unlock other rewards more quickly.

The main reward you get for your style point total is access to vinyl stickers for your car. They start out simple, such as racing stripes and designs, but you can eventually put brand stickers from many different aftermarket part and stereo makers all over your car.

The tracks in Need for Speed Underground are well designed, but even though there are well over 20 different tracks in the game, they get pretty repetitive. The game uses the old trick of opening up or closing certain pathways to reconfigure certain sections of a track while using the same sections over and over again. Because of this, you really have to pay attention to your map as you drive to make sure you're prepared to take the right path. The game offers what appears to be a large city, but going off the track will simply reset your car back onto the proper street.

Need for Speed Underground contains a good variety of different races that help keep the action varied, though a lack of unique tracks keeps most races from feeling different from one another. Circuit racing, standard one-shot runs, and knockout-style circuits are all included, and all offer slightly different takes on the plain old race, and drag racing and drift racing change things up nicely. While the initial thought of drag racing--racing in a straight line--may sound pretty boring, the gameplay is quite different here. The steering gets reduced to slot-car-like lane-change control, and your main focus is on shifting properly. A clear RPM meter is displayed on the left side of the screen, and indicators instruct you when to shift. The early drag races are simple, clear races. But the later tracks throw traffic and other obstacles in the mix, forcing you to worry about lane position as much as you worry about shifting.

Drift racing puts you alone on a short, wide track. Time means nothing here. Instead, you'll be graded on how well you can powerslide around turns. Proper use of the emergency brake is key here, though learning how to drift properly isn't very difficult at all. It isn't as exciting as the drag racing, but it makes for a nice change of pace.

The career mode is called "go underground," and it lets you engage in all of the game's race types in its 111 races. Since the game certainly doesn't contain 111 different track layouts, you'll be spending a ton of time racing the same stretches of road, forward and backward. This can make the mode a little tedious, but this is the only way to make money to spend on car upgrades. Each race comes in three different difficulty settings, and you'll earn different amounts of money depending on which difficulty you select. Being able to select this from race to race is nice, because it lets you make the difficult races easier, ensuring that you progress pretty steadily. That said, the game isn't terribly challenging on its normal setting, so anyone with a shred of driving game skill will probably want to select the hard setting, as it manages to put up a decent challenge most of the time.

Go underground also gives you a few cutscenes, which are meant to give some meaning to your progression by having a pretty bad-looking polygonal woman tell you about your performance, but these are chock-full of really lame, fake attitude and come across as incredibly hokey.

The console versions of Need for Speed Underground allow you to get into two-player races via a split-screen, which works reasonably well. However, the PC and PlayStation 2 versions of the game have online play, which includes head-to-head challenges as well as four-player races. Additionally, you can actually pit PC players against PS2 players, which is a neat inclusion. Online rankings are a factor of your reputation, which increases and decreases as you win and lose races. If you don't feel like putting your good name on the line, you can also drive in unranked races. The online play works pretty well, though lag does manifest itself as cars that sort of skip around the track.

Need for Speed Underground's coolest aspect is probably its graphics. The console versions of the game make use of a pretty dramatic motion-blur effect that gives the streets a grimy, realistic look. The blur also gives you a pretty good feeling of speed. The streets are almost constantly wet, giving them plenty of opportunity to show off their reflectiveness. The cars are also supershiny and reflective, though the reflection doesn't update often enough in the console versions of the game, which makes the reflections look a little choppy. The frame rate also tends to take a few dives in all the console versions, and this, combined with the constant motion blur, makes some parts of Need for Speed Underground look really surreal. The PC version of the game starts out with the motion blur disabled. You can enable it, of course, but it never gets as heavy--or as cool-looking--as in the console versions, and the PC version looks a little too clean as a result. The car models all look pretty accurate, and the additional body kits, spoilers, rims, and other visual add-ons look good. Overall, each version of Need for Speed Underground looks great, though the Xbox version is definitely the best looking of the bunch by making good use of the motion-blur effects while still running at a mostly smooth frame rate. The sounds of racing are well done in Need for Speed Underground. Tire squeals, engine noises, and exhaust notes all come across properly and about as realistically as you'd expect. You'll also notice some great but subtle things, such as the sounds of a turbocharged motor versus a standard motor. There is a lengthy soundtrack with songs from artists such as Nate Dogg, Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boys, Petey Pablo, Rob Zombie, and The Crystal Method. The Xbox version lacks custom soundtrack support, which is disappointing, but the soundtrack definitely fits the theme of the game and has a decent amount of variety.

Need for Speed Underground is great. With just a bit more variety to its tracks and a slightly better career mode, it definitely could have been better, but it has great graphics, solid sound, and the sort of easy learning curve that makes it a driving game that anyone can excel at. Online play gives the PC and PlayStation 2 versions of Need for Speed Underground an edge over the other versions. Import racing fans will also get an additional kick out of the car customization aspect, which is more faithful than in other games that have attempted to mimic the same style of street racing. Race fans should definitely check out Need for Speed Underground.

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