Released just as the tuner craze was starting to wane, Need for Speed Underground 2 is still super fun.

While the tuner craze has been around for a while, it didn’t really hit critical mass here in America until The Fast and the Furious was released.  Almost overnight, you started seeing whale tails, coffee can mufflers, neons, and mis-shifts everywhere.  Need for Speed Underground attempted to capitalize on this craze, and although it was a great game, it wasn’t until the sequel was released in 2004 that its flow was truly found.

The Need for Speed series has never been huge on realism (except for NFS Shift), and NFSU2 is no exception.  The physics are all jacked up, the cars don’t handle all that differently from each other (although FWD vs RWD makes a big difference), there’s no visual damage, and drifting is accomplished with far less skill than should require.  Still, as an “arcade” racer, the level of control you have over your vehicle is fairly high.  Despite the unrealistic physics, proper positioning is still essential: unless you quickly learn how to consistently hit the apex of a turn, you aren’t going to get very far.  As previously mentioned, this is relatively easy to do, as even the default keyboard controls seem to offer a solid enough connection to what’s happening on screen.  Unfortunately, due to the game being released in 2004, it doesn’t support an Xbox 360 gamepad (or native widescreen support, although you can force support for some common widescreen resolutions using UniWS.)

One of the things NFSU2 provides is a dumbed-down tuning system that allows you to adjust a myriad of settings on your car.  Its set up in such a way as to be approachable by someone who doesn’t know a lot about cars, which, depending on your knowledge level, will either be a welcome choice or will come across as a little insulting.  Regardless of how you view it though, the changes you make in the tuning/dyno section have a significant impact on  your driving.  You can alter your car’s handling and performance quite dramatically, and although you don’t HAVE to do any tuning to get through the career mode, you will eventually find yourself just barely winning contests unless you spend some time tweaking your rides.  One of the great touches about the tuning system is that you are able to tweak your ride for each of the different races; the changes you make for each of the different types of races are automatically selected depending on which race type you engage in.  This keeps you from having to constantly change how you want your car configured, and is something I highly recommend you take advantage of.

The selection of cars is fairly small, but all of the major ones are represented here.  Everything from a Civic to a Tiburon to an IS300 to a Supra appears…my personal favorite is the RSX Type-S (I drive one in real life as well, a 2004 Type-S with the factory A-SPEC kit.)  The visual detail on the cars is minimal, but considering the release date of the game, they look Good Enough®.  The one major problem I have with the different cars is how they sound.  Some of them growl beautifully (such as the Tiburon, which sounds far better in-game than it does in person), but others sound like someone dumped the loudest, fartiest muffler they possibly could on there (personified in game by the 240SX, which handles wonderfully but sounds absolutely horrendous.)  The graphics were fairly decent back when NFSU2 was first released, but the engine and exhaust sounds have been a bit lacking since day one.  The one exception to this is when driving in tunnels: the changes in volume and tone are fairly realistic, although you’re limited in how realistically you can modify unrealistic sounds, know what I mean?

If you can look past the dated cultural references and the (now) uninspired visuals, Need for Speed Underground 2 is still one hell of  a thrilling game.  I spent nearly 10 hours this past weekend zipping around tracks…two of those 10 hours were spent saying “one more race!”