It's hard to talk about an import car racing game without mentioning the movie The Fast and the Furious. The movie put as much of a spotlight on tricked-out cars as it did on its cast, and the resulting effect caused a huge surge of interest in the import racing scene. In the wake of the film, a number of other properties have risen up to try to claim a piece of the lucrative scene as its own. Need for Speed Underground is EA's attempt to get involved, and it's mostly a success.
Could this be the 10-second car you've been looking for?
A driving game is only as good as its handling and physics model. In this respect, Need for Speed Underground does a pretty great job, though it's by no means a realistic simulation--nor is it trying to be. It's definitely been designed with accessibility in mind rather than focusing on realistic simulation aspects. In fact, the game probably controls best with an analog, console-style gamepad. As a result, the game is quite easy to pick up and play, though some portions require a little more finesse than others. Driving with finesse earns you style points in a system similar to the one found in the Project Gotham Racing series for the Xbox, though this one is much more lenient and awards points for the simple acts of powersliding, drafting, and catching air. Style points accumulate regardless of the mode you're playing in, and you can unlock rewards each time the style points meter is filled.
Need for Speed Underground contains a decent-sized car roster. Right off the bat you'll find a Honda Civic, which is one of the more popular rides in the scene. But the inventory doesn't stop there. You'll also find a VW Golf, Acura Integra, Toyota Supra, S2000, Ford Focus, Dodge Neon, Mazda Miata, and a few more. Though the different cars are rated in handling, acceleration, and top speed, in practice the cars don't drive all that differently, especially once you've purchased some upgrades in the career mode.
The import racing scene is heavy on modifying cars with aftermarket parts, and Need for Speed Underground duplicates this aspect pretty well. The car upgrades are broken down into visual and performance upgrades. Performance upgrades come in multiple levels and must be unlocked before you can purchase them. These upgrades include turbocharge, better engines, weight reduction, enhanced braking, computer-chip tuning, nitrous oxide boosts, and so on. The game contains a lot of actual aftermarket brands for its parts, so when you purchase an upgrade, you'll have limited control over which brands you're buying, but the brand makes no difference--all the brand packages perform equally well.
The visual upgrades also have a positive effect on your car. Purchasing spoilers, body kits, replacement hoods, neons, headlights, taillights, or window tinting for your car, or making other major changes to your car's appearance, increases your reputation rating. As your rating gets higher, the multiplier bonus you get on your style points increases, which lets you unlock other rewards more quickly.
The main reward you get for your style point total is access to vinyl stickers for your car. They start out simple, such as racing stripes and designs, but you can eventually put brand stickers from many different aftermarket part and stereo makers all over your car.
The tracks in Need for Speed Underground are well designed, but even though there are well over 20 different tracks in the game, they get pretty repetitive. The game uses the old trick of opening up or closing certain pathways to reconfigure certain sections of a track while using the same sections over and over again. Because of this, you really have to pay attention to your map as you drive to make sure you're prepared to take the right path. The game offers what appears to be a large city, but going off the track will simply reset your car back onto the proper street.
Need for Speed Underground contains a good variety of different races that help keep the action varied, though a lack of unique tracks keeps most races from feeling different from one another. Circuit racing, standard one-shot runs, and knockout-style circuits are all included, and all offer slightly different takes on the plain old race, and drag racing and drift racing change things up nicely. While the initial thought of drag racing--racing in a straight line--may sound pretty boring, the gameplay is quite different here. The steering gets reduced to slot-car-like lane-change control, and your main focus is on shifting properly. A clear RPM meter is displayed on the left side of the screen, and indicators instruct you when to shift. The early drag races are simple, clear races. But the later tracks throw traffic and other obstacles in the mix, forcing you to worry about lane position as much as you worry about shifting.