Need for Speed Underground 2 Hands-On

The car-tuning, law-defying street racer makes its way to the Nintendo DS. We take it for a spin in our preview.

By invading almost every available console and handheld opportunity out there, EA Games has made its Need for Speed Underground series nearly synonymous with urban street racing. The second game in the series, Need for Speed Underground 2 has already found its way to the big three consoles, the GameBoy Advance, and PC platforms, and a slightly modified version was available at the PSP launch. Now the Nintendo DS finally gets its turn, as the game is scheduled for release on the dual-screened handheld next week. We took a spin with a preview copy of the game to see how it has shaped up.

Perhaps one of the first questions on DS owners' minds is: How does the game make use of the dual-screen setup? In races, the upper screen is used to show the action on the track, while the lower screen is used to show a track map, as well as the lap number and times. Your car and those of your opponents are noted by color-coded icons on the track, and a small legend on the lower screen will show you who's who. When not in a race, you'll be navigating game menus on the lower screen while your current car is displayed on the top screen, along with your current point total. You have the choice to navigate menus either by using the D pad and face buttons or by tapping the touch screen itself. There are also a number of amusing minigames that make use of the touch screen, which are described a little later.

Let's see, upper screen for driving, lower screen for a track map. Yep, it's a DS racing game!

Need for Speed Underground 2 has two main game modes to choose from: a "race now" feature that will get you onto the asphalt and in the action quick-style, and a "go underground" mode, which has you competing in a number of different events designed to test your racing acumen. By choosing "race now" you'll be able to pick a random race or customize your contest to your liking--picking among options such as race type, the track you wish to race on, number of laps, number of opponents, the amount of traffic on the streets, and so on. A good number of race types keep things from becoming too stale. You've got your standard circuit and drag-racing contests, but there is also more specialized fare, such as "lap KO," where one competitor is kicked out per lap until only one car remains, and "own the zone," which challenges you to take control of an entire race track by being the fastest in each subdivided zone. The racer with control of the most zones at the end of the race wins. Finally, "go race" mode will also feature both time trial and free run races.

"Go underground" mode, the NFSU2 equivalent of a campaign mode, will find you competing through a number of different race types such as the aforementioned circuit, drag, and own the zone races, as well as bonus events such as the touch-screen-based engine-tuning minigame. By moving a lever up or down on the lower touch screen, your goal is to keep your virtual car's revs--represented by a small orange dot on the upper screen--in the safe zone. If the dot goes too high (into the red zone), your engine will take damage; similarly, if it goes too low (into the blue zone), you'll take further damage. The challenge comes in that the red and blue zones are constantly shifting as you progress, forcing you to adjust your virtual revs with the touch-screen lever throughout the race. Once your damage meter fills up completely, your engine is blown.

Each specific race category will feature a number of events underneath; as you finish one race, you'll unlock the next in the line until finishing all the events in a category.

One of the best things about any NFSU game is the massive amount of stuff to unlock. That's certainly true on the DS, as you'll be finding rewards after practically every race you win. New accessories for your ride, such as tinted windows, spoilers, and rims, are just the start. You'll also be unlocking tracks and new cars for your garage, as well as earning points you can use to purchase upgrades for any car you currently own. Upgrades can be used to tweak the look of your car with new paint jobs, decals, vinyls, or accessories or to fine-tune your sled's performance, in areas such as exhaust, engine, drivetrain, chassis, and more.

Drag racing mode features a nice sense of speed as you power down the lane.

Graphically, NFSU2 for the DS looks OK so far, with an attractive neon color palette and an above-average sense of speed. The game's textures look decent on the upper screen, but there seem to be some pretty noticeable issues with the game's draw-in distance. We really liked the shuddering, shaking effect used during the drag-racing sequences, which added a nice sense of danger to the otherwise (literally) straight-ahead drag racing. The game's soundtrack is limited to some generic dance beats and engine sounds that are certainly serviceable, if not extremely varied. One noticeable quirk--the blaring horns of oncoming traffic sounded the same for each car, be they small compact cars or huge buses.

A nice sense of speed and touchy digital controls mean that NFSU2 will take some getting used to, especially on the tight and twisty tracks. Furthermore, the crash mechanics in the game seem a little out of whack--hit an oncoming car head-on, and your car will spin around like an overweight ballerina on ice skates. Nonetheless, if you can cope with the controls, you'll find plenty of challenge in the game.

Need for Speed Underground 2 looks to give Nintendo DS owners the kind of car-tuning and law-defying action that fans of the series have been enjoying for months now on other platforms. We'll have a full review of the game when it reaches store shelves next week.

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