What Made Underground 2 So Special

There’s something about putting on that horrid remix of Riders on the Storm featuring west coast hip hop legend Snoop Dogg that can make an entire workplace stop in their tracks. Released in the fall of 2004 to capitalize on the sudden popularity of a brand new movie franchise (that has since become synonymous with tuner culture), Need for Speed Underground 2 was an arcade racer so close to perfection, even people who didn’t care for street racing or cars in general still sometimes cite it as one of their favorite video games of all time.

Selling an absurd amount of copies even by today’s standards, and receiving unanimously positive critical reception – in some cases better than the movies which inspired the software – Underground 2 is an unforgettable product from the glory days of Electronic Arts. While many gamers nowadays see Electronic Arts as an evil empire which swallows independent companies whole, spitting out horrid, bastardized remakes of once-classic franchises in the process, Underground 2 is the ultimate proof that Electronic Arts at least deserved every last sale which allowed it to turn into the cold, corporate entity it is today.

However, despite Need for Speed: Underground 2 laying out the perfect blueprint for rival developers to improve upon when creating a rival street racing title, in the years following the 2004 smash hit, companies were only able to push out cheap imitators that never quite captured the magic of the game that brought the cheesy import tuner culture into the spotlight. Officially licensed Fast & Furious titles were seen as little more than elaborate pieces of shovelware, while Acclaim’s Juiced was deemed too bland for the type of illegal racing it chose to depict. Rockstar’s own Midnight Club series made a valiant attempt at stealing some of Underground 2’s thunder, but a giant leap in difficulty and superhuman vehicle physics made it a tough sell for those unable to grasp the bizarre driving style needed. Oddly enough, even Electronic Arts themselves struggled with re-capturing the magic of Underground 2, as despite their subsequent success in 2005 with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the quality of their yearly releases took a nosedive soon after. Need for Speed Carbon was seen as a generic rehash, Need for Speed Undercover was considered a bad joke, and the 2015 reboot, which was supposedly heavily inspired by the Underground games, was almost universally panned by critics and fans alike.

So what exactly was the blueprint that Electronic Arts had perfected with Need for Speed Underground 2, and better yet, how does a developer tasked with creating a street racing title in 2017 and beyond retain this winning formula?

Let’s go on a journey.

The Music

Including the PSP exclusive tracks that appeared in Underground Rivals, which was released roughly alongside Underground 2, the game featured thirty two distinct tracks from a variety of up and coming artists. While most will assume the list of songs is a completely random assortment of artists Electronic Arts had signed under the EA Trax banner (which is partially correct), there was actually a formula the Underground 2 team employed when selecting music for their game.

The track list had been split into three distinct themes; racing, cruising, and navigating through menus. By default, and this is something you can see in the menu upon booting up a new save file in Need for Speed: Underground 2, each of the thirty two songs had been assigned a distinct area of the game, only to be thrown into the rotation during that specific portion of gameplay. Hard hitting, fast pace punk rock and heavy metal pieces such as Helmet’s Crashing Foreign Cars would only appear while the player was partaking in straight up race events, while atmospheric electronic instrumentals like the remix of Paul Van Dyk’s Nothing But You and Chingy’s I Do would pop up during periods of lighthearted free roaming or scrolling through customization menus.

What this did was establish a very distinct subliminal atmosphere in Underground 2; rather than the game outright telling you that races against the AI were heated affairs and downtime in career mode was to be relaxing and easygoing, Electronic Arts scripted the track list to kind of manipulate your senses and get you into that state of mind. Of course, you can always go through the options menu and change it for yourself to hear everything at once, but most people didn’t do that, and it worked.

What also worked, is how the track list had been crammed full of artists that the general public wasn’t all that aware of, and this allowed the songs to become synonymous with the game. Save for Queens of the Stone Age and Rise Against, who at the time were brand new bands that had each put out a very good album a year or two earlier, people went into Underground 2 willing to give the entire soundtrack a listen, instead of mashing the skip button until their favorite band appeared. As a result, there are people who will hear Killradio’s Scavenger and instantly associate it with Need for Speed: Underground 2, the same way people see Topher Grace and immediately associate him with That 70’s Show.

When it comes to picking out a soundtrack for their next arcade racer, developers need to focus on more than just signing popular bands or getting one or two hit songs on the track list; they need to understand how music messes with people’s emotions, and in some cases can become forever linked to the software.

The Customization

As much as the import tuner scene gets ragged on in real life for being a bunch of dweebs in their early twenties bolting cheap pieces of plastic onto their Honda’s and Subaru’s, Need for Speed Underground 2 essentially gave you an entire fantasy parts catalog to run wild with; options so diverse, websites such as NFSCars.net were able to hold a string of customization contests just with the vanilla in-game content alone. A dizzying array of body kits, spoilers, roof scoops, rims, and hoods were just the tip of the iceberg, as the customization element extended deep into nitro purges, tinted windows, mirrors, doors, pulsating neon effects, and even completely useless shit that served no purpose during gameplay, such as hydraulics, custom HUD gauges, and in-car audio systems. While rival street racing games such as ValuSoft’s Street Legal Racing Redline require you to download an abundance of mods to push the customization element to the fullest extent, Underground 2 had almost too much shit to mess around with by default.

And that’s before we get into the simplistic yet somewhat powerful livery and decal tool. While you can’t manually place individual stickers as is now commonplace in games with built-in comprehensive livery editors like Forza Motorsport 6, Underground 2 offered an enormous amount of base layers, graphics, sponsor stickers, and custom artwork to make up for the inability to draw dicks and swastikas on your Mustang. Bases, layers, and accents could be combined to generate a unique livery that looked somewhat reasonable for the subject matter at hand, and though pretty much every creation looked tacky as hell in hindsight, the key thing was that your own vehicle never resembled anything else you saw on the internet, because the possibilities were as close to limitless as the options allowed.

Now in subsequent games, every developer, including Electronic Arts themselves, bundled some sort of car customization element into their product to try and improve upon what was offered in Underground 2, but where they failed is in the sheer number of parts. Underground 2 didn’t have ten spoilers to select from (where only three of them would look reasonable), it had close to forty. The front bumpers all ranged from modest splitter extensions to radical re-designs, so those who wanted to keep the rice factor light were able to do so, while teenagers looking to create an embarrassing monstrosity were free to run wild. Individual bumpers, headlights, and roof scoops could be mixed, matched, and omitted entirely, again ensuring that your creation was something you weren’t going to see anywhere else aside from your own television. Both Need for Speed Most Wanted and Rockstar’s Midnight Club series attempted to retain this level of personality, but fell flat when it was discovered you just couldn’t do a lot in comparison to Underground 2.

The massive selection of aftermarket visual upgrades also played an integral role in the progression of the game; as you made your way through the lengthy campaign mode, you were always finding new shit to bolt to your car, and that made playing through story mode genuinely entertaining, even when the grid of plowing through event after event started to drag on. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, a new tier of body kits, spoilers, hydraulics, or mufflers would be unlocked, allowing you to drastically re-design your car several times over and watch it evolve from a simple Honda with entry-level aftermarket body panels, to something that resembled a Super GT competitor, and everything in-between. Part of the enjoyment of playing through Underground 2 was being rewarded with all kinds of crazy shit every step of the way, whereas other street racing titles handed you a tricky livery editor and some shitty looking rims as seen above.

Developers looking at creating a current generation street racing title need to realize that five wings and a few preset bodykits aren’t going to woo the masses; Underground 2 succeeded in this area because there was so much crap jammed into the customization menu, and it was such a simplistic process to apply, you could regularly hold online car shows that didn’t rely on elaborate third party custom liveries designed in photoshop.

The Variety

Like all racing games that made use of an open world environment, Need for Speed Underground 2 took the classic approach of closing off corridors for circuit races and point to point marathons, but then proceeded to blow the doors wide open with a selection of more unconventional race types. Drift events in the mountains, drag events across bridges and abandoned airport runways, autocross-like events held inside drift facilities, and even select invitational tournaments on purpose built race tracks that whisked you away from the city altogether all contributed to a very diverse racing game with a lot of genuinely unique disciplines held under the same night sky. In keeping so much content under one roof, it meant that people had a reason to keep coming back to the game to try something new. Underground 2 wasn’t just a goofy free roam, ricer culture simulator that challenged you to build something wacky with the extensive car customization options; suddenly it was a drifter’s paradise, a circuit racer, a canyon battle platform, and a lighthearted drag racing game, all in one.

Oh, and you could take all of this stuff online against your friends, as well.

In custom lobbies, no less.

There were no black sheep modes inserted into the experience that were clearly an afterthought or not as fleshed out as another portion of the racing; every style of race in Underground 2 served a purpose, and offered something totally different than the last. This ended up making for a game where repetition isn’t something that drags the title down – you’re always being introduced to new race types, and more challenging variants on disciplines you’d thought you’ve already mastered. First, you’re drifting on a closed course. Then, you’re racing SUV’s on the same drift track. Then, you’re taken away to drift in the mountains. As a feature-complete package, it just kept throwing new shit at you and saying “here, try this.”

This diversity is aided by the excellent Bayview map, which serves as the home of Underground 2. Split into five distinct areas, each portion of the map has a substantially different flair to its layout, and thus requires multiple driving styles to remain competitive. While the downtown area is the traditional generic ninety degree corner paradise, the industrial sector is loaded with blind corners & back alleys that can be used as risky shortcuts, whereas Beacon Hill boasts crazy elevation changes, and the most northern region is basically a drifting paradise that overlooks the city. It’s one of the few open world cities that really nails individuality and makes every virtual city block matter, compared to other open world racers where you blast through bland, meaningless areas of the game world which serve no purpose whatsoever. Codemasters’ Fuel comes to mind as being an example of this problem.

What the act of throwing so many different things into in Underground 2 does, is it essentially justifies the lengthy career mode and time spent unlocking everything, or merely upgrading the cars in your garage. Developers need to take note of this; Underground 2 was not a disposable game that was forgotten in a month, and is instead still actively enjoyed by many, because once you finally got to the end-of-game credits, players felt like they hadn’t yet exhausted every mode or race type available – that’s how much there was to do, and that’s what developers need to aim for in the future.

In fact, if there were to be a high definition re-release of Underground 2 for current generation consoles, it would not be surprising to see active communities or even private leagues start up for the game centering around specific race types in the game. People would be racing through the game’s Career mode just to create a purpose-built drift car, for the sole purpose of having a competitive ride in online lobbies. As a developer, that’s the kind of following you want, because these people will be most likely to purchase additional DLC packages and extra goodies on the day of release, thus extending the lifespan (and, of course, profits) of your title well after launch.

The Physics

Developers have a real problem with arcade racers as of late, inserting bogus handling models that basically drive the car for the player, thus taking any sort of talent, skill, or real-world knowledge out of the experience. Now, I’m not saying every single racing game on the market has to have a thermonuclear tire model understood only by a handful of NASA physicists who have passed the knowledge down from employee to employee over several generations of game consoles, but driving cars at speed is a lot more fun when the cars behave in ways that can be understood by the average person wanting to go a bit faster on the following lap, and tactics people use out on the track in a competitive setting can be defended and even countered.

Need for Speed Underground 2 was not realistic in the slightest, but the handling model made sense. Yes, you could lay on the nitro button and hit absolutely ridiculous speeds, launching off hills and undulations in the terrain with reckless abandon, but you also had to brake for corners, take proper racing lines, and generally put some thought into what you were doing behind the wheel. This is what made Underground 2 extremely enjoyable, especially for people with a dedicated racing wheel setup such as myself. For all of the Nissan’s and Hyundai’s flying around Bayview at astronomically high speeds that they couldn’t dream of achieving in real life, you still had to wheel the damn things. Underground 2 still drove somewhat like a car, a far cry from current arcade racers.

Unlike Need for Speed 2015, where the car snaps into a drift mode (and then tries to take control away from you by automatically counter-steering), Underground 2 had elements of a very simplistic vehicle simulator under the hood. Too hot of an entry, and the car lost front grip; too drastic of an angle, and the rear end broke loose. Weight transfer didn’t throw the car into the wall as it would in something like Assetto Corsa, but it was there, and posed a threat if you really weren’t paying attention over a crest. Yeah, the cars had a shitload of grip and were basically Super GT cars with every single modern electronic aid turned on if you equipped the full offering of Stage 3 parts, but that’s not the point – what is the point, is that they still drove like cars. There was no Press X to Slide functionality, no hand-of-god mechanic that kept the vehicle glued to the racing surface as we would see the following year in Most Wanted – it was simplistic as hell, but it was a car, and it made sense to drive.

And though it was a portion of the game a lot of the mainstream audience avoided, Underground 2 had a full garage menu and complimentary test track to develop custom setups for your car in any of the available race types. While the millions of teenagers around the world who undoubtedly received the game as a Christmas gift could easily complete the game with the default setup applied to their car, Electronic Arts gladly gave the hardcore crowd who would invest several weeks into the online aspect of the game a way to gain an edge against their opponents, by implementing rudimentary setup adjustments for the sim-oriented customers. This was an arcade game, in which Honda Civics could eclipse 240 miles per hour with off-the-shelf performance upgrades, and yet Electronic Arts went out of their way to cater to the hardcore crowd with a dedicated test track mode.

What this all resulted in, was a raw racing experience that was something to master over a period of days, weeks, or even months, as opposed to a game where you learned how to exploit a broken drift mechanic, or endlessly fought with a driving model that actively tried to take control away from you in favor of a cinematic experience that frequently sent you into a barrier. Underground 2 was fun to play because you could actually figure out how to drive the cars and become more proficient at the game based on the number of hours you put into it, as opposed to merely putting up with wonky handling until you inevitably lost interest.

Developers need to stop with the nonsensical “action” driving models and re-implement a set of physics that resemble rudimentary rubber-meets-road behavior, as the easier a player can comprehend what they’re doing wrong behind the wheel, the more likely they are to sit down and practice in an effort to improve, thus spending more time with the game and being in it for the long haul. Recent arcade racers haven’t allowed this learning process to take place at all because the driving portion is so nonsensical, which is why releases such as Need for Speed 2015 were shelved by some racers within an afternoon of play.

One of the greatest arcade racers of all time, Need for Speed: Underground 2 was not just a title that happened to capitalize on a cheesy movie franchise that rose to sudden popularity in the early 2000’s, but a meticulously crafted experience which was ingeniously designed to ensure people would have an especially difficult time putting down the game and moving on to something else. Since its release, several developers have attempted to capture what made Underground 2 so special with their own spin-offs on the subject matter – including Electronic Arts themselves – but failed to realize that the game relied on so many well thought out elements coming together to create one cohesive experience, their attempts failed miserably, time and time again.

The genre of street racing games can be done well, as evidenced by Underground 2, but developers haven’t figured out that part of creating a captivating street racing title comes in understanding what Underground 2 perfected in its design. It’s much more than bolting bizarre wings to shitty Nissan’s; there’s a very specific method to the madness.

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Need for Speed Jumps on the eSport Bandwagon?

not-nfs-2017I’m admittedly a bit late to the party on this one, but when it comes to Need for Speed, it’s probably better late than never when you consider the target audience of PretendRaceCars.net – we’re not really here to dive into arcade racers as we do with the hardcore simulation stuff.

Nevertheless, it has been a pretty rough start for EA’s longstanding Need for Speed franchise on current generation consoles. Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were graced with an extremely bland launch title that was discarded almost as soon as it arrived in Need for Speed: Rivals, and after an extra year spent in development to ensure customers would receive a compelling experience that brought back fond memories of the two Underground street racing offerings, 2015’s Need for Speed was better known for it’s aggressive viral marketing campaign than what was actually included on the disc – which was unanimously agreed upon to be pretty fucking terrible.

For the past decade or so, Electronic Arts have grown accustomed to this situation; struggling to figure out what to do with this franchise from a creative standpoint. Most Wanted was more or less declared the pinnacle of the series back in 2005 via online community consensus, and given the piss poor reception to Carbon exactly one year later, Electronic Arts realized they couldn’t just keep remaking the same game over and over again with minor adjustments.

Drastically re-inventing the wheel with each passing year in a desperate attempt to find stable ground, Need for Speed went through an identity crisis equal in length to the time it spent establishing itself as one of the great video game series of the modern 3D era, and judging by the critical flops released in both 2013, and again in 2015, this identity crisis shows no tangible signs of stopping. Electronic Arts have basically given up trying to create an inspiring racing game that captures the magic of the original collection of titles, instead using the brand to market a generic wildcard arcade racer to generate X amount of additional revenue in time for the holiday season. Sometimes it’ll be a street racing package bundled with a goofy story line, and other years, it’ll be a hardcore racing simulator. Sure, it’ll say Need for Speed on the box, but that’s really only to reel people in who may not be paying attention to how far the franchise has fallen.

In 2017, Electronic Arts and Ghost Games may possibly shift gears with the franchise yet again, perpetuating the eternal identity crisis to capitalize on the growing eSports scene. A recent leak on NeoGAF revealed Electronic Arts have trademarked the name Need for Speed: Arena, and it’s not hard to speculate what’s going to happen here: it’ll be an eSport title.

need-for-speed-arena-trademark-eaThe social sharing capabilities of DriveClub, bundled with the lackluster vehicle physics of the Frostbyte engine? You bet your ass this is the direction Ghost Games are choosing to pursue.

Despite the fact that racing games have simply not caught on in the world of eSports – with Kylotonn’s online competitions in WRC 6 doing little to generate interest, and iRacing not exploding in popularity – Electronic Arts are looking to take a major gamble and put their faith in competitive gaming. Is it a poor decision? Of course it is. The most popular eSports titles are all free-to-play, and require little skill other than being able to click around a screen – hence the popularity of female Twitch personalities who whip their tits out and stumble through an online event while beta orbiters fawn over them by the truck load. Racing games are simply too difficult for this kind of scene to develop, and considering how poor the driving physics in Need for Speed 2015 have been demonstrated to be, wrapping this experience into a package that stresses online competition above all else is a pretty difficult sell for even the most diehard of Need for Speed fans.

What do I feel Electronic Arts should do instead?

The answer is quite simple: It’s the perfect time to release a high definition remaster of Need for Speed: Underground 2 on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Marketplace, with full online play functionality enabled.

As ugly as the game will look compared to modern racers, as dated as the soundtrack is, and as awful as the creations we’ll see roaming the online servers are guaranteed to be, Need for Speed: Underground 2 was fun, and people will gladly pay ten dollars to take a trip down memory lane and build shitty riced-out Civics that can hit 240 mph with their friends. Insert a half-assed cockpit view similar to the silhouette interior cam seen in Gran Turismo PSP, let us North Americans dick around with the exclusive European hatchbacks, and you’ll have a game people race home after work to play every single evening. Underground 2 may be dumb fun, but at least it’s fun; Need for Speed 2015 is just dumb.

Stretch this high definition remaster endeavor to include Need for Speed: Most Wanted the following year, and you’ve got more than enough time while the masses are distracted to sit down and build a modern Need for Speed title that doesn’t feel like a generic racer spawned solely to inflate the quarterly revenue of Electronic Arts.

A Tale of Two Tire Models

shift2u-2016-09-06-22-53-08-61I understand it’s not a game most readers of PRC.net would like to hear about, but over the past week or so thanks to a crippling intestinal infection, I’ve had enough free time to sit down and figure out how to install Shift 2: Unleashed. There are indeed people who swear off products by Slightly Mad Studios for one reason or another, but nobody can deny the stellar list of content available in this game – it’s really the last modern racing simulator where all major car brands and a few major racing series were willing to play nice with one another, and the track list rivals even the most hardcore of rFactor packages. If you can get past some of the casual elements sim racers tend to scoff at, the title boasts three complete seasons of racing as you progress into the higher tiers of career mode – those being the FIA GT1, FIA GT3, and Historic Touring Car championships. It’s not a stretch to call Shift 2: Unleashed the spiritual successor to GTR 2 and GT Legends, one which Ian Bell desperately tried to shoehorn into the market under the Need for Speed badge.

Is the vanilla game every bit as awful as people make it out to be? Absolutely. As I’ve mentioned, this is a game that takes hours to configure, and I’m not just taking about the time spent yanking a copy of the Limited Edition from one of several Torrent sites. There are numerous community patches and additional bits and pieces to snatch from NoGripRacing.com, most of which simply unpack the game and fix errors made by Slightly Mad Studios during the game’s development – such as the fuel cell being located outside of the car. I will say though, that once you’ve actually sat down for the upwards of two hours it takes to finally get everything into a functional state, Shift 2 is basically the Forza-like experience for the PC you’ve been looking for, and it earns bonus points thanks to how Shift 2 turns into GTR 2/GT Legends later in Career mode.

It’s just a pain in the fucking ass installing these mods. Seriously.

shift2_unleashed_lamborghini_murcielago_r-sv_gt1_day_1So while you’re going through the steps to inject all of these fixes into your root Shift 2 folder, you’re actually faced with a choice when it comes to the game’s tire model, because this is one of the few updates that isn’t mandatory. Look, you can choose to play Shift 2 with the default set of physics, but to get any sort of enjoyable experience out of the executable file, you’re forced to again consult NoGripRacing.com for one of several different tire model modifications. And they basically all advertise the same effects – a much more realistic driving experience than the one Electronic Arts and Slightly Mad Studios originally built.

ptmuThe first, and most popular tire model modification, has been dubbed the Polish Tyre Mod by brrupsz. I’ve been following the community surrounding Shift 2 Unleashed from afar since the game’s release in the spring of 2011, and this is the package that most people flock to by default. Not only does it fundamentally change how Shift 2 drives, there are also little pieces of bonus content that come bundled with the download if you’re looking for just a little bit more of a challenge from Shift 2. Most notably, brrupsz has completely re-worked the artificial intelligence in terms of competence, aggression, and pace, producing an offline racing experience that can be quite enjoyable compared to some of the more traditional racing simulators.

This is the modification I prefer, as it drives very similar to RaceRoom Racing Experience. Even in the high-end GT3 machinery, you really have to concentrate on hitting your marks each corner and choosing when it’s the appropriate time to push, carefully balancing weight transfer with limited tire grip. I think the street cars were exceptionally well-done, as the stock Chevrolet Cobalt handled in a very similar fashion to my own shitbox Cavalier as I was progressing through the early races within Career mode. However, lap times were over six seconds off pace compared to these same cars in other simulators. I took the Audi R8 GT3 to Road America for one of the game’s Endurance events, and was only able to muster a 2:07.250. The same car in Automobilista could sit in the 2:02’s quite easily. I personally enjoyed the driving style and offline racing this mod produced because it really made me pay attention to my pedal inputs in a way that was benefiting me, but we were lapping much slower than what these cars are capable of. It was like how MLB players warm up with a weighted bat – not realistic, but I enjoyed having to concentrate on the fundamentals of race car driving.

gtyresThe other popular mod that’s managed to attract the attention of the Shift 2 community would be the G-Tyres release by B7ake. If you are looking for pure, unadulterated simulation value, this is the exact mod that will satisfy your virtual auto racing needs. I jumped into a Quick Race at Brands Hatch with my newly acquired McLaren MP4-12c GT3, and busted out lap times on-par with these same cars in rFactor 2 – sitting around the 1:22 to 1:23 range. Physically, it felt like I was playing Project CARS, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if this guy was contacted in some fashion to help out Slightly Mad Studios with last year’s controversial release. To verify that it wasn’t just a bullshit placebo effect making me jizz myself over this tire model, I went back to Road America, and promptly set lap times in the 2:01 range with the McLaren, just a hair faster than the Audi GT3 in Automobilista – and that minuscule difference is something I’d chalk up to the powerplant difference rather than the physics engine.

But the speed difference is what kills this mod. Shift 2’s AI, as well as the changes made by third party AI mods, are typically built around the slower lap times turned by cars using the original physics engine, or the Polish Tire Mod. While I double and triple-checked to ensure that any remnants of other AI mods had been uninstalled properly, and the readme for the G-Tyres mod claimed to be bundled with it’s own set of AI tweaks by default, what I saw out the front windshield simply did not reflect any of the alleged changes. Sure, the lead pack of four cars tried to put up a fight against me throughout the opening corners, but with this mod, I didn’t just beat the AI; I made them not want to show up to the race track anymore, and I didn’t feel like I was going all that particularly fast. So what the G-Tyres mod appeared to have done, at least from my standpoint, is turn Shift 2 into a very competent and somewhat realistic hotlap simulator.

This is fine for some people, as the both the vehicle and location rosters are beyond excellent – as well as the realistic upgrades system, but Shift 2 ships with a Career mode and progression system that are both fairly satisfying. It was hard to justify leaving out such a major portion of the game in favor of hot lapping, and therefore I went back to the Polish Tire Mod in the end.

What I find interesting, is that if this is the guy they had helping out with Project CARS, or Slightly Mad Studios were using their own tweaks to achieve a similar result, I’m starting to understand some of the AI issues seen in Project CARS. Considering both games are built on the Madness engine, I believe the AI simply weren’t coded to handle their vehicles at a real world pace. Honestly, they’re totally fine to drive against when running six seconds off pace using either the default tire model or Polish Tire Mod, but when you jack up the realism and start laying down real-world times, that’s when the AI begins to struggle and do a bunch of fucked up things. If SMS had to manually code in that extra pace to keep up with the new batch of realistic physics, I’m not surprised the end result was as poor as it was.

maxresdefaultI will hopefully get around to doing a full review of Shift 2 Unleashed in the coming weeks, as it’s a vastly different game with all of the community mods injected into it compared to what you’ll see at your local GameStop for $19.99 used, but this just goes to show the depth of changes people have been making to this game in an effort to turn it into their vision of GTR 3. And I think it’s been enjoyable in a unique way to test out Shift 2 in this third-party state; you really get to see how Slightly Mad Studios handled the transition between Shift 2 and Project CARS. It’s a feeling equivalent to combing through YouTube and stumbling upon the demo tracks of your favorite rock band’s landmark album – you’re given a bit of insight into the internal conversations that helped shape the product.

A Tale of Two Games

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Prior to the rise of the Import Tuner Scene thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the Fast & Furious franchise during the early 2000’s, Need for Speed was once a highly respected arcade racing series developed by Electronic Arts that acted almost as a virtual extension of your childhood Hot Wheels fantasies. Early entries in the line of Need for Speed titles allowed you to drive nothing but the fastest and elusive production cars on scenic roads across the globe, with the series earning widespread notoriety for occasionally tasking you with out-running a dynamic police force, whose tactics would change based on how long you were able to keep the car in one piece. Even the most hardcore of sim racers can most likely recall fond memories of stomping around locales like Hometown and Rocky Pass in supercars that would now be deemed too old to be competitive in a modern Forza Motorsport title, but there’s no denying the magic of what Electronic Arts had been able to capture during that special time in gaming.

The year was 2002, and Electronic Arts had been given the job of entering the next generation of gaming with a sequel to 1998’s critical and commercial success, Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Capitalizing on the power of modern PC’s compared to relatively restrictive days of Windows 98, as well as the fantastic performance of all three consoles –  Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’ GameCube – the sequel to Hot Pursuit was promised to be the definitive Need for Speed title; the ultimate culmination of everything the team had learned from the previous eight years spent creating compelling virtual supercar playgrounds.

However, only a fraction of those who owned Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 speak of the game in a positive manner.

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While no official reason has been given as to why the development of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 had been split between two different developers, what we do know from the Wikipedia entry on the game states that the Sony PlayStation 2 version of the title was developed by an entirely different studio than the Xbox, GameCube, and Windows XP releases. After nearly half a decade spent working on NASCAR titles for Sony’s original PlayStation, BlackBox Games of Vancouver Canada were given the job of creating Hot Pursuit 2 on the PS2, whereas the other versions of the game would be developed by a new outlet in EA Seattle – a location which closed at the end of the 2002 calendar year, shortly after the game’s release. My own personal speculation regarding the two-team approach to Hot Pursuit 2 boils down to the inferior hardware inside Sony’s PlayStation 2 – this is a console that routinely experienced framerate drops and a noticeable decline in visual fidelity compared to the other consoles on the market at the time, so it’s possible the PS2 version needed to be an entirely separate project to get around the performance issues, but Electronic Arts has simply never spoken about it.

Yet in an odd twist of events, it was the PlayStation 2 version of the game – the one released on Sony’s under powered console – that ended up as the definitive version of Hot Pursuit 2. Black Box knew full well what they were doing. EA Seattle, on the other hand, did not.

The basic assets of each version of Hot Pursuit 2 were intended to remain largely the same to ensure a sense of parity between experiences on each platform, but this simply didn’t happen in execution. While the roster of cars is identical on paper, the EA Seattle rendition of the title – the version available on the Xbox, GameCube, and PC – noticeably lacked the Arizona desert environment found in the PlayStation 2 version of the game developed by Black Box. And when it came to unlocking the NFS Edition upgrades to each of the title’s 20-odd vanilla supercars as you progressed through the various Single Player campaigns, the NFS Edition cars found in the PlayStation 2 version of the game were of a higher quality than those found in EA Seattle’s offering. NFS Edition cars were given slightly better attributes and fancy two or three-tone liveries in the PlayStation 2 version, while EA Seattle could only throw generic pearlescent paint jobs at the bonus cars.

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Menu artwork and general heads up display shenanigans were left largely up to the interpretation of each individual development team. Black Box opted for a simplistic menu design, a throwback to what had been seen in the console version of High Stakes while still moving forward in a new direction, whereas EA Seattle opted for an excruciatingly modern look via sharp edges, gradients, and various shades of faded blue. Black Box went for bold, BIG lettering on the overlay, presented to the user with only primary colors, while EA Seattle experimented with a widescreen minimalist approach. The end result allows for the Black Box version to age gracefully in a visual sense, whereas the work by EA Seattle is almost a time capsule of failed ideas that look like utter shit.

And utter shit is an understatement when it came to how each title appeared once the cars finally hit the track. The comparison below features the exact same forest environment across the two titles, albeit on different sections of the track, and it’s easy to see from a visual standpoint just who exactly put out the better product. Black Box went for a lush redwood forest with a fairly high contrast color palette for the road artwork – complete with unique rubber markings to display the fact that you weren’t the first to lay a patch of rubber down, while EA Seattle’s offering looks dull and washed out. The track layouts were not a strong point in Hot Pursuit 2; possibly the game’s only negative aspect, but at least you can still fire up the PlayStation 2 version of the game without wanting to gouge your eyes out.

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Nostalgia has a funny way of clouding our judgement more often than not, but I’ve spent enough time with both versions of Hot Pursuit 2 at multiple points in my life to assess them in some kind of objective manner for PRC.net. Not only had each version been miles apart on a visual level, they drove in two distinct styles as well.

I obtained the EA Seattle rendition of Hot Pursuit 2 numerous times over the past fifteen years – once off the file-sharing application KaZaa not long after the title’s release, and I also was bored enough to play through the game to 100% completion on the Nintendo GameCube during New England’s decimation of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 39. My complaints with EA Seattle’s adaptation of Hot Pursuit 2 stem largely from the ridiculous input lag that polluted not just their PC release, but the GameCube offering as well. The controls were so sloppy and so insanely delayed, even in YouTube videos by other competent drivers, you can see them adjusting the steering mid-corner to accommodate for the complete lack of precision. Combined with a driving model that felt floaty and aproximated – to the point where even the player car appears to hover above the racing surface for brief moments – the EA Seattle version of the game sucked to play. It looked awful, and it drove like shit. If you owned an Xbox or GameCube, it was hard to believe this was an authentic Electronic Arts product.

However, the PlayStation 2 version of the product, develop by industry veterans Black Box, was a completely different story. Driving with the standard Dualshock pad, my first impressions of this game at a friend’s house way back in the day was just how tight the steering on each car was, and this fidelity wasn’t lost when selecting the Extreme handling model – something that had been left out of the EA Seattle version of the game. While the entry level vehicles offered to the player at the start of the game were still uncompelling in their own right, the medium and high tier cars really came alive when pushing them to the edge of the game’s simplistic tire model, yet there were never any scenarios where you felt the dualshock couldn’t keep up to what the game asked of you. The best way to describe it for PRC.net readers who haven’t gone this far back in the Need for Speed line of games, is that it was basically the exact same handling model as the two Underground releases, albeit with less downforce and more body roll. Sure, you had much more grip than you’d ever have in real life by a long shot, but unlike the Burnout-infused arcade racers of today, you still needed to drive the car, and if you sucked, the game made no concessions to hold your hand.

I’ve been recently playing through the Single Player campaign on the Black Box PlayStation 2 version with my aging Driving Force GT, and this is really a hidden gem when it comes to wheel compatibility for arcade racers. Unlike later Electronic Arts/EA Sports titles, which used extremely exaggerated force feedback effects to appeal to the casual audience, Hot Pursuit 2 is strangely satisfying – almost as if you took the sublime effects found in Assetto Corsa’s early access period, and simplified them as much as possible without losing their overall purpose. I’m still not in love with the track layouts found in the title, but wheeling some of the mid-range to top tier cars against an intelligent police force, and being able to feel the precise moment when you’ve dropped just one tire onto the grass, was a lot more fun than I expected it to be.

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The police force in EA Seattle’s rendition of Hot Pursuit 2 were often simplistic and timid. They called road blocks, spike strips, and helicopter assistance with significantly less frequency than what was found in the PlayStation 2 version, often leading to races where the police were just sort of there in the distance, but never played an integral role in how the event progressed. Black Box chose a much different path, and made highway patrol ruthless to the point of frustration. Police were given nitro boost and insane rubber-banding to help combat talented virtual drivers; a decision that can actually be won in the player’s favor provided you hold them off long enough during each event. Helicopters do not hesitate to throw explosives at you, eventually culminating in an abundance of air-dropped spike strips that should spark the imagination of any law enforcement offers who have found their way over here. The police are a dynamic entity on the PlayStation 2; there’s significantly more unique radio chatter, their tactics are much more aggressive, and provided you’re a big enough asshole, you can temporarily take squad cars out of commission by running them off the road. Black Box created a war on wheels that defined the game, whereas EA Seattle felt squad cars should be little more than a minor distraction.

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Both developers had different ideas on how to progress through the game as well. The basic outline defined by Electronic Arts required the use of a fluctuating NFS Points system, where completing Single Player campaign events and on-track maneuvers would reward the user with a form of currency that would allow them to unlock the cars and tracks they were interested in driving, rather than a linear progression that saved the best cars until the very end. EA Seattle gave a giant middle finger to the users and dispersed these points extremely slowly, to the point where insane grinding was required to acquire virtually any meaningful piece of content on the inferior version of the game – a task made even more excruciating thanks to the horrendous driving model.

Black Box had taken a much more user friendly approach and handed out NFS Points quite liberally throughout the race; awarding the user for everything from clean passes to navigating through a law enforcement road block, and as a result, the more prestigious cars and challenging tracks could be obtained through light to moderate levels of playtime. As an added bonus, those who braved the rather challenging event tree of Single Player challenges could obtain new cars and tracks without parting with any virtual currency at all, resulting in a progression balance where grinding simply didn’t happen – unlike the PC, GameCube, and Xbox versions of Hot Pursuit 2.

Across both titles, career mode had been split into two distinct sectors, essentially boiling down to Events with Cops, and Events without Cops. Unfortunately, this is where both games began to falter. The track layouts simply weren’t up to par compared to the original string of games on the Windows 98 platform, and coupled with single lap times approaching the four minute mark, even just a few races could eat up a much bigger portion of your day than you’d anticipated. Further adding to the drudge of career mode was the distinct lack of overall environments, leading to a constant repetition of certain track layout portions before you’d even gotten all that far into what Hot Pursuit 2 had to offer. I’d say the repetition is arguably worse in the superior PlayStation 2 version, as earlier this weekend I ran into a three race tournament event that had me racing on the exact same Desert Sands layout three times in a row, with the only difference being the last place car in each prior race would be eliminated.

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The soundtrack may have possibly been handled by an external entity, as the same lineup of songs and artists appears across both versions of the game, down to the way each individual track had been mixed. One of the most underrated parts of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 has nothing to do with the game itself, but rather how the audio had been mixed in a uniform way. I’ve got the official soundtrack rip from the game sitting on my MP3 player, and from an audio standpoint, it seems as if Electronic Arts had obtained the rights to every master track long before Rock Band and Guitar Hero made this an industry standard practice, mixing them to achieve an identical vibe regardless of the genre. The drums are thundering, the guitars crystal clear, and the vocals are caught somewhere in the middle of it all. The combination of Rush’s One Little Victory, Pulse Ultra’s Build Your Cages, Bush’s The People That We Love, Course of Nature’s Wall of Shame, and Buzzhorn’s The Ordinary are all riffs people who’ve played Hot Pursuit 2 won’t soon forget, and most importantly, they’ll remember them as they appeared in Hot Pursuit 2 – heavy and loud.

Yet it was the Nashville-based Hot Action Cop stealing the show; Electronic Arts inserting two extremely suggestive tracks from the band’s debut album which required heavy lyrical editing to earn a spot in an E for Everyone product like Need for Speed. I promise you that the way these songs appeared in Hot Pursuit 2 are not as the rest of the world knows them, and you’re in for a pretty big surprise if you’re bored enough to look up the original lyrics. These guys are actually still around, by the way.

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As the game hit store shelves, critical reception to the EA Seattle-developed Hot Pursuit 2 was lukewarm at best, with mainstream gaming publications deeming it to be a completely average racer with no outstanding qualities whatsoever. A quick google search of EA Seattle brings up a tidbit noting the studio had been closed at the end of 2002, indicating this whole idea of Electronic Arts outsourcing different versions of the game to different entities had been a colossal failure. Black Box, on the other hand, went on to be the sole developer of future Need for Speed titles – a decision which paid off immensely for Electronic Arts almost immediately, as the team struck gold for three straight years afterwards with the releases of Underground, Underground 2, and the fan-favorite Need for Speed Most Wanted – and again with the Skate franchise, which is set to return in the near future.

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Electronic Arts have tried to bring back the Hot Pursuit tag in 2010, partnering with Criterion Games of Burnout fame to create a product that can be described best as “Burnout with real cars”, but it’s very possible we’ll never see a game – or development process – quite like what we saw with Hot Pursuit 2 ever again. It just didn’t work on any level whatsoever, and if you have horrible memories of Hot Pursuit 2 as an entirely forgettable game simply not worthy of the Need for Speed name, now you know why.

Play It Loud – The Best Music of Need for Speed

The moment the PC Reveal trailer dropped for the reboot of Need for Speed earlier this week, I’m sure many PRC.net readers were anticipating a lengthy article tearing Electronic Arts a new asshole. Advertising basic racing game features like manual transmission, steering wheel support, and an unlocked framerate as groundbreaking implementations intended to woo die-hard gamers, the 64 second video above is proof that the entire racing game genre is set to implode in the near future. Electronic Arts and Ghost Games did not create a piece of virtual entertainment with Need for Speed 2015; they composed a product purely to show up on a revenue report in six months.

So I’d rather go in an entirely different direction today.

The large budget Electronic Arts have provided the numerous different developers of Need for Speed over the years comes with some mighty fine perks. While most will immediately criticize EA for using their billions to snatch up the exclusive Porsche license – effectively crippling the car roster to an extent in superior racing games – many overlook the biggest asset that comes with a nearly unlimited flow of cash being pumped into the series: licensed music. Dating all the way back to the series inception in the mid-1990’s, the sheer variety and quality of music Electronic Arts have blasted through your living room speakers has provided a memorable soundtrack to an entire generation of car enthusiasts. Need for Speed may have died a slow, agonizing death, but mere guitar riffs can transport us directly back into the glory days.

We here at PRC.net are going to look at the ten best songs to ever show up in a Need for Speed title. I love my loud guitars, so there’s going to be some bias towards the rock end of the spectrum, but I believe EA has managed to give us an extremely diverse group of quality music regardless, and that will be reflected in this list to the best of my abilities.

#10 – Queens of the Stone Age – In My Head

The tendency for Electronic Arts to inject a heavy dose of modern rock into the Need for Speed games of the early 2000’s was often a mixed bag. Screaming vocals and unintelligible lyrics weren’t everyone’s cup of tea, though occasionally a diamond in the rough would offset some of the angst-ridden teenage wailing. Queens of the Stone Age enjoyed mainstream radio success with “No One Knows” and “Go With The Flow”, and EA managed to snatch up the California band early by including them in past editions of the NHL series. The steady-yet-mellow tempo of “In My Head” proved to be a natural fit for the long hours of grinding away at the career mode in Need for Speed Underground 2.

#9 – Junkie XL feat. Lauren Rocket – More

Many readers of PRC.net might be fans of Junkie XL without even knowing it. Calling Europe home, Junkie XL most recently composed some of the soundtrack pieces for the recent blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road, though his work can be seen steadily throughout the video game and film industry. The electronic track featuring Lauren Rocket on vocals was the first collaboration between the two artists, with another entitled “Cities in Dust” appearing in 2008’s Burnout Paradise. Heavily censored in order to show up in Need for Speed: Pro Street, “More” was predictably written about dropping ecstasy and partaking in numerous sexual encounters. No less than five different versions of this song were included in the 2007 edition of Need for Speed, drilling the chorus into our subconscious whether we liked it or not.

#8 – The Crystal Method – Born Too Slow

The original reboot of the Need for Speed franchise took place in 2003 with the release of Need for Speed Underground, and this catchy track by The Crystal Method was the lone soundtrack inclusion in the game’s PC demo. A radical departure from the guitar-driven pieces that had complimented the previous year’s release, what’s now one of The Crystal Method’s most well-known singles was the final piece in the puzzle that helped establish the first major shift in development for the Need for Speed series. Due to the song’s constant references to cocaine, many vocal parts were removed in order for the track to make an appearance in the first Need for Speed: Underground title. Underground fans may argue that Lil’ John’s “Get Low”  from the main menu evokes a much stronger feeling of nostalgia, but at least you can listen to “Born Too Slow” in 2016 without feeling like you’ve stumbled upon a Weird Al record.

#7 – Paul Van Dyk – Nothing But You (Cirrus Remix)

Featuring trance singer Jan Johnston at the helm of an already fantastic electronic composition, the Cirrus Remix of “Nothing But You” became a sleeper hit on the soundtrack of Need for Speed Underground 2 simply for being atmospheric. Serving as a throwback to some of the more elaborate instrumentals featured in early NFS titles, the Paul Van Dyk creation upped the tempo of the source material and provided an appropriate vibe to the neon-infused environment of Bayview.

#6 – Pulse Ultra – Build Your Cages

For 2002’s Hot Pursuit 2, Electronic Arts spent a fair bit of money obtaining the master tracks to all fourteen songs available on the game’s soundtrack, and proceeded to remix them in-house to achieve a uniform album-like sound. While Rush’s “One Little Victory” and Course of Nature’s “Wall of Shame” were turned into beefy gut-punching entries, no one track benefited from the remixing process more than “Build Your Cages” by Pulse Ultra. Already an extremely heavy and melodic track, the Pulse Ultra composition became the song in Hot Pursuit 2 that begged to blow out your speakers each and every time the clean opening riff began.

#5 – 30 Seconds to Mars – Edge of the Earth

After a flurry of titles failed to innovate the Need for Speed franchise into the household name it once was, the future of the series was handed off to ex-Burnout developer Criterion Games starting in 2010. Their first of three similar titles, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, used “Edge of the Earth” by 30 Seconds to Mars as the title screen music. The epic instrumental buildup, followed by a grandiose chorus, were a perfect fit as the theme song for the series reboot. Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s extensive soundtrack doesn’t live up to the level as “Edge of the Earth, instead offering generic electronic tracks quickly drowned out by the roar of supercars.

#4 – Wolfmother – Joker & the Thief

Hailing from Australia and capitalizing on the theme of re-inventing classic rock bands for a new generation of fans, many tracks from Wolfmother’s debut album found their way onto all sorts of movies, television shows, radio stations, and video games. Considered by many to be their finest work, and routinely blasted through the public address system at large sporting events in place of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”, “Joker & the Thief” was the centerpiece of which the rest of the Need for Speed: Carbon soundtrack revolved around. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like this song.

#3 Snoop Dogg feat. The Doors – Riders on the Storm

Despite its lyrics referencing gameplay elements not actually available in Need for Speed Underground 2, such as Ferrari’s and the presence of law enforcement, this poor remix of a classic Jim Morrison tune accidentally became the anthem of a generation. due to the success of the game itself. On paper, combining Snoop Dogg and The Doors is a preposterous idea, and had this been released as a proper single, it would have been considered one of the worst songs of all time and temporarily tarnished Snoop Dogg’s reputation. However, the widespread acclaim Need for Speed Underground 2 received from both critics and fans alike eternally tied this song into the memories of many. Play this one at work, and a portion of your staff will stop in their tracks, reminded of a simpler time.

#2 – Jeff & Angela van Dyck – Headless Horse

Prior to the Need for Speed franchise taking off in the gaming world, Electronic Arts consulted local talent for the artistic side of their releases. Based out of Vancouver, British Columbia, EA hired Jeff van Dyck and a handful of his friends to compose original soundtracks for not only the first batch of Need for Speed titles, but for several yearly EA Sports offerings such as Tiger Woods, NHL, and the world renowned FIFA series. “Headless Horse” was a composition many became familiar with in Need for Speed II, featured as the theme song for the Proving Grounds circuit – a high speed test track intended for beginner drivers. Van Dyck’s wife Angela provides the haunting background vocals, which are actually just descriptions of the different tracks available in the game. Saki Kaskas may have the better guitar skills, but Headless Horse is what people remember.

#1 – Rise Against – Help Is On The Way (Gladiator Remix)

One of the many bands to sign on with Electronic Arts right as the company first began to include EA Trax into their games, the politically-charged group from Chicago has made numerous appearances throughout EA titles over the past decade. While “Paper Wings”, “Give It All,” and “Lanterns” all saw airplay in games such as Burnout 3: Takedown and NHL 13, the Gladiator Remix of “Help Is On The Way” – an aggressive number penned about the events of Hurricane Katrina – takes the top spot in our list. Tim McIlrath’s fiery rants regarding the government instead take a back seat to a large symphony arrangement; one intended to set the mood while browsing the main menu of Shift 2: Unleashed. While the game itself wasn’t very good – full of the same bugs owners of Project CARS have been subjected to with no end in sight – hearing Rise Against presented in a manner like this is more than enough to make you temporarily forget that Shift 2 was awful.

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