Not such an amazing race.
Underground racing is the LAN party of the car enthusiast's world - it's hardcore, secretive and full of elite players with names like V1per, Slashz0r and Fundertron. The only real difference is that when you die in an underground car crash, you actually burn to death, as opposed to LAN parties, where you merely become responsible for the next round of Fritos and Mountain Dews.
If you're expecting such hardcore treatment from Need for Speed Underground Rivals for the PSP, you're going to be a bit disappointed. Rivals only qualifies as an underground racing game in that you can put a silly looking spoiler on a Volkswagen Golf. It certainly sates your need for speed, but why it's called 'Underground' is a total mystery.
Rivals offers several game types falling within the Circuit Race and Quick Play Battle modes. Circuit Race offers four classes: Novice, Pro, Master and Spec. The first three refer to the horsepower of the competition, while the last offers races for specific car types. Within each class you can jump into three types of races: Circuit (a basic lap race), Lap Knockout (last place car is knocked out after each lap), and Rally Relay (switch cars mid-race). These in turn offers four actual races, and each can be completed under Bronze, Silver and Golden difficulty settings for different unlockables and upgrade points. You want ways to race, you got 'em.
Far less typical are the Quick Play Battle games. Street Cross pits you against three opponents on a small, curvy indoor track. This mode is useful in that you can compete against tougher competition and win due to the fact that top speeds don't come into play nearly as much. Then again, battling with three opponents on a small track can be extremely frustrating – most of the time, you won't be able to break through the knot of cars. Drift Attack simply has you drifting through indicated zones within a time limit. While the concept is straightforward, its execution is anything but. You need to drift into one zone in a way that sets you up to transition smoothly into the next, but there's no way of knowing where the next zone will be until you drift through the first one. You basically have to memorize the sequences of zones without any help, a task that shouldn't be worth anyone's time.
Nitrous Run, on the other hand, is pure racing crack. A series of gates are set up on a track, and each time you drive through one your nitrous tank is completely re-filled, allowing you to perpetually rip around at dangerous and insane speeds. This controlled sense of chaos, the kind that comes with power-sliding around a bend at 180 mph, is why people play racing games. The only downside to this mode is that it makes everything else seem much slower.
Except, perhaps, Drag racing, a mode made popular in previous Need for Speed Underground titles. Here you race against three other competitors on narrow and mostly straight tracks. Instead of freely steering like you do in the other modes, tapping left or right changes lanes, letting you focus on shifting gears as efficiently as possible. While the drag races are decent fun, the outcome always seems to depend more on your car's upgrades than your skill as a racer, since the most important factor is top speed.
When you win a race, whether it's a Master level Circuit race on Silver difficulty or a Street Cross event on Gold difficulty, you'll be rewarded, although the nature of the reward depends mostly on the difficulty of the event.
Upgrade points can be spent at the Pocket Garage to buy new cars or better parts for all of your current rides. Sadly, the parts system is weak and poorly implemented. Each part, be it a tweak to the Engine or the Fuel System, begins at level S and can be upgraded to levels 1, 2 and 3. The result is that you simply work your way down the list, upgrading every part. There's no customization involved and parts lack any sort of pros and cons – you want every single part you can get. Also, buying a part somehow gives you an infinite supply, meaning all of your cars can be equipped with it for free and any cars you buy in the future will come with it automatically. It takes away any true sense of customization.
Once visual parts are unlocked, they're yours for free, so pimping your ride and upgrading its performance never come into conflict. The various body kits, neon lights and spoilers fit each car uniquely and well. With all the sweet visual parts to choose from, you will definitely be proud of the way your car looks.
The selection of cars is decent enough. You begin the game with either a Volkswagen Golf, Dodge Neon, Ford Focus or Mazda Miata, and can unlock about 15 other rides, including some ultra-fast boss cars like a 1969 Dodge Charger or Nissan Skyline R34 GTR.
Regardless of the ride, EA puts the PSP control layout to great use in Rivals. You can race in manual or automatic and use the D-pad or the analog stick in either. You can't completely customize the control layout, which is a shame, but the four available choices (two manual and two automatic) are pretty reasonable.
Manual transmission makes it a little tough to steer using the D-Pad since it relegates the camera to the Up and Down directions, so you'll have to worry about accidentally toggling the camera or switching to a rear view when you didn't mean to. Fortunately, the analog stick is a bit more functional and forgiving. Both work well, although the stick is definitely preferable.
The tracks themselves are generally composed of curves, hair-pin turns and straightaways with the occasional tricky, obstacle-infested corridor and token short-cut. The scenery looks fine, although if you've played a racing game in the last five years nothing should strike you as inspired or dazzling.
The same can be said of the game's graphical performance as a whole. Scattered framerate issues are counter-balanced by the awesome sense of speed you get from nitrous bursts. Similarly, some fancy visual touches like reflections in the car windshields are cancelled by poor anti-aliasing.
The sounds of Rivals are as mixed as the graphics thanks to excellent effects and a pretty awful playlist. There are a couple quality trance tracks, but the rest is the worst of modern radio and proof that every single racing game needs radio stations like those found in Grand Theft Auto or none at all.
Aside from the single-player content, you can either engage in wireless Head to Head matches or Party Play, where you and up to three other players can pass the PSP around and try to beat each others' times. The latter mode is lame because it's flat-out boring watching other people play. The wireless Head to Head mode is fine, although you need friends with copies of the game. While the box says Infrastructure mode is included and the instruction booklet talks about going online and challenging other players, it doesn't appear as though Rivals can actually be played wirelessly on the Internet.
Need for Speed Underground Rivals is hurt by the lack of any substantial underground flavor and is wounded by weak customization and no online play. In spite of this, its deep single-player content should absolutely satisfy your need for speed, especially if all your rivals own copies.