Razor Callahan, eat your heart out. There's a new street-racing kingpin in town in Need for Speed Carbon and he goes by the name of Darius. For that matter, there's a whole new town, as Rockport from the previous game has been replaced with the appropriately named Carbon Canyon, a twisting and turning nighttime landscape that will serve as your racing home throughout the course of the next installment in the popular EA racing series. Having last played the game at X06 a few weeks ago, we recently spent some time with the game's career mode to get a feel for how it differs from the previous game.
Kicking off the career mode, you're treated to (or subjected to, depending on your point of view) a lengthy cutscene that includes a flashback to the main character's halcyon days as a street racer. Along the way, something happened and ties were cut between you and your old crew. Now that you've returned to Carbon Canyon, you'll run into your old crew, including Darius (played with a delicious tang of cheesiness by Tahmoh Penikett, who fans of Battlestar Galactica will recognize as Helo) and obligatory Need for Speed babe Nikki (Saw 2's Emmanuelle Vaugier). Fans of Most Wanted will appreciate a cameo by Sgt. Cross, who apparently has given up the law and now runs as a bounty hunter.
Before you get into the meat of the game, however, you'll also meet Neville, your first in a line of wingmen that you will be able to hire at various points throughout the game. Neville is the chubby, jocular sort who also happens to be one heck of a good teammate. His specialty? Blocking, which means he's invaluable on the track; put him in between you and a rival racer, then activate his blocking talents by pressing the Y button, and he'll do everything in his power to slow down the bad guys and give you an even wider lead. Later on the in the game, you'll be able to recruit other wingmen with different powers, including drafters and scouts. Drafters are good for squeezing some extra speed out of your car; activate them and they'll run in front of your car and let you gain a temporary burst of speed. The other wingman class, scout, doesn't need to be activated. Instead, they're always on the hunt for track shortcuts to lead you to, saving you time in the process. This is an important role, as many shortcuts do not appear at all on your in-game minimap; as such, following where your scout leads will surely help you win a race.
Since wingmen can change the course of practically any race they are a part of, there are some restrictions. First of all, wingmen can only be activated for so long, similar to the nitrous and time-altering effects also present in the game. A wingman meter on the left-hand side of the screen will govern how long you can keep a particular wingman active. Should it run out, you'll need to do without it until it builds back up. Also, you can only have one wingman active at any time, and in some races, such as drift events, your wingman won't be able to accompany you. Finally, in our experience with the game, there are times when the wingmen simply stop being a factor in the race at all--such as when a blocking wingman falls too far behind in the pack to be of much use to you.
That said, with or without your wingmen, your job as you make your way through Carbon's career mode is for you and your crew to take over each of the territories in Carbon Canyon by beating a series of race events located throughout the world map. Unlike Most Wanted, Carbon doesn't have you chasing your way up the Blacklist, though there will be bosses to contend with. To get to the big dogs, however, you're going to have to race your way through a bunch of events, many of which are similar to the ones found in previous Need for Speed games. There's circuit racing, of course, as well as speed-trap races (which record your cumulative speed through multiple speed traps--the car with the highest total speed wins), and sprint races as well. One of the new events is drift racing, which challenges you to string together multiple drifts to earn points and combos. Drift events can happen on closed-circuit courses or along the curving, narrow mountains of Carbon Canyon, and we do mean narrow. On more than one occasion, we came dangerously close to bursting through the paper-thin barrier and toppling over the side and into the ravine below, adding an entirely new level of challenge to the events.
These drift events will take some getting used to, as the cars you drive have been tuned specifically for drifting and, as a result, are much more apt to slide around corners. Your first few tries in a drifting event might result in a series of wild spins and out-of-control maneuvers that send you straight into the wall (thus canceling any combos you've built up). After a while, however, you'll find the sweet spot of nudging the throttle and gently turning the wheel, and you'll be stringing together drift combos with the best of them. The winner in a drift event is the driver with the highest cumulative score and you're scored not only only the length of your drift, but how close you come to the wall (without hitting it) as well as the speed you take a corner at (the faster the better).
Completing events in Carbon will unlock new equipment, accessories, and customizable parts for any the cars in your garage. Performance-enhancing parts, for example, will give you some flexibility with how you want to set up your car. For example, engine parts will benefit either your top speed or acceleration, depending on which parts you fit, while nitrous enhancements will let you choose between more top-line power or a lengthier spray capability. In essence, you can tune your car exactly how you want it; more importantly, you can set up your ride for each event you enter to give you a better chance for winning. There are also loads of cosmetic enhancements for your car: new paint jobs, vinyls, and the ability to individually mold certain parts such as rims and body work to further customize your ride.
Sooner or later in Carbon, your insane driving and illegal street racing will attract the attention of the cops, and it won't take long before the full weight of the Carbon Canyon PD is bearing down on you. Just as in the last game, the cops here are intense but not always the smartest cookies in the jar. They can be avoided with skilled driving and tactful hiding, and just as in Most Wanted, you'll have a meter onscreen that will show you exactly how close you are to escaping or getting busted during the chases. An escape is only preliminary, however, as you'll have to wait for the heat to cool down (also indicated with a meter) before you can return to normal.
The features we liked so much about the previous Need for Speed game seem to be present and accounted for in Carbon; namely, a gorgeous, seamless environment to drive in; a lineup of some of the hottest cars in the world; plenty of race events to take part in; and, of course, those so-bad-they're-good cutscenes. We look forward to spending more time with the game, as well as Darius, Nikki, Neville, and the rest of the Carbon crew leading up to the game's release at the end of the month. Stay tuned for our full review of the game once it reaches store shelves.