Freedom. It's all about freedom. While 2004 has played host to yet another raft of glitzy street racers, it seems the biggest trend amongst developers is to plump up their latest offerings with pure non-linear driving thrills.
Take EA, for example. The big change between this and last year's NFSU (Issue 24, 7.0) is the larger, free-roaming map. Rather than burning from one manic race to another, EA has delivered a sexy, open-ended experience. You choose your car, speed around a neon-lit city, take mobile calls, enter races, make dosh and build up a garage of customised vehicles that even Batman would be proud of.
Okay, hardly new stuff, but it benefits from less imposed restriction. Sure, you can't just enter any event willy nilly (the Underground Racing League match-ups are where you'll really want to be), but even if your success rate ends up with the Skoda-driving legions giggling from the sidelines, there's still enough going on to keep those gaming figures occupied. Not that there should be too much difficulty, mind. NFSU2 features one of the shallowest learning curves yet seen in a racing game, and its kind, arcade-style handling means it is far more OutRun 2 (Issue 34, 8.5) than Juiced (Issue 33, 8.0) in terms of pick-up-and-play appeal.
The depth of involvement has been enhanced by its new structure. Rivalries, sponsorship contracts and hidden, big-buck events all give you plenty to aim for. Plus, the usual sprints, circuits, drift and drag races have been upgraded with brand new race styles. Sports Utility Vehicle races, for example, plump you in the front seat of unwieldy monsters that turn sharp corners like a zombie stuck in treacle, while the technical Street X outings feature tracks more winding than a Disneyland rollercoaster.
The new sense of freedom extends to the larger (and licensed) modding section. Taking a leaf out of Juiced and the forthcoming Midnight Club 3's book, the options for customising your treasured car into a garish, super-smart, autobeast from hell are huge. While you trawl the city in search of races, you'll also discover performance, speciality and graphics shops that let you to tinker with anything from weight and transmission to tints and hydraulics.
NFSU2 is a very good, engrossing racer. But, like last year's effort, it just doesn't offer enough to rise it above the brilliant competition. It looks very snazzy, but the lighting effects are no way as sophisticated as Midnight Club 3's. Nor are its environments particularly interactive. The boosted modding section is no deeper than Juiced's, and it's just not as much fun as the Burnout series. Best suited for series fans and enthusiastic street racing fans only.