Need for Speed Underground
For: GameCube, PC, PS2 (review copy), Xbox
Developer: Electronic Arts/Black Box
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Rating: 8 (out of 10)

These days I'm outfitting my pearl-white Escalade with new 19-inch chrome spinners every third paycheck, but time was, I lay awake at night fantasizing about "pimping out" my father's Oldsmobile. (Scrape off the AAA sticker, tint the windows to hide my 'hos, etc.) Racing games have come a long way since my old man dropped me off at the arcade to play Pole Position. Still, the genre's going in circles: faster and faster, fully exploiting technology, yes, but rarely straying from the track. Edging out the forthcoming Street Racing Syndicate and The Fast and the Furious, the newest Need for Speed introduces the novel ability to exoticize your crappy base-model with conspicuously sporty aftermarket parts, like spoilers. (And I don't mean car-safety guru Ralph Nader.)

If turning a showroom Mazda Miata or Volkswagen Golf into an effulgently tinted Mad Max reject tickles your fancy, then the "Underground" story mode will sustain you for many hours. Perfect your line through the handful of city circuits to earn upgrades and increase your reputation. The courses—all essentially alike but for traffic, which increases as you progress—won't challenge you as much as the finer points of piloting your ride. Engine ups and nitrous tanks unlock automatically, but hustling style points by drifting around corners, landing jumps, and narrowly missing Sunday drivers allows an almost infinite combination of superficial customizations. No spinners, though—race designers have yet to reinvent the wheel.


DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
(Konami—PS2) 8

Unlike bukkake, this Japanese pastime makes perfect sense. We must, per Billy Idol, dance alone on a big cushy pad sometimes. This game insures that even without a partner, we score or get rejected. Only the fleet-footed will hack "Heavy" mode—not to be confused with "Workout" mode, which counts the calories you burn. The series' most extensive music library yet includes Kylie, Dirty Vegas, obscure J-pop, and a host of fun, anonymous techno crap.


ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(Sega—PS2, Xbox) 8

Branding: Cows don't like it, but corporations sure do. When the gloves come off, this ESPN tie-in is really just a manicured version of last year's game. The complex controls have been refined, and the team-management franchise mode now allows you to import new characters. (You pick which teeth he's missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?


FREEDOM FIGHTERS
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 7

Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinski ha-ha delivers propaganda over the airwaves: It's up to Brooklyn plumber Christopher Stone to flush the Soviet army from NYC. By passing medic kits to wounded rebels, bombing the enemy, or raising the Stars 'n' Stripes, you win the loyalty of up to 12 citizen soldiers, who accompany you through large, nonlinear levels.


THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
(EA Games—GameCube, PC, PS2 Xbox) 7

Those who fear this companion game will spoil Hollywood's final LOTR installment, due mid-December, beware. The cut scenes (copped from the trilogy sessions) don't amount to much. It's the digital spectacle of teeming hordes that's sure to seem familiar come Christmas—especially since most of the game consists of mega-scale combat. But there are improvements over Two Towers. You and a friend can now fight cooperatively and play each member of the fellowship, from loverboy Legolas to ring monkey Frodo.


MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kart in five years is reason enough to buy a GameCube. The Technicolor franchise's slapstick battle aspect, best summed up by the ability to drop a banana peel on the track, evokes the cartoon violence we all know and love while continually obliterating rankings. Between opponents' backseat bombers, traps, and other natural threats (breaking waves, thunderbolts), you'll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. So turn on, tune in, and drop out!


NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8

It's time again to toss around the ol' pigskin, and I don't mean Anna Nicole Smith. This year's model effectively tweaks 2003's brutal ballet and careful play planning and the boot-and-recruit student-turnover drama central to "Dynasty" mode. Skill can't make up for the irritating flaws in short passing, but if you've perfected your game, try re-creating classic moments like Doug Flutie's 1984 Hail Mary against Miami or go against fanatics online with the PS2 version.


SSX 3
(EA Sports Big—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 9

If the only snow you indulge in comes from Colombia, this franchise redesign justifies staying up all night. The winter's best carve-and-grind title transmits texture, depth, and vertiginous launches with a combination of crisp, vista-encompassing graphics, fine response, and turbulent controller feedback. Dropped onto the slope, you follow signs to competitions or head off-trail and navigate fallen trees (doubling, of course, as rails), huge drops, and, on the third peak, avalanches and yawning chasms. I guarantee you won't be "board"!


VIEWTIFUL JOE
(Capcom—GameCube) 9

Helmed almost as a hobby by money-makin' Resident Evil 2 director Hideki Kamiya, this remarkably well-thunk-out 2-D side scroller celebrates purely physical gaming-qua-gaming. Speeding or slowing time, Joe deflects the fists and bullets of comic characters and bosses, scarfs burgers, and completes small but tricky tasks while turning corners and leaping for coins. Smooth, engrossing, tough, and pretty, Viewtiful Joe exceeds every GameCube title except The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.


VOODOO VINCE
(Microsoft—Xbox) 9

A lighthearted traipse through New Orleans's fancifully imagined heart of darkness, Xbox's solidest platformer yet warps the fundamental premise of the action genre—hoodoo doll Vince's special powers cause him harm in order to defeat his enemies. At one point, you must alter time to win a contest to buy a trumpet to take lessons to jam with a skeletal museum-guarding jazzman. It's voodoo, not doodoo!

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