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Game Review

For many adolescents, nothing captures the imagination like a hot sports car. I for one was totally into cars during my teen years. Posters of all my dream cars decorated my room: Ferrari's 308 (think Magnum, P.I.), Lamborghini's exotic Countach, Porsche's 944. It's a bit different these days. Kids are just as likely to put up posters of hyper-modified Honda Civics as they are Aston Martins. Transforming pedestrian modes of transportation into quarter-mile monsters capable of warp speed—that's the ticket in 2005.

With all that performance comes the itch to race, to prove who can put the most power to the pavement. But most kids can't get their hands on enough dough to turn dad's Mitsubishi Eclipse into a fast and furious road hog. That's where the new video game Need for Speed Underground 2 comes in. It offers a relatively cheap way to (virtually) plunge accelerator first into the underground racing world. If the wail of a turbocharged engine is your idea of a symphony, NFSU2 is a dream come true that'll test your metal ... and mettle.

Start Your Engines
The game's objective is winning races to earn reputation points and "bank" to improve your car. Every aspect of your car is customizable, provided you score enough prize money. Engine mods, suspension tweaks, exhaust kits, transmission upgrades, flashy graphics and custom body work are within your grasp as a hungry street racer. Winning secures corporate sponsorship, which leads to faster cars and a fatter "rep."

Initial challenges take place (illegally) on city streets, where respect for traffic laws and non-racers fly out the window. Later, as your fame builds, you join the Underground Racing League and compete in races that take place on tracks broken into, or "borrowed." "Warning: No Trespassing" reads a sign seen outside one oval before a URL race—instructions that are hastily rejected.

Too Fast for "Everyone"?
The Entertainment Software Rating Board gave NFSU2 an E (for "Everyone") rating. But while the game's content isn't as racy as games with more stringent ratings, it still features scenes of women wearing, well, not very much. Brooke Burke, the former hostess of the E! channel's racy Wild On series, plays the lead role of Rachel Teller, your guide to the racer underworld in Bayview (loosely modeled after Los Angeles). Shots of Rachel's plunging neckline (and similar images of other "racer babes" holding starter flags or flares) appear frequently between levels.

Mild sexual references pop up occasionally as well, such as when a character asks, "Have you scored your babe yet?" The implication? The better you do in racing, the more women you'll attract. In general, the game portrays women as little more than sexual eye candy to flavor the race scene. (The game's background music includes bleeped rap and rock from "parental advisory" artists such as Snoop Dogg, Chingy, Helmet, Ministry and Spiderbait.)

Go, Speed Racer, Go
I'll be honest: Need for Speed Underground 2 is a great game. Building and racing the ultimate urban rocket is a blast. But besides its sex appeal issues, I think it's reasonable to consider whether NFSU2 might also stoke the fires of rebelliousness and reckless driving. The game begins with Rachel encouraging players to obey traffic laws and drive responsibly in real life. But once that obligatory (and probably legally necessary) disclaimer is out of the way, the game urges players to do exactly the opposite.

NFSU2 also subtly reinforces our culture's insatiable materialistic appetite. "Bigger, better, faster, more" is the game's battle cry. It stokes the constant urge to win so that you can get the next engine add-on or body part you have to have—many of which are offered by real companies (an example of the stealth advertising increasingly showing up in today's games). While playing I often told myself, "I just need to win one more race to get what my car needs"—an addictive way of thinking about life that easily creeps into my real-world attitudes.

Are these problems enough to avoid the game? It depends on how you look at it. If gamers are already engrossed in violent, profane fare such as Grand Theft Auto, NFSU2 offers them a tame alternative. But that's not to say NFSU2 is wholly benign. After all, it has players breaking into race tracks and participating in illegal street races, forcing me to wonder why we can't satisfy our need for speed without resorting to breaking the law—even when it's virtual. Two other popular E-rated racing games, Gran Tourismo 4 (PS2) and Project Gotham Racing 2 (Xbox) do it. Why couldn't NFSU2?

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