Need for Speed Carbon is the upcoming entry in EA's venerable racing series, and the recently announced title is poised to hit consoles and portable systems this fall. As with last year's Need for Speed Most Wanted, the PSP incarnation of the game will differ some from its console cousins. This year's installment complements the racing action you'd expect from a Need for Speed game with a more involved story, new gameplay mechanics that revolve around building a racing crew, and the open-world gameplay seen in the console games. We had the opportunity to get an exclusive look at the forthcoming game to get an idea of what to expect.
Need for Speed Carbon will feature three main game modes along with a handful of the extras that we've come to expect from the series. The core of the game will be the career style mode, called Own the Streets, which will revolve around the story. Quickplay will let you jump into a race if you just want to get a quick run in without sweating the story. Multiplayer will offer ad hoc and infrastructure races for four players. You'll find 20 circuit tracks, as well as five point-to-point and sprint tracks to use when taking on friends in the mode. Besides the game modes, Carbon will also feature a media center that will house all music and videos for you to check out once they're unlocked, and a feature to let you customize various aspects of the game to your liking.
The story, which will unfold via animated stills, is a mystery for you to piece together. The team drew inspiration from noir films for this year's tale, which is set up by an unfortunate accident that leaves you hospitalized and not entirely clear on what happened. Your lady friend, Sara, is on hand after the smashup and she fills you in on what's going on, including telling you about the death of your brother. For your part, most of what's happened is a blur, although you can remember the bird logo of the car responsible for your crash. Finding out what happened and tracking down the driver of the car that led to your crash is your big motivator in this year's game. In order to do that, you'll set out to take control of the various neighborhoods in the city by facing off against the crews that control them.
If this sounds like a pretty tall order for someone who was recently in a car crash, it is. Thankfully, you'll have a little help from your friends, and this ties into one of the key new aspects of Carbon's gameplay: crew racing. As with the previous Need for Speed games, you'll find yourself tearing through the city streets and competing against rival drivers. However, the crew mechanic now puts a new spin on the action. Over the course of the game, you'll find and recruit different racers to be part of your crew. Once you start to have a posse, you'll be able to select a wingman to join you in a race. Each wingman will have his or her own unique ability that you can trigger during a race to help give you an edge when facing off against the competition.
All told, you'll find 17 different characters that will fit into one of three different classes: brawlers, drafters, and assassins. Brawlers will take out whatever car you've targeted; drafters will move in front of you and let you gain a speed boost if you can position yourself behind them and fill a draft meter; and assassins will speed out in front of you and your opponents and lay down a spiked strip that will temporarily incapacitate any vehicle that drives over it. Unfortunately, the spiked strip doesn't distinguish between friend or foe, which means the hazard also applies to you, so you'll have to be careful when using it. Given the different challenges you'll face over the course of the game, it appears that there's going to be a degree of strategy involved in picking out your wingman, as you'll want to make sure you have someone with the most useful ability.
A nice aspect of the wingman mechanic is that each member of your crew will gain experience over the course of the game when they're used in a race, which will power up their unique ability in role-playing game style. Gaining these various wingmen will revolve around your progression in the game and, more importantly, your crew's reputation. While your journey to take over the 14 territories that make up the city is obviously an important aspect of gaining access to more folks, having a high reputation is going to be equally important, as new crew members may not want to join you if your rep isn't high enough. Your reputation will be tied to your success rate, so you don't want to lose many races if you want to have a diverse crew. Getting new faces into the crew will be important, because even though you'll likely have reps from each class in your group early on, crew members will have unique attributes within their class that will grow as you evolve them. So, for example, some assassins may have wider spike strips than others, which may wind up being more useful to you during a race depending on the race conditions.
Race the Open RoadAnother new component of Carbon, a first for the Need for Speed series on the PSP, is an open-world approach to the gameplay. You'll find a proper open world to explore, complete with police to contend with, if you like. The world will offer roughly 89 km of track to tear through, which is a respectable area to explore. If you're not in the mood for a drive around the world, you can call up a menu that lets you go straight to the different racing events in the world. You can set out to conquer the different territories in the city, which will have up to nine events that will range from familiar race modes, circuits, sprints, lap knockouts, as well as some new additions to the classic Need for Speed race types. One new race type that's designed to show off the gameworld is crew takedown, which finds you taking on a rival crew by yourself in a timed race through their turf. The challenge will be to take them out one by one and prove your superiority. As with the last few Need for Speed games, you'll find you won't have to clear every event in each territory in order to face off against the boss. Instead, you can choose what you want to do.
Players who choose to poke around Carbon's world will be rewarded by bonus unlockables, such as concept art that will be tucked away for you to find. Inquisitive players will also have the opportunity to face off against police, which you'll come across over the course of your exploration. From the look of things, you'll have the option to evade the cops or take them out depending on your mood.
The other feather in the game's cap is its vehicle roster and customization features. You'll find 29 cars from the muscle, tuner, and exotic families that you'll be able to customize with a robust set of body kits, spoilers, bumper, rims, and vinyls. In addition, you'll be able to customize your crew by creating a name and picking a tag symbol. Your crew tag will appear in the game as you take over the streets. You'll have 20 tags and 24 colors to choose from when selecting the right hue and icon.
On the tech side of things, Carbon keeps pace with what's been seen in the Need for Speed PSP games over the last two years in terms of performance. However, there's a lot more going on these days thanks to a massive overhaul of the game engine. The work-in-progress version we tried was already running pretty close to 30 frames per second, and it looked pretty smooth. The car grid has been beefed up to six now, allowing more to happen onscreen, and the level of detail is already close to that seen in the previous games. The Fuzion development team has also devoted a fair amount of its resources to tweaking the car handling, which has resulted in new car physics and what it hopes is a better overall feel for the cars. The team is tapping various experts to help balance the game to the point where it offers an accessible experience with some depth. The game's artificial intelligence has also been overhauled to accommodate the new open world. The audio doesn't feature quite the same overhaul as the visuals, but it still contains a robust array of effects and will include a beefy selection of licensed tunes that you can customize.
We were able to try out a bit of a work-in-progress version of the game to see how all of the above worked in practice, and we were encouraged by what we saw. The game looks good already and the artwork in the story is slick. We're not sure how big of a deal the story element is going to be to people, as the key appeal of the series is its gameplay. But the mystery aspect to the narrative is something different. The wingmen and crew stuff is actually pretty interesting if it pans out. Their implementation in races is easy right now--you just trigger them with a button press when their ability is charged up--so the mechanics feel right. We're hoping the leveling up and diversity of the different types of wingmen lives up to its potential. There are a few kinks to iron out in how the wingmen abilities work in-game, but there's still some time before the game ships, so we're hopeful. There is obviously some work being done to the car handling, and though it's twitchy in spots right now, it does feel better to a degree. We're looking forward to seeing just how different Carbon's handling ends up being from what it was in the previous games (we've always been fine with arcadelike handling, but a little more depth never hurt anything). The open-world approach is a nice, ambitious touch that pushes the series on the PSP, which is good to see. Overall, the game is showing a lot of potential and should please fans of the series. 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.