Need for Speed: Underground (Game Boy Advance) - Review by Andrew



Anyone who's been involved in the GBA scene for any length of time is likely to have come across developers Pocketeers and their impossibly ambitious engines. This small group wowed the gaming media some years ago when their technical demos showed just how far the GBA could be pushed in the right hands so they were clearly the obvious choice for Electronic Arts when the decision was made to convert one of their hit franchises to a handheld format although the same company coded the rather disappointing Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed, which we reviewed some months ago. The less said about that particular title the better. We've certainly come a long way with driving titles on handheld systems though it seems like only last year when we were happy with a 'top-down or 'Mode-7' take on the genre. The time is now though and 3D is what's expected. The question remains though are technically impressive games compromising the actual gameplay? Read on and see...


As with most racers you can opt for a quick fix, head over to the more involved career mode or 'Go Underground' as it's referred to here. Before you start a race of any type though you'll need something to race in and packed into this tiny cart you have some 14 licensed cars to choose from. There's something for everyone here and even when you've selected a car from Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Nissan, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Acura you can customize your ride still further although doing this will require funds and gaining funds means winning races. Predictably the majority of the races take place at night, no doubt to avoid that rush hour traffic, although you will still encounter some buses, cars and trucks that will wander into your path spinning you out of control. Each race takes the form of a challenge and as the competition gets fiercer you'll also need a more powerful car not to mention tighter racing skills.

It's not all about straight racing though and visiting the quick fix will present you with some varied challenges. The first of these is Drag, where you must compete on a super straight track using your gears to cross the finish line first. This is much more exciting than it sounds and as your speed increases so does the camera shake giving a real illusion of speed. Drift is less self-explanatory and far more difficult to master. It takes place on a dirt filled and corner filled circuit with the object to slide or 'drift' with style and so amass points. The challenge is to combine speed with control whilst not hitting the sidings. The longer you do this, the more points you'll be awarded to spend on your car until you have the ultimate racing machine. There's a pretty entertaining multi-player section too but it's the single player bouts that really set this title apart. Finally, and thankfully, the save is a battery backup option although with the sheer amount of data it's saved us from what would probably have been a 50-digit code.


Clearly the GBA's button layout is somewhat restrictive when compared with the more powerful consoles but the developers have done an admirable job in keeping things manageable whilst utilizing the handheld's strengths. For starters you can select a completely automatic car allowing you to concentrate on navigating the streets. Drag Racing however will require you to use gears (via the shoulder buttons) to build up speed in the most efficient manner. An important part of the control system is achieved thanks to some excellent programming by the developers giving the various cars a real feeling of weight. When you master the all important power slide it gives you the edge in a variety of ways and it really is hard to describe the feeling of joy when you complete a series of these moves without slamming into a wall.


While Underground features an incredibly powerful and very competent 3D engine the actual track designs can become a little repetitive. This is mainly because everything is a variation on a theme and a single layout is simply 'blocked' at various locations to create the racing environments. You do have a full city to race around though and while the textures are not as detailed as they need to be it's still all rather impressive. I say 'need' because as a result of the reduced textures it's difficult to distinguish between a solid wall and a bend, meaning you can't always anticipate an up-coming corner and so where you should be placed on the road. There's also little in the way of overall presentation and some of the menus are fairly bland and uninspiring. The car models, on the other hand, are reasonably impressive as they rotate when you're deciding to purchase them. Overall you have one of the best looking racers on the GBA albeit still not quite V-Rally 3 standard.


Tires screeching, engines revving and (unfortunately) cars crashing. It's all here with every bit of the audio doing a fine job of conveying the atmosphere of intense street racing. What isn't expected is that the developers have also managed to port over some of the original tracks from the console version and while these are a little on the short side they're of great quality and certainly add to the game's overall enjoyment.

Final comments

There's no question that this was an ambitious project and the fact that the developers have succeeded in a great many areas is clearly to be applauded. You get just about as close as you possibly can to enjoying all the benefits of a more powerful console version on a considerably less powerful (and portable) machine. Underground is incredibly rewarding and enjoyable to play with enough variety and gaming modes to keep you playing for some time. It's not without its faults though and undoubtedly a little more development time would have addressed these. On a final note please remember when you're scanning the shelves in your local gaming store to look for Underground and not the inferior Porsche Unleashed which you won't be happy with if you buy in error. You have been warned.

Pro: Solid Racing Engine
Con: Poor Presentation
Final score: 8.5


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Boxart of Need for Speed: Underground (Game Boy Advance)
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Genre: Racing
Developer: Pocketeers
Publisher: Electronic Arts