Need for Speed Underground 2 is a "good" racer, no doubt about that. Any better than "good"? That's a "good" question.

User Rating: 7.9 | Need for Speed Underground 2 XBOX
The Need for Speed series has come a long way. Whether you like the series or not, it's undeniable that it's been through a lot of ups, downs, and changes of overall focus many times without ever losing any of its determination.

While it's been ploughing through recent years, however, it's a sure thing that it's begun to somewhat lag.

And that's where this games' predecessor, the original Underground, came in, and fitted the franchise with a nitrous-coated engine and a nice new body kit, and then revved things up a little. Yep, Need for Speed had found street racing and car customization as its saving grace, and, the rest, as they say, is history.

Underground was a successful game, but had way too many flaws to be anything more than purely enjoyable. It wasn't exactly an experience that would have stayed with you for the rest of your days. OK, racing and customizing cars is exciting and all; it's just that was lacking a sort of X factor that turns a good game into a fantastic game.

That's where Underground 2 comes in. It's supposed to be a game that completely revamps the core formula that its predecessor crafted. But it doesn't. And it's more complicated than those three words.

Let's start off. The core gameplay in Underground 2 is enjoyable. The career mode sees you driving around a completely fictional city, known as Bayview, in search of some chavs and tuners to race against. Bayview is a beautiful place, there's no doubt about that, and sometimes you'll find yourself subconsciously wondering, "What's the rush? Hey, the race can wait. I want to do some exploring, and absorb the sights."

And Underground 2's genuinely nice graphics engine will make you do just that. Cruising around Bayview's streets in a blinged-up Peugeot 206 is a pleasant alternative to actually racing. Bayview is an amazingly complex city divided into multiple areas, and its actual scale is stupefying. For a game where you are completely tethered to your car, Bayview is huge - it covers an area of many square miles and will take you - um - give or take ten minutes to go from the pinnacle of Jackson Heights to Coal Harbor, which is situated at the southernmost point of Bayview.

So Underground 2 does at least one thing right, and that's the actual city it takes place in. And then there's the actual driving. The first thing I must complain about is the lack of variety in the car handling. Yep, Underground 2 has an unfortunate similarity between every one of its cars, no matter the diversity of its customization. Even the engine sounds are suspiciously recycled between the cars.

In fact, coming from a cynical mouth such as mine, the cars differ purely in their cosmetic versatilities. And you won't find much joy in stock vehicles here - take your pick from a number of watered-down bog-standard motors such as the Honda Civic, the Peugeot 206, and, er, the Ford Focus. Riiight. Driving pleasure? Okay.

So you're going to be relying on the customization aspect of things to drive a real motor, and this is one thing Underground 2 does right. That's undeniable. The only flaw in the customization area of the game is the fact that the different aspects of modding - cosmetic, performance, colour - are spread separately across Bayview.

But when you actually get to the store that you want, you'll find an impressive bevy of tweaks and refinements to install on your chavmobile. You'll find rims, bumpers, body kits, spoilers, roof scoops, vinyls, decals, paints, engines, hydraulics, suspension; there's a whole list to trawl through. That is literally how diverse you can make your motor, and this is simple the prime delight in Underground 2 - completely making a dream car from scratch. And, even better, you can do this for free from the main menu.

In the core career mode, Underground 2's saving grace, it just doesn't come for free, and you have to earn it with hard-earned cash.

And the subject of cash brings me on to the actual races. You of course win prize money from racing other drivers and coming away the winner. This is where the subtleties of the core driving engine - it's a tight, refined engine that encourages good handling skills and braking without feeling too much like a driving simulation. To counteract the mature feel there is of course arcade elements in Underground 2 - the omission of a damage meter, lush drifting possibilities, and jumps to make things a little more interesting.

There's more to racing in Underground 2 than just simply slamming on the pedal and taking into account the complexity of the driving engine, though - just like everything else in the game, there's a whole host of modes to choose from.

First off, there are the conventional races - Circuit and Sprint. These are obviously very self-explanatory. The circuit mode is a lap-based continuous track race, and Sprint is your "Point-To-Point" category.

But then things get interesting, if you scratch the surface. You'll find the Drift mode, where you have to drift around impossibly tight corners in order to rack up the biggest powerslides and the most points. Crashing in this mode cancels your drift combo, leading to a fun experience ruined if you have a lack of concentration.

There is a Drag mode, also, where you have to carefully time gear shifts and avoid oncoming obstacles in a relatively straight-tracked race. Fast and furious, this is often my favourite race type in the game and is an easy way to earn money in the tight career.

There is an interesting concept behind Street X, where you'll have to make use of subtle handling skills and overtaking finesse on a very tight, narrow track with disgusting hairpins and horrible corners.

SUV races are underwhelming yet very challenging tests of skill where only 4 by 4's and trucks can take part.

Yet the whole point of all these races is to earn reputation, and with a high enough reputation level you can enter the Underground Racing League, which puts you on conventional racing tracks instead of backstreets and suburbs. These races require mastery of all of the above race categories and are unforgivingly difficult.

The career mode certainly has what it takes to keep you going for a long time, when you take into account the customization options, the wealth of race types, and the sheer amount of content in the game - even if you rush this is going to take 30-50 hours to complete, if your attention span is up to it.

I can't comment on Live play, since I don't have it, but from what I've played the split-screen multiplayer is pretty lacklustre. One of the redeeming qualities in Underground 2 is the aforementioned freedom to driving around Bayview, and of course in multiplayer race modes it just isn't there.

And now we move on the visual side of things. I've already said that Underground 2 is a genuinely nice-looking game. Bayview is a huge city with lots to do, and even in its neon-soaked awesomeness the framerate never dies down and speeds along solidly in the background.

Car models are also suitably nice and shiny, and the lighting is a very important element in this game. It's always dark in Underground 2, so you feel like a vampire, but the neon lights are enough to make your eyes implode.

It's not all glitzy and glamorous, though. The comic strips that introduce key characters and outline specific events in Underground 2's garbage "storyline" try to echo masterpieces from comics like Marvel, but end up looking like CGI images with too much polish.

The audio aspect of the game is given a deserving 7. Voiceovers are admittedly very good, with Brooke Burke voicing the nice-looking Rachel Teller throughout. There's not much talking besides her, but assorted racers in the game will often communicate you via Cingular, and they have a lot of panache also.

The car engines are similar, as I've already stated, but every last one of them sounds good! There's a nice roar as you accelerate and it's just the quality of this noise that will stay in your head for hours after playing.

The only key problem with the sound is the soundtrack. So, yeah - I'm a teenager. And this music is undeniably aimed at the teenage market. But it's filled with crap! I have never heard of half of these bands! Sure, there's Queen of the Stone Age, and they're sickeningly talented, but most of the others are either regurgitated rap, mushy punk, or mediocre alternative music. Come on, EA. I knew EA Trax are high-budget, so stop spending it all on bands nobody cares about.


So, in conclusion... Need for Speed Underground 2 is a "good" racer, no doubt about that. Any better than "good"? That's a "good" question. Some elements of the game clamber above this "good" niche. But then there's other aspects that shamble below this "good" niche, and that's what leaves Underground 2 in a class used for a lot of racers. "Good."