With racing games putting so much emphasis on letting you modify a car and trick it out with exhaust systems, intakes, turbo kits, suspension upgrades, and race-class braking systems, it seemed that eventually a game might go just a bit too far with it. That game has proven to be Bethesda Softworks' IHRA Drag Racing 2 for the Xbox. However, in this game's case, going too far is its greatest strength, though perhaps its only one.
It might make sense to consider IHRA Drag Racing 2 a driving game, and that wouldn't be entirely incorrect. However, the real heart of the game is a deep and engrossing engine simulation. In the game's shop area, you'll build a custom drag racer out of either ready-made parts or your own custom designs. You start with any one of the game's basic chassis, from a 1957 Chevy up to a 1998 Camaro, or any number of drag racer designs used in real-world competition. From here you can modify the chassis by adding weights to improve stability, adding wings to provide downforce, or even using wheelie bars if your front wheels just won't stay down when you're racing. The engine customization goes even deeper. You can completely customize your engine geometry, including the number of cylinders, the bore diameter and stroke length of the cylinder, the number of intake and exhaust valves, the compression ratio, and the air induction, among many other settings. As you are modifying your engine, a dyno graph showing your horsepower and torque specs is updated, letting you know how the changes you make affect your car's performance.
The depth continues on through each component of the car's performance. You can select your gearbox, number of gears, and ratio for each. Suspension, tires, and even your drag chute can be customized to your own specifications. The interface for this is a bit clumsy--seeming almost as if it were originally from a PC game where you could click on fields and type in numbers--but it's still effective. However, the biggest thing holding the game back is that you can make any modification to your car right off the bat--there's no monetary system in the game, you don't earn points, and you don't race for upgrade parts. You have just as much capability to build the ultimate racing machine at the beginning of the game as you do after emerging victorious from several seasons of racing. The only challenge in the game is poor engineering--over-revving a high-compression, large-bore engine can often result in a huge cloud of black smoke pouring from your car at the starting line, as you see your opponent race toward the checkered flag.
There are a number of competitive race modes in IHRA Drag Racing 2. You can take your custom-built dragster out for a test run to see how it performs on the track before taking it head-to-head against another player or a computer-controlled opponent. You can enter into a single race against an opponent, compete in a tournament-style event, or join in a season of tournament events over a number of different race courses. Just the act of competing in a race is a convoluted process, and most players will have to spend some time reading the manual before they win any races. You first need to "stage" your car. Staging means you have to lock your car down to perform a burnout, bringing up the temperature of your tires to increase their grip. You then need to roll toward the starting line to the pre-stage line, wait for a light to illuminate, roll a few more feet forward to the stage line, and then wait for your opponent to do the same. If you fail to do any of this, you will be disqualified from the race. After you've staged your car, you just wait for the light to turn green and then you gun it. At the end of each run, you will receive a breakdown of the total race time, your initial reaction time, your 0-60 time, your 0-100 time, and many more stats that you can pore over and use to improve the design of your car.
IHRA Drag Racing 2 doesn't have much to offer visually. The tracks all look fairly drab and sparse in detail, with only a few banners and grandstands giving life to the trackside. The colors are all dull and washed out, and the cars have only a passable amount of detail. We also noticed that the frame rate took an occasional hit once the engines fired. The game's sound is decent, but there isn't very much to it. The roar of the engines is pretty satisfying, and there are a number of different sounds for your custom engine to choose from. The American rock soundtrack in the game certainly lends a very topical flavor to the game, and if it isn't to your liking, the game has full support for Xbox custom soundtracks.
While IHRA Drag Racing 2 does a great job of representing the sport of drag racing, it doesn't necessarily make for the greatest game. The level of detail in the simulation of engines, suspension, chassis, and everything else that goes into making a champion drag racer is unmatched, but there just isn't very much to do in the game. While the game does offer Xbox Live downloadable content, this is limited to just a few ready-made cars for you to modify and race as you please. IHRA Drag Racing 2 could have benefited from some sort of progression system to give you a sense that you are accomplishing something with each race, but as the game is, it is recommendable only to those with a very deep interest in drag racing or engine modification.