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Underground 3's a crowd: Why the new Need for Speed will disappoint

Underground 3's a crowd: Why the new Need for Speed will disappoint

My ten-year-old self just got his birthday and Chrismas wish rolled into one last week, or at least partially. EA recently teased a new instalment of the enduring Need For Speed series, hinting specifically at a sequel or a 'next chapter' to one of their racing sub-series. The rumours were sparked off with a simple tweet and a picture showing a bright green sports car with custom rims; suggesting that the game in question might be (in spirit, at least) Underground 3. As soon as the internet began to put the pieces together, the child in me began to freak out, but before the disappointed adult in me could smile and follow suit, I was simply left thinking, “hang on a minute.”.

I want to preface this by saying that Underground 1 and 2 were two of my favourite games on the PlayStation 2, and I have burned through countless hours in Olympic City and Bayview, taking on all the circuits, sprints, drifts, drags, and, my favourites, the Street Crosses. Every single hour I spent blasting through the competition, making 'bank', and buying top-of-the-line cars and turning them into bling-bling sideshows were deliriously fun for me. I enjoyed the games that came later like Most Wanted and Carbon, but in honesty, compared to the dazzlingly good Underground series, as time went on, EA produced decreasing returns of success – need I remind you all what a mess The Run was? As a result, I began to feel more and more forlorn, wondering when my prayers would be answered, and if we'd see a sequel to one of the best racing games ever – I tried playing cheap knockoffs like Street Racing Syndicate to recapture a little of the magic, but that just made me miss Underground even more. So, now that the prodigal son has returned, I find myself unsettled. I'm worried, not elated.
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I'm afraid that it might be a case of “too little, too late”. EA are looking to revive the series after the last main installment Rivals proved to be a relative disappointment – according to VGChartz, it moved 4.22 million units across all platforms, which was disappointing compared to the previous year’s Most Wanted (5.43 million) and poor compared to earlier iterations Underground 2 (10.95 million) and Carbon (8.92 million). Need for Speed is in decline, and although rebooting the series has worked in the past (Underground itself was a reboot, focusing on the emerging Japanese tuner culture, de-emphasising the luxury sports cars of Porsche Unleashed in the process) but therein lies the problem. EA exploited tuner culture to make money because it was the hot new thing at the time, following hot on the heels of The Fast and the Furious. Why is that such an issue here?

This is exactly why I believe an Underground 3 will be a failure – tuner culture is dead. Modifying one's car with hip-hop side skirts and Hulk-green neon is just passé these days. Very few people aspire to have a lowered Honda Integra with tinted windows today – expensive, unattainable hypercars like Lamborghinis and Paganis are viewed as much more desirable. Even when the tuner culture started to wind down, EA themselves switched the focus of the Need for Speed series to these cars, emphasising high speeds above flashy modified cars, knowing that the ride was about to come to an end. Why? Tuning and modifying your car Japanese-style is now uncool. It was in vogue when Dominic Toretto was doing it, but now that the whole thing has been co-opted by pasty white guys who work at Kwik-Fit by day, the movement has lost its lustre. If you put anime decals on the sides of your car, and a carbon fibre scoop on the top, you'll look less gangsta and more Pretty Fly for a White Guy; it would be literally cooler to take your mother's Nissan Micra to the shops than any of these modern souped-up creations. Ultimately, any iteration of an Underground sequel these days is just going to be a massive embarrassment for anyone involved and it'll fail to capture the 'cool' factor that made the originals so edgy and daring because it's simply too late.
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However, that by itself, while crippling, is only part of the problem still. The Underground series conjured up a grimy, illicit world true to the series' name. To accomplish that end, they exploited things that might be considered unsavoury today – for instance, referring to money as 'bank' (a typically African-American slang term; what's wrong with saying money?), reducing minority bit characters to stereotypes (gotta liberally pepper that Latino's speech patterns with “ese” and “homes” so we know where he's from!), and reducing any and all female character's functions down to being, essentially, a talking set of breasts and legs designed to titillate the male player. I'm not pretending to be Anita Sarkeesian here, but even the most anti-feminist person can see the problem that lies with that. Simply, it's not 2004 anymore; we all know that elements like these would never fly without causing a storm in the comments section of a dozen Kotaku articles in this day and age. Also, these basic and lazy tropes still went a long way to creating the 'underground' world of the games. Without these, EA will have to be more creative in creating a seedy, underground microcosm, and to be honest? I don't believe that they have it in them.

We moved on. Even The Fast and the Furious franchise has moved on; it's not about having the 'most pimped out' car, evading police, and lazy fan service any more. It's a multi-million dollar action series featuring a diverse cast (one of the most racially mixed out there), starring The Rock, and doesn’t feature a reliance on Japanese compacts, but powerful American muscle cars. Our tastes and attitudes have changed, and while we can enjoy the games in retrospect, Underground is a dinosaur in the modern world: I can look at a fossil with no issue, but it does, in truth, belong in a museum.
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Also, I feel it's appropriate to revisit a word I mentioned in the last paragraph: lazy. Underground 3 is just too easy; where are all your ideas, EA? Are you too unimaginative to come up with anything new, are you scrambling to make a quick buck, or are you panicking after you lost Slightly Mad Studios and now know that falling back on Shift is no longer an option? This decision stinks of a cynical cash-in by a company down on its luck, looking for a quick sale. Ultimately, that little kid in me is going to be disappointed – I'm disappointed, because I know for definite one thing: when you bring out a game years past its sell-by date, and try to mangle the corpse into something you know is never going to be worth it after all this time, everyone ends up dispirited.

As a quick final note, I have to add: EA might not stray so far down the Underground route, even though the trailer showed a city very similar to Bayview (at night time, no less) and teaser pictures showed elements of customisation. If they don’t do all the way with this iteration, I have to wonder, what is the point of releasing a half-baked version when fans will settle for nothing less than the real thing?

Underground 3 or any attempt at reviving that strand, under any other name, is going to fail. It'll never live up to how the series used to be, too much of the series will have changed to emulate the glory days, and ultimately, it'll probably succumb to the Duke Nukem Forever problem – the long and agonising wait will never make whatever mediocre experience EA has waiting for us worth it. My advice? Just go on eBay and buy yourself a copy of 2. No disappointment is waiting for you there.

Ben McCurry

Ben McCurry

Mobile Writer

Writes about videogames. Hopelessly incompetent at making his own, he has settled for criticising others people's games instead

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Acelister - 09:05am, 29th May 2015

Personally I think you may have your hopes set too high. In the comic book world we see this all the time. Rebooting a title because a movie is coming out. It may not be a tie-in to Need for Speed 2: China (or whatever it will be called), but it will probably be set in the same places.