There are no shortages of street racing games on the market and what's interesting is how little the formula deviates from one game to the next. They all feature technically impressive graphics. They all feature the most popular car models. Loud alt-rock/hip-hop music from trendy bands is a must, and hot babes in skimpy outfits adorning the background are a prerequisite. Not having a particular car or feature may be seen as a weakness in light of the competition. Offering too much style and substance may come off gaudy and confused. So what separates the winners from the also-rans?

It comes down to balance and harmony of the formula elements, and the Need for Speed Underground series has been the Zen master. The sequel, Need for Speed Underground 2, continues the success of its predecessor and gets so many things right that after awhile I lost count and basked in gaming nirvana.

Few games are as instantly accessible as Underground 2. I am by no means a car aficionado let alone someone who understands the current youth-driven mod culture that has kids using their lunch money to "trick-out" their parents' hand-me-down Civics. Yet without a degree from Apex Tech auto trade school and my only credential being having watched The Fast and the Furious once (which I hated), I'm upgrading parts that I have no idea even existed. I'm applying funky vinyl and neon to give my car a blinged-out flair and installing spinning rims for the full ghetto fabulous effect—and I'm doing all of this with total ease. Cruising around the city and using the intuitive GPS map/guide to select and find one race to the next is also excellent progressive design that allows some freedom and keeps the player more involved in the experience.

Visually, Underground 2 is an inspiring revelation. Combining a lush graphic novel look with gritty urban neo-realism, I was completely intoxicated with the bright neon lights, wet payment and dingy alleys. I constantly caught myself in awe of the beauty of hilly landscapes and admired the desolate industrial parts of town as I sped from one race destination to the next. Some parts of town are so visceral and menacing that I was glad I didn't have to get out of my car. Underground 2's hyper-realistic art direction has almost no equal in the world of videogames.

Cars in Underground 2 handle like a dream. I can't say if it is realistic, but I can say this is how cars should handle. It's as though the controller melted in my hands. There's good variety in the tracks and types of races available. Fans of the original can expect to see the same drag, drift, sprint and lap races, but there are also new GT-style close course tracks and even a series of SUV/Hummer races. The presence of pin-up Brooke Burke—who does a nice understated voice performance as the player guide/agent around town—also adds to the title's "it" factor.

The soundtrack is not my cup of tea, but the track selection works with the art direction to further create an ambience. Doors fan may cry foul, but Snoop Dog's cover of Riders of the Storm, the game's title track, grew on me. EA's talent recruiters are once again at the top of their game by including the current hip-hop anthem of the season, Fat Joe's Lean Back (much like Lil' Jon's Get Low which was a brilliant inclusion on the original Underground).

The attempts to appeal to the youth generation in popular "slang" (i.e. "You have to race tight, dawg") feels a little forced at times and like almost all racing titles, the gameplay can grow a little monotonous with one race blending into next if one doesn't pace one's self after many hours of uninterrupted play. But these issues are relatively minor in the overall scheme of the experience.

Underground 2 is ambitious in trying to appeal to different audiences with diverse expectations. Usually games that overextend themselves end up being underdeveloped and weak in too many areas. That's not the case here. The game achieves a harmony of its parts rarely matched with its peers. In a sea of also-rans, Underground 2 takes top honors and is probably one of the most creatively consistent and fully realized games we'll see in quite some time. This is especially astonishing when you consider that this is in the usually derivative and stale racing genre. Rating: 9 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

Chi Kong Lui
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