Last night I finally got around to installing the USB 2 card that's been sitting in my game box idly for the last six months, meaning that my PC can now run both my ADSL modem, USB keyboard plus my gamepad and Force Feedback joystick simultaneously. The return of my gamepad meant that I could finally install Need For Speed: Underground which I bought on budget a couple of months ago.
You know you're getting old and crumbly and that you're no longer in the target market of a game when you don't know any of the bands on the soundtrack, and all the music makes your ears bleed. Even so, I stuck in four hours on it last night and turned my Peugeot 206 from a stock lanecrawler into the hottest of hot-hatches. The "Underground" road race structure works well, and with 111 race stages (some of which are 3 race tournaments, rather than one-off races) there's plenty of stuff to work through. (Plus the Quick Race mode, for unlimited fun) The difficulty builds up steadily, as you earn the money to upgrade your car, steadily unlocking better body kits, decals, engines and so on. There's lots to tinker with, and the graphics engine means that you can really create some stunning cars. Handling physics is great, and you can feel the improvement in the handling of the cars when you install improvements.
With the motion blur turned on, there's a fantastic sense of speed, too - it's pretty hard keeping your nerve when chucking yourself through blind corners at 120mph, not knowing if there's traffic on the other side of the turn. The problem with illegal street races (as in Underground) is that you have to deal with the law-abiding traffic. As you progress up the street race ladder, the density of traffic steadily increases, making things much trickier. You need to experiment with your line when learning the courses, to find out the two or three quickest ways of negotiating corners, in case you find a bus parking on the apex. I had a few sweary moments (much to Fleur's consternation - she doesn't like it when I swear at games) when the game seemed to deliberately put cars in my way when I had a 5 second lead, stalling my progress. It's somewhat frustrating, but most of the time it's your fault - particularly when you hit a tree on the last corner of the last lap - so it all just adds to that "I'll fucking beat you!" motivation.
It's also really motivating to know that winning more races will give you the money to trade-in your hot-hatch for a Fast And Furious special, sticking in Nitro and heavily uprated engines. It definitely seems like a game worth persisting with. Its probably the best racing game I've played since Colin McRae 2, though they're not really comparable, and to be fair, I've not really played that many racing games since Colin McRae 2 either. It's got star quality, though. Good production values, a shiny graphics engine, decent physics (but no damage model), a great variety of race types and a rewarding race structure, though perhaps it punishes mistakes a little bit too harshly. It's also perfect for playing in short bursts or dedicating a whole evening to (a bit like Vice City, in that respect) - definitely worth investing a tenner in. The only problem is multiplayer. Underground would be *storming* in multiplayer, but EA have decided, in all their wisdom, to restrict multiplayer to their subscription service. You can't even set up a LAN game, which is madness. It's probably hurt the sales of the title (I certainly wasn't expecting to see it on budget so soon) and perhaps it'll be something EA will redress in the impending sequel.