Need For Speed: Underground
Like some sort of car-based videogame version of Madonna, the Need for Speed series likes to reinvent itself every few years. This time, it's left behind the Smokey and the Bandit-style police chases of Hot Pursuit in favor of late-night street racing, which, as legions of suburbanites driving lowered Civics can attest, is so hot right now. The biggest change to Underground, though, is visual. A lot of work has gone into conveying a sense of speed through camera shake and blur effects, and the result is pretty amazing. It's something you can't appreciate until you see the game in motion, but when you do you'll wonder why other games haven't done it before--and you won't be surprised when, a year from now, everyone has 'borrowed' the technique. Other aspects of Underground are less innovative. You'll follow a linear progression of races, unlocking upgrades along the way, but it's odd--even though you'll be flush with cash, you can't buy even minor add-ons like tinted windows until the game lets you. The tracks are also quite repetitive; the game takes place in a single city, and the same bits show up in one race after another. Still, the actual racing can be intensely fun. The drift races are especially good--these style-point challenges take place on special tracks and are the best way to get a feel for the handling differences between cars. If you're in the market for a fast, arcadey racer, check out this little number.
If, like me, you're interested in import tuning, but lack the cash to build (and insure) a competitive car, you can't do much better than this. From tail lights to tinted windows, body kits to bumpers, everything's tweakable, and you'll spend hours dressing up your four-wheeled doll. Performance, of course, is more important than appearance, and Underground boasts better handling than any other arcade racer. It's also faster. As you barrel down back alleys burning nitrous, the camera wobbles and lights smear to expertly simulate reckless speed. Demian's dead-on about the upgrade system, though. The biggest risks in street racing are taken with your wallet, yet you'll never face a difficult decision when writing a check for your next secret weapon in these races.
Forget about Midnight Club II. Take it from someone who's studied that silly Vin Diesel movie frame by frame: Underground is, without a doubt, the best approximation there is to Hollywood's rendition of illegal street racing. This game captures perfectly the illicit thrills and cocky one-upmanship of fringe racing. By combining real-life autos and aftermarket parts with totally unrealistic--but ultimately fun--car physics, Underground is a unique adrenaline rush through a psychedelic neon wonderland. The game's success rides largely on the way it constantly rewards you with goodies for your car, from performance mods to cosmetic makeovers. Underground is an awesome way to revive this aging franchise.