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.
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.
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.
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.
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.