After Need for Speed Underground outsold all other games in 2004, the largest independent game publisher in the world adroitly kept the series coming without a hitch. Last year's Most Wanted shipped at Microsoft's Xbox 360 launch and introduced a creative take on story-telling by using filtered customized FMV to give the familiar racer a fresh presentation. The police were back with a ferocious vengeance. And it offered a particularly North-West vibe to it.
This year's version, Need for Speed Carbon, which refers to Carbon Canyon where racers duel for territory in the city below, is a minor shake-up for the series, shifting in new features, shifting out others, while continuing the FMV-heavy story-telling from Most Wanted. Carbon, in other words, is a decent update to last year's game with improved graphics, excellent Autosculpt customization, a different progression system, and an all-around solid take on the game. It's not revolutionary, it's not brilliant, but it's good, deep racing.
Near Carbon Copy
Carbon is an arcade-style racer that plays, in general, a lot like other Need for Speed games. It provides four camera perspectives (two in-car, two over-the-shoulder), a 10-14 hour single-player campaign, and a series of mini-challenges based on collecting racing cards. The Career mode is the meat and potatoes of the game, comprising a city split into four territories plus hilly canyon races outside the city. Players can pick from three different car classes, exotics, tuners, and muscles (the muscles being the new addition), which broadens the game's middle-of-the-road feel in a smart, controlled manner. The four new features offered in Carbon comprise a crew, a unique autosculpt customization, drifting races and additional car classes. One of the bigger additions is the online functionality. It enables from 1-8 players to vie online on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC, whereas the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube versions don't offer online compatibility.
The Career mode follows last year's trippy FMV-based narrative. Because of the addition of crews or because EA wanted to go even heavier into its presentation (which it often does at the expense of improving gameplay), the game is filled with cutscenes and pasty, well-coiffed well-dressed gearheads. Last year's game was basic. Razor was your enemy, he was a first-class dick, and he rigged your car. You had to seek revenge and it felt good because he was a no-good bully. This year's narrative is watered down, with more forced mystery behind a rather simple premise. The novelty of the specialized FMV cutscenes is still moderately entertaining, but because of EA's excesses it comes across as strained, and there are simply too many dudes with perfect eyebrows and mullets for my tastes. Clearly Emmanuelle Vaugier needs a little more direction and some more meat to reach her potential. Meanwhile Josie Maran had far more fun and showed far more skin in her role in Most Wanted.
Hot girls aside (and let's just be honest here, they're all great looking women), the game drives differently than before. Sure, it's still an accessible arcade game in which cars don't take any damage; it's still Need for Speed. But the addition of muscle cars and high-end tuners really alter the normal feel that's common in the NFS series. (See Real Muscle below for more details.) The game starts out at a normal pace and it gradually enables you to more earn enhancements. Cars are split into classes, but also tiers. There are three tiers, staring with tier one. The second tier is faster, and the third tier is insanely fast. You won't believe how powerful and quickly these final-tier cars drive. NFS still runs at a modest 30 FPS with some framerate variation, though the game doesn't hitch like Most Wanted.
Carbon's progression system is similar to THQ's Saint's Row. This is a good thing for the most part. You start off as a nobody who once had it all but lost it, and you must start all over again. You begin by choosing a car class. Since I've played this series for like eight years now, to experience NFS in a different light I choose a muscle car, a Camaro SS. Muscle cars tend to be classic American cars, thus they have big, fat V8s, they drive like dragsters with great acceleration and top speeds. But they handle like merde. No difference here, at least at first. If you decide the first car you chose was a bad decision, win races and beat bosses, and you'll earn money to buy new cars. Or, like last year, after you beat a boss you can pick from a set of random cards, one of which is the boss's pink slip.
There are 40-plus cars to earn or unlock. Other muscle cars include the new Mustang GT, the Dodge Charger SRT8, and the old Dodge Charger RT. While we're on the subject, the tuners feature the Mazda Speed3, RX-7, RX-8, Eclipse GT, and Lotus Elise for starters. The tuners comprise the Alpha Brera and Mercedes CLK 500, and a variety of Porsches.
Each territory is made of a number of sections. In each section you'll see about three to four races. You'll need to win each race to win a section and, from there, move in on a full territory. Each territory is controlled by another gang, overseen by their leader, who visits you from time to time as you creep into their space. While fighting for territory, a rival gang may challenge you to a section you own. There are two choices, accept the challenge or reject it. If you race and win, it's yours. If you lose, you can always re-try. This function works better in Saints Row because the actual fighting was different each time. In Carbon, you simply race the same territory as before, and instead of feeling like a real challenge, it's a chore. A new race or a different take on a race would have sufficed. Once you take over a full territory the boss appears and challenges you. You'll race once against the boss, and then take it to Carbon Canyon for a two-leg race.
The two-part race takes place on steep narrow canyon roads built with huge S-turns and pliable railings that give way to spectacular deaths if you mess up. The first race involves following the boss as closely as possible. Your score is based on your proximity. In the second race he follows you. Whoever gets the high score wins, as long as nobody has driven off the canyon walls beforehand. Honestly, the first city race is usually harder than the canyon races, and in at least two of the canyon races I was able to surge ahead of the boss in the first race, maintain the lead of about five seconds, and beat him in a single route. The boss races in Most Wanted were tougher and more complicated and thus more fun. These are different, but the final outcome is that the experience is just OK. It's like a sideways move. These boss races are different than before, but like Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, there is no there there. Plus, there are only four boss races, whereas in Most Wanted there were 15.
2 New Crew
Ripped straight from EA's NASCAR series is this year's "crew" feature. The crew is introduced through and integrated into the storyline. The rag-tag crew of hopefuls are neither terribly funny nor that interesting. They're all kind of creepy, to be honest. But that really doesn't matter. It's what they do, or don't do, that matters. And what they do is little. There are three types, drafters, scouts and blockers. Drifters provide a physical trail of color enabling you to follow them to slingshot ahead. Their problem is that the courses don't provide enough straight-aways to use them effectively enough and if you're fast enough you'll eliminate their usefulness. Scouts find shortcuts hidden on your map. They find shortcuts that normally appear in NFS games without the need for a scout, so they eliminate the joy of discovering them on your own. Blockers cause chaos. They block opponents from creeping up on you. They function well enough and of the three types, they're the most useful.
But the addition of a crew is another sideways move. The triple-headed crew actually brings in more problems than benefits to Carbon. Crew members regularly will get in your way; they'll slow you down and perhaps even ruin a real chance of winning. They also win races for you. For some people that might be a benefit. For me, I just felt like my experience was tampered with. The crew is also always talking to you. It's like Halo's Cortana is there, except instead it's some mullet-headed fat dude. You'll eventually get as many as six different members available for hire, but in the end I prefer not having them at all.
Customization and Auto-Sculpting
Need for Speed Underground introduced serious customization to the series and Most Wanted and this year's Carbon add various wrinkles to the fold. As in previous games, players earn cash for winning races. Each new win unlocks the ability to pick new parts and, of course, money. By pressing a button (down on the Xbox 360 D-pad), players can view a top-down map, pick a race to enter, visit their safe house or a car lot, where cars can be bought and sold. In the Safe House, players can customize their vehicles.
In familiar fashion, individual parts or per-made full-body kits can be purchased. The suite of choices is solid, though it appears fewer engine performance options and upgrades are allowed than in Underground 2. The new Auto-Sculpt option, however, makes up for that in part. Once you hire a scout, you're enabled the option of sculpting your modified parts to new heights. Spoilers, bumpers, skirts, hoods, you name it, you can tweak them all using a series of sliders. Admittedly, the effect is purely visual. But hey, it's fun! And, when you're done tweaking the car (at least for Xbox 360), you can take it on-line and show it off.
EA's decision to take advantage of Ford's newly remade Mustang and Dodge's Charger is both opportunistic and smart. Along with the online options, the addition of muscle cars is the biggest single change the series has seen in core game-play in years. The muscle cars drive differently than any other car in the series and they affect the series in a central way.
In Underground 2 EA tried to incorporate SUVs but with little success. The muscles are different. These cars rock. They have huge up-front power and great top speeds. And, true to life, they handle like crap. But hey, everyone liked Starsky and Hutch, right? I mean look at Driver the game. It's built on sliding '70s hot rods. Still, EA has designed the muscle cars and the courses to work together and better than in almost any other racer. Driving them is more like driving a rally car on 100% pavement all the time. You have to start early and slide into each turn. The real reward is modifying these beasts as you progress. The upgrades tighten the handling and cornering. The top speeds and acceleration increase even further. And the ride is totally different than driving either the tuners or the exotics. Try driving a muscle and then switch to the tuners, and you'll see the difference right away.
Catch That Drift
EA Black Box brought back drifting, replacing the drag racing from Most Wanted and it's a fully acquired taste. Drifting isn't for everyone. EA uses a totally unique engine for the drifting races and you'll notice the handling and physics right away. Each of the classes -- muscle, exotic, and tuner -- drift differently. Luckily, if you dislike drifting, there isn't too much of it in Carbon (which was the case in Carbon). Unfortunately, if you hate it, you'll find it difficult to avoid altogether.
EA designed drift races to function so that emphasis is placed on skill and combos. Each player must achieve the top score against his rivals. The best combos are created by attaining the highest possible speed, keeping your car in the yellow paint (next to the walls) for as long as possible, and linking combos together. Do it in a tuner and then try a muscle car. It's quite a difference. Or try a tier three exotic. They're all completely distinct skill sets.
EA eschewed adding on-line functionality on the current generation systems and has instead focused on making it work well on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. While that sucks for current gen owners, it's good news for next-gen and PC systems owners. (And, for the record, Most Wanted wasn't on-line for PS2 anyway.) We played the Xbox 360 retail build against EA today for about two hours and the experience was surprisingly fun. EA's servers still may very well cause problems (we'll have to wait to experience this once the retail build is in hundreds of gamers' hands), but our retail builds played well.
On-line matches permit up to eight gamers to race simultaneously. They consist of two race types with a few variations, Pursuit Tag and Pursuit Knockout. Pursuit Tag consists of one racer against all cops. The racer's goal is to avoid the cop cars for as long as possible. The player with the highest points (and time logged) as the civilian racer wins. To get the chance to be the civilian racer you must be the first to bust him or her.
Pursuit Knockout is even more fun. This is a lap race…with cops. Everyone starts out as a civilian and the last person to finish the first lap transforms into a cop car. As the cop, your goal is to chase down and make as much contact as possible with the other non-cop cars. In other words, as a cop you get to smash the crap out of the other cars. In a nice bonus, the normal colored barriers that prevent you from exploring the city in a race don't matter to cop cars. So, you can out-maneuver the speeder by hitting him head-on. The only issue here is that the speeders are really wily, fast, and a lot harder to hit than you might think. Quite quickly several of our games turned into insanely comedic Blues Brothers scenarios. It was humiliating/hysterical to see the inane blunders! You might think you had a speeder cornered with a head-on and then he fakes right, goes left, and instead of a killer point-grabbing knockout, you miss him and smash into three oncoming cop cars as the speeder zips by.
On the next gen systems, you'll also be able to race in a series of cooperative courses with as many as four players. Though these are just basic races, these co-op challenges are like playing with your crew, who happen your friends -- which is twice as fun. Lastly, if you own a Xbox 360, PC or have the chance to buy a PS3, then you can auto sculpt your car to the ultimate level AND bring it online to show it off.
Graphics and Sound
Carbon stands out against Most Wanted. Most Wanted seemed to take place in a fictitious Seattle-like area: There were lots of forests, country by-ways, and lakes that, well, looked like parts of Washington. If you weren't keen on last year's environments, you'll like Carbon. It is a return to the sparkling urban lights of Underground 1 and 2. The game is filled with sparkling lights, darker night levels, and a distinctly urbane look. Special effects adorn the city streets and fast-paced cars. Streams trail off cars to enhance the visual sense of speed. Blur effects are always working to provide a great sensation of velocity. And nox injections will boost the sense of speed even further. Or the speed breakers will slow time down. The customization enables creative control over your cars, which adds to the sense of visuals, and of course, the FMV-filtered characters incorporated into game environments create a distinct visual appeal (even if this year's game over-does it a little).
On the sound side, Carbon takes the over-the-top sound from Most Wanted and gives it a kick in the pants. You'll hear greatly altered engine effects; you'll experience a dramatic set of sonic sounds infused into the cutscenes and transition sequences; you'll hear the sweet in-take of NOX. You'll also hear the realistic cop radio chatter ranging from casual level-one pursuits to level three crackdowns. The music is energetic and turbulent. It increases in volume and intensity as you're being chased by cops, and there is a good mix of rock and techno tunes.
Need For Speed Carbon isn't a revolutionary game and it's far from a stinker. Instead, it's what EA does best: It creates pretty good games with lots of features. Carbon switches out drag racing and Pacific NorthWest backgrounds for drift racing and inner city urban streets. The freaky FMV filtered stuff is back and there seems to be more than ever (perhaps too much?). The drifting is an acquired taste (but it's good), the canyon duals are decent changes (though not great), and the crews...well, they suck. Of the myriad new features, the addition of muscle cars and the online functionality are the best. The muscle cars bring real challenge and change to the races and the online games (when lag isn't hampering you) are great cop-chase endeavors.
Review from IGN
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