A big part of Need for Speed Underground 2 is the ability to customize your car's performance and appearance. On the performance side, you'll purchase parts that have been organized into stages, which gives the game an easy way to lock the better parts away from you until you're ready for them. While the parts fall into different categories, like engines, brakes, tires, and ECUs, the only thing you really need to know is that you need them all to win races. The visual enhancements are a little more involved and give you a little more leeway, but ultimately you'll need to trick out the look of your cars to proceed, as having a flashy car is the only way to get noticed and end up on magazine and video covers. Each set of parts has a number associated with it, and these contribute to a meter that sums up how many pieces of flair you've bolted to your whip. Spoilers, neons, vinyls, roof scoops, spinner rims, custom gauges, and even speakers for your trunk are just some of the available modifications, and they all help your car stand out. This is especially handy online, where you can show off your stuff to the world.
NFSU2 packs in an obscene amount of product placement.
Need for Speed Underground 2 is online on the PS2, PC, and new to this year's game, the Xbox. The online mode is pretty straightforward, letting you set up races in any of the game's race types, and it also features a free run mode, in case you just want to cruise around the city with other players. As you'd expect, the online mode works well over an average broadband connection, even with a full six players in a race. The game also does a good job with statistics and rankings, which can help you find evenly matched races. You can also limit races to cars of a certain rank, or just open it up and let people take their career-mode vehicles onto the track. The GameCube lacks online play, and to add insult to injury, the already-shaky frame rate gets a little shakier when you play in the GameCube version's splitscreen mode.
While Need for Speed Underground 2 is attempting to emulate an illegal scene of "underground" street racing, the game really tries to drive its product placement down your throat. Things like billboards on the sides of the roads aren't too bad (though with an ad for a financial service popping up on some signs, you have to wonder who EA's target audience for this game is), and the occasional real-life fast-food joint does its part to make the city feel a little more realistic. But basing the game's whole onscreen display around the logo for a cellular phone service provider crosses the line. Sorry, but there's nothing "underground" about forcing a bunch of non-car-related corporate logos on people. The game's hokey dialogue also adds to the counterfeit feel. The overzealous script is constantly throwing poorly placed slang at you, having Brooke Burke use her teleprompter voice to tell you that "you've got to be racing tight," constantly calling you "dawg," or being very careful to always call your money "bank."
Graphically, Need for Speed Underground 2 looks good, unless you're talking about the GameCube version, which has a wildly unstable frame rate that really gets in the way of the action in some races. But in the other three versions, the car models are sharp and the city looks fine. For the most part, the game keeps running at a smooth frame rate, even in the later stages, when you're moving much, much faster. But at the same time, it isn't quite the effects show that the last game was. You still get nice little effects, like the shaky camera used to show drag races, but the blur effects are much less pronounced now, which is too bad, because they were really well implemented last year. Now, you get blurring at very high speeds or when you kick in the nitrous oxide, but more would have been better. Like last year, the PS2 version is the heaviest on the effects, though the overall look is still a little subdued. For the most part, the different versions of the game look very similar, with the Xbox and PC versions allowing for slightly higher visual fidelity than the PlayStation 2 version, and the GameCube version bringing up the rear, but ultimately the only major differences come down to the GameCube version not having online support, the Xbox version's analog triggers being the best control scheme for the game, and the PC version not playing very well with the keyboard controls (you'll need at least an analog gamepad if you're planning on playing this game on the PC).
The game's sound rises above its lame dialogue and poorly delivered speech. The engine sounds aren't quite as deep or as throaty as you might like, but the game is great at changing the sound of your car as you purchase upgrades. Also, things like the whoosh of wind when you fly under an overpass really help sell the game's sense of speed.
Finally, Snoop Dogg and Jim Morrison, together again for the first time.
Musically, Need for Speed Underground 2 is all over the place. The schizophrenic sounds start with the game's lead song, which is a remix of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" done by prominent rap producer Fredwreck. Snoop Dogg joins Jim Morrison on the vocals here. For some people that will be blasphemy, but the remix sounds pretty good. The part that ruins it, though, is that Snoop is rapping about the racing--Need for Speed is specifically mentioned in the lyrics. Again, if you're going to have a game with "underground" right in the name, showcasing a song that does double duty as both an ad for the game and as an extreme case of exploitation of an old favorite probably isn't the best idea. Other songs on the soundtrack include "Lean Back" by the Terror Squad, "LAX" by Xzibit, and tracks from Sly Boogy, Felix Da Housecat, Paul Van Dyk, Cirrus, Ministry, Queens of the Stone Age, Mudvayne, Helmet, and more. This is a textbook case of a soundtrack that tries to appeal to too many different audiences and ends up not including enough of any one style to please anyone. Xbox users won't be able to fix the problem, either, as the game doesn't contain custom-soundtrack support. However, you'll be able to at least turn off tracks that you don't like.
Need for Speed Underground 2 starts with last year's game as a template and builds from there. Unfortunately, almost everything that has been added to this year's game detracts from the overall experience. Once you're in and racing and customizing your cars, it's a lot of fun, but there are too many obstacles standing between you and the best parts of the game.