Need for Speed Underground Rivals Review (PSP)
Filled with options galore, Need for Speed Underground Rivals brings it's representation of the "tuner" culture to Sony's new PSP. As you'd expect, it's fast, furious and chock full of flavor, but the generic feel of the racing itself keeps the game from rising to the very top of the PSP's already full plate of racers.
Well, NFSU Rivals is an EA title, so one expects the graphic work therein to be top-notch. By and large, the game doesn't disappoint. It's colorful and clean, with an excellent feeling of speed - including the now -ubiquitous motion blur. Cars will shower the road with sparks when scraping against objects, and the game's lighting and reflections really look impressive - even on the smallish PSP screen. All is not perfect, however. There is some distracting "pop-in" from time to time which can make it difficult to focus on your path, and when things get really hairy, some frame rate issues rear their ugly head. The game won't chug to a halt, but you'll notice it, and when it happens, it destroys the marvelous illusion of speed that the game can generate at times. All in all, however - it's a solid performer on the graphics side, and sometimes, it's even out-and-out gorgeous.
NFSU Rivals doesn't need a big push in the audio department - engines hums, metal scrapes, and other environmental sounds appear. All are adequate, and honestly, they don't really need to be more than that on a handheld system. The game's "EA Trax" list contains over 30 titles, and like most "EA Trax" - you'll find a few songs you like, and a whole bunch you probably won't. It's always going to be a trick (and likely an impossible one) to try to please everyone, and I'm not sure that this play list will do it, but EA is certainly to be commended for wedging so many songs onto the game's UMD. The play list is editable, so you can omit the songs that drive you batty easily enough, and over the PSP headset, each song's quality is more than adequate.
NFSU Rivals is a tuner's dream, and since that's the raison d'être of the game itself, there's no question that it's the main thing that sets NFSU Rivals apart from the competition. For a portable game, I was stunned by the sheer number of tweaks and upgrades that were available in this title. Virtually every one of the roughly two dozen cars can be completely transformed in both appearance and performance, and it's an awful lot of fun to fiddle with every possible little setting and upgrade. Unfortunately, the performance part of that tuning doesn't always hold up in game play, but between the options available for your rides and the plethora of courses to race them on - there's a lot of meat on NFSU Rivals' bones.
Here's where NFSU Rivals becomes something of a double-edged sword. There is the Circuit Mode, where you'll race in circuits (of course!), "knockouts" and rally races. There are multiple difficulty levels to unlock and play through, so Circuit Mode will definitely keep you coming back for more. In the game's Quick Play Battles, you'll race in other different events prevalent in the "underground" racing world, including drag racing, drift attacks, nitrous runs, and Street Cross races. These are quicker, more timing-related events that are instantly familiar to NFSU veterans, and they also have multiple difficulty levels to unlock. There's quite a bit here to look forward to, but one thing that's missing won't be missed - the poorly applied Grand Theft Auto-styled free-form world in the console version of Need for Speed Underground 2, which simply served as a watered-down time-waster. Thankfully, NFSU Rivals is more about getting from race to race and unlocking more and more avenues of play.
Remember that double-edged sword I talked about? Here's the other side: Unfortunately, despite all the different race types and customizations the game offers, almost all of the races feel slightly similar - and a bit unfair. You may have spent hours building up a spectacular street racer that should have no rivals on the asphalt, but make one mistake at the wrong time, and it'll cost you the race - oftentimes to a vastly inferior vehicle. While this "catch-up logic" certainly is a boon to the player in the earlier stages of the game, the further you go along, the more you'll wish it wasn't in there at all. At the end of the day, the racing feels so arcade-like that you may find yourself wondering what you're tweaking your car for anyway - and that all but defeats the entire purpose of the game in many ways. It's not abysmal, and the style of racing won't be a shock to those familiar with arcade racing titles, but in a game like NFSU Rivals, where the emphasis is on enhancing your vehicle through successful driving - and thus making it easier on you as a reward next race - it can't help but feel like something of a disappointment.
"Ad Hoc" (read: local connection) and "Infrastructure" (read: Internet) Wi-Fi online play is available is NFSU Rivals - but only for two players. That's better than nothing, but for this kind of game, it tends to lessens the tension and excitement dramatically. On the bright side, it does run very smoothly if you have a friend with a PSP and a copy of the game, and it's still a great diversion from racing against the AI.
NFSU Rivals sets itself apart from other racers by the sheer number of options available to the player. From tweaking cars to tweaking music to driving in many varied types of races, NFSU Rivals doesn't skimp on the experience, and the game retains it's veneer of urban cool.
However, the racing itself is more or less pedestrian, and when the rest of the game shows this much depth, to see it lacking in the main portion of game play can't help but disappoint some players. If you're a Need for Speed Underground fan, then you may forgive the game's nature in lieu of it's flavor, but for those looking for a fun and varied racing game and don't care much about the window dressing, Need for Speed Underground Rivals may only provide fleeting entertainment value. It's style over substance here - so depending on what you want, and if you'll pardon the pun - your mileage may vary.