WASHINGTON – I've played dozens of driving games over the decades, from arcade classics like "Pole Position" to this year's addictive "Grid," but I've never come across an interesting character in a virtual racer.
That's because cars are the stars of this genre. If you play a deep racing simulator like "Gran Turismo," you get to know your vehicles better than most of the human heroes you might meet in other games.
Still, some developers try to add a human touch, introducing stories and characters in the intervals between high-speed action.
Does anyone really care about these people, though, or do we just want to move on to the next starting flag?
—"Midnight Club Los Angeles" (Rockstar, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): The protagonist here is a bland Midwestern dude who moves to California to build a rep in the illegal street racing scene.
But the real star is L.A. itself — or rather, a compressed version of the sprawling city, with plenty of familiar landmarks.
It's a kick roaring down Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Drive at 100 mph, although the cops will get on your tail if you create too much chaos.
There's a decent assortment of cars to buy or win, and enough different events to keep the most dedicated racing fan busy.
The races are challenging, but with enough practice you'll find yourself perfectly comfortable driving the wrong way down the 101. Three stars out of four.
—"Need for Speed Undercover" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Actress Maggie Q ("Live Free or Die Hard") headlines the latest "NFS" title, playing a federal agent who recruits you to infiltrate a crime syndicate.
To impress the bad guys you have to trade paint with the cops or cause some serious property damage across the "Tri-City Bay Area."
There's also a variety of ways to take on your fellow street punks, but even inexperienced racers will find most of the events a little too easy. And "Undercover" is marred by annoying technical glitches, like choppy graphics and long loading times.
EA's similar "Burnout Paradise" is a far superior choice for speed freaks. Two stars.
—"MotorStorm Pacific Rift" (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99): "MotorStorm" doesn't bother with a corny plot; it heaves you right into the dirty, dangerous world of off-road racing.
Your Pacific journey encompasses all kinds of exotic locales, from pristine beaches to a sugar plantation to the rim of a volcano, and they all look stunning on the PS3.
Much of the fun comes from the wide range of vehicles, from motorcycles to 18-wheelers, that can compete simultaneously.
You will crash frequently in "Pacific Rift," but it's worth it for the perverse thrill of destroying nature's beauty with a bunch of big, loud machines. Three stars.