Need for Speed Carbon is the latest entry in EA's long-running racing series. The last few entries have tweaked the established formula to good effect, which has resulted in high expectations for new games in the franchise. We had the chance to get an early look at a work-in-progress version of the game on the Xbox 360 and on the original Xbox to see how the game is shaping up.
This year's game is an ambitious expansion of the key features that have made the series popular, along with new elements that have come out of the team's research into the racing scene. The big hooks this year are canyon racing, racing crews, and car-class affiliation. The heart of the game's career mode is a battle for control of a city. The setting is a massive free-roaming metropolis that's bigger than the one seen in last year's Most Wanted. In addition, you'll find massive canyons that will serve as the stage for the unique boss battles. The action will find you building up a crew of racers to help you take over the city neighborhood by neighborhood and mastering the three car classes--tuner, muscle, and exotic. Furthermore, EA's Vancouver-based studio is trying out some interesting expansions of the car-customization feature seen in previous games.
You are cast as an established racer who got involved in the blacklist shenanigans of Most Wanted, and you're now returning to the game's city to right a wrong that was done to you. The exact details of the story are being kept under wraps, especially when it comes to what, if any, ties it has to Most Wanted's narrative (which naturally makes us think that there are ties), and so we weren't able to find out too much. One thing we do know is that the game's narrative will again play out via cinematics handled by the director that did Most Wanted's. However, in keeping with the overall tone, the cinematics will have a different feel from Most Wanted's awesomely campy movies. We, naturally, hope that we get at least some scenes of over-the-top racing drama, though we're curious to see exactly what's going on in Carbon's story.
In terms of gameplay, Need for Speed Carbon stays true to the open-world framework of its predecessors, but still manages to trick it out considerably. The core experience has you traveling through the massive city that is the main stage for the game's action and challenging other crews for control of their territory. As you defeat them you'll take their hood and your rep will grow. Obviously, taking on racing crews will present a sizable challenge that is more than one man can handle. Fortunately, you'll be able to recruit a posse of wingmen to help you out in your quest. The wingmen will present a unique new twist to the gameplay, as each will offer unique abilities you can call on during a race to give you an edge. What we've heard of so far are blockers, scouts, and drafters. So, for example, you could call on a blocker wingman to help you get past or slow down an opponent. Where things get really interesting with the wingmen, though, are the abilities they'll have outside of a race. Though the team isn't giving up all the details on how this will all work just yet, they did share the different out-of-race abilities and offered some info on what to expect from them, like how mechanics and fabricators will affect how much you'll be able to customize the performance and visual aspects of your car, while influencers will impact how you interact with groups, such as the police, in the game.
Once you and your crew have managed to defeat the opposition in an area, you'll find yourself in a boss fight that highlights another unique addition to the experience, the canyon race. The canyon races are unique two-stage competitions that find you testing your skills against a boss for points. The first leg of the race finds you trying to follow close behind the boss as he races to a finish line at the bottom of a hill. Your goal is to stick as close as possible to him, as you'll earn points based on your proximity. The second leg of the race finds you in the lead, and you'll be trying to put as much distance between you and the boss as you tear down the route again. This time out your points are on the line, as the boss will be draining points from you to varying degrees depending on his proximity to you. Your goal is to reach the finish line with some points intact. Though extremely challenging, the races offer the potential for instant victories if you can manage to meet certain conditions, such as staying in front for a certain amount of time or getting a sizable lead when being followed. You can also lose just as fast if you happen to collide with some of the destructible barriers that are set on parts of the track.
Another new twist to the gameplay in Need for Speed Carbon is the variety of car classes, which are being tweaked to have unique physics and handling. We were able to try out a canyon run with a car from each class, and we liked how different each car was. You'll actually have to become familiar with each of the classes in Need for Speed Carbon as, unlike in previous games, you'll really have to master them all to some degree. The main reason to do so is that, when facing off against the various crews, you'll find that their individual turfs have been designed to play to the strengths of their vehicles. So, for example, tuner car areas will feature sharp turns, while muscle car areas will favor more linear, open tracks.
Need for Speed Carbon will also feature the return of the drift races that were absent from Most Wanted. This year's take on drifting varies a bit from its previous incarnation, as speed and momentum are the key to insane scores here. As before, you'll test your skills on courses and be required to do all manner of crazy drifting. However, this time, the key to victory are the long, controlled skids that rack up points. You can add multipliers by swinging your back end around as before, but you'll want to do so sparingly so that you maintain momentum.
Another returning feature with a fresh twist is customization. This time out, Carbon is poised to offer all the expected features seen in previous games. Although the ability to tune your cars isn't quite as deep as that offered in Need for Speed Underground 2, there's a crazy new aspect to that ability here. The big twist this year is "auto sculpting," a Fight Night-esque method of morphing the elements of your car in reality via sliders and the controller's analog sticks. Your wingmen's out-of-race abilities play a part here, and if you have some wingmen that possess the fabricator and mechanic abilities, you'll be able to do more to your cars.
The dev team took a different approach to making Carbon than the one used for Most Wanted last year. Whereas Most Wanted on the 360 wound up being a beefed-up version of the current-gen game, this time out, the team planned the features for the next-gen titles first, and then scaled back as needed for the current games. This has led to a better fit on the 360 and a pretty ambitious offering on current-gen systems as well. While the team hasn't opened the kimono on everything the game will offer across all the platforms, from the sound of things, no version is going to be maimed or left wanting. As far as the PlayStation 3 and Wii versions go, the team would only say that, in those cases, the distinguishing features would revolve around the features of each platform.
The visuals in the game are looking very sharp, even on the current-gen Xbox. The 360 was obviously the better looking of the two games, but the Xbox looked quite good as well. The car models look very sharp and the canyon environment offered a change of pace from the traditional city environments that we've become familiar with in the series. The stylish lighting that has been one of the key elements in the game is back in tweaked form, which gives the game its distinct look on both platforms.
Though the audio in the version we tried was still embryonic, we were pleased with where it appears to be heading. The car sounds are being beefed up to offer robust differences among the classes. Though what we heard was far from final, it's certainly sounding great already. The music also showed equal promise with a taiko drum-driven tune popping up during the canyon race we tried. The tune marked a different approach from the licensed music that you'd expect from typical NFS, and it fit the action surprisingly well. However, as good a fit as the bit was, EA reps noted that the final game will feature an interactive component to the canyon tune we heard, which will change on the fly, depending on the situation, to heighten the race drama.
We didn't get to play a ton of the game--just a canyon race with the different car classes, the new drift race, and some messing around with the new car-sculpting feature--but we still got a nice sampling of it. The team hopes to make each of the car classes unique, and it certainly feels like it's heading in the right direction, as the handling was noticeably varied among the cars. The new drift race took some getting used to, but once we got the hang of it, we found it to be a very cool new take on the mode that's pretty fun already. The car-sculpting feature, though a bit surreal at first, is surely going to excite people to do some outlandish stuff with their cars. Though a few bits were rough around the edges in both versions of the game, there's still a lot of promise here that we hope to see fulfilled.
Based on what we saw and played, Need for Speed Carbon is shaping up to be yet another sexy entry in the Need for Speed series that adds to the successful formula. The new features add something fresh to the already solid gameplay, and it seems like EA isn't breaking anything in the process, which is always good. The car-sculpting feature is a funky addition that is very cool once you get your hands on it. Look for more on Need for Speed Carbon next week from EA's Studio Showcase event and in the months leading up to its November release.