After rebooting the franchise with Need for Speed Underground, EA has continued to produce some solid street racers under the Need for Speed banner. Last year's Need for Speed Most Wanted, which featured hilariously over-the-top live-action cutscenes and seriously tense police pursuits, proved to be a high watermark for the franchise. Now it's being followed up by Need for Speed Carbon, which downplays the role of the police chases, introduces some simple team-racing mechanics, and occasionally takes the action off the city streets and into the outlying canyons. The new gameplay doesn't always improve the experience, but the racing can still be quite intense and still has a pronounced sense of style.
Carbon continues the story where Most Wanted left off. For those just tuning in, Most Wanted ended with you recovering your stolen car and bailing out of the city of Rockport while the overzealous, anti-street-racing Sgt. Cross continued his pursuit. At the start of Carbon, you're making your way to Palmont City when Cross, now a bounty hunter, catches up with you and totals your car during the chase. Before he can collect his bounty on you, though, your old friend Darius steps in and pays off Cross. You are then put to work, taking over the turf of the other rival street-racing crews in Palmont City. It seems that you've got a history in this town that predates the events in Most Wanted. And during the course of the game, you'll learn more about that fateful night you skipped town. Different characters will give their takes on the night you supposedly ran off with a big red duffle bag full of cash. And by the end of the game, you'll not only find out what really happened, but you'll have taken over all of the street-racing territory in Palmont City.
Outside of the actual gameplay, one of the more endearing aspects of Most Wanted was the way it used live actors in CG environments for its story sequences. These sequences invariably featured plenty of actor/model types, trying a little too hard to talk tough and failing spectacularly at it. The technique remains the same in Carbon, though there are more story sequences now and a slightly more self-aware tone. The heavy use of flashbacks is an interesting idea, but the story ends up being kind of muddled. And none of the villains come off as particularly menacing. Although it's hard to really qualify any of it as sincerely good, it's just over-the-top enough that folks who enjoy stuff like The Fast and the Furious, ironically or otherwise, should get some enjoyment out of it.
Most Wanted had you racing to raise your visibility with the police and take on the most notorious street racers in Rockport. In Carbon, it's all about turf. Palmont City is divided into four major territories, each of which is predominantly controlled by a different street-racing crew. Each territory is then further divided into zones, and within each zone, you'll find starting points for a variety of different race events. Winning at least two events in a zone will put it under your control. And once you've taken over all the zones in a given territory, you can take on the head of that crew. As you continue to extend your reach across Palmont City, rival crews will come back and try to retake territory the same way you took it from them, forcing you to accept their challenge if you want to maintain control. Having to go back and rerace events that you've already won is kind of a pain, but the open-world structure is nice and gives you plenty of options to take on races at any given point.
However, you won't be taking on all of these crews by yourself, because Carbon lets you bring along a wingman into many of the races. These computer-controlled companions break down into three different behavior types--blockers, drafters, and scouts. Blockers will run interference for you, spinning out opponents at your command. Drafters let you slipstream behind them, giving you some extra speed from the reduced drag, and from there you can pull aside and slingshot your way past them. Scouts have a knack for finding the many alternate routes and shortcuts that can be found in most races, and they have short neon tracers that follow them, making it easier for you to take advantage. You'll definitely find yourself in races where your wingman's influence is the difference between winning and losing. But often, your wingman's presence is either unnecessary or an actual hindrance. Blockers are only really effective in taking out competitors that are behind you, and even then, they're not very reliable. Drafters work as advertised, but the lengthy straightaway needed to set up a proper draft is rare in Palmont City, which limits their usefulness. Scouts are the least useful of the three because the neon tracers don't seem to get longer as the cars you drive go faster, so eventually, there's just not enough time for you to anticipate an alternate route. If you didn't call on your wingman, you might expect him or her to just hang back. But we found ourselves getting bumped into and boxed in by our wingman on several occasions. It's not ruinous to the experience, but sometimes it makes you wish they would just go away.
The game relies on some pretty tried-and-true types of races, but it also throws some curves. You'll find plenty of common stuff, such as lap-based circuit races, point-to-point sprints, and checkpoint races. But there are also some unique races, such as the speed-trap race, where your standing is determined by your cumulative MPH as you race through a series of speed traps. Most races take place on the city streets of Palmont, but there are also drift events, which can take place either on a closed racecourse or on the winding canyon roads that surround the city. The goal in the drift events is to score points by making clean drifts around corners. The car-handling changes completely for the drift events and feels much more slippery than in the rest of the game, which recalls the drift events found in Need for Speed Underground 2.
You'll also face off with the different crew bosses in the canyons, and these events may test your patience. Once you've taken enough turf for a crew boss to challenge you, you'll first race against him in a standard city-street event. If you beat him there, you'll advance to one of the game's canyon courses, which are narrow and undulating. Here it's a two-part race, where you'll first have to chase the boss through a point-to-point race, and then reverse roles for the second part. Your score on the first half is based on how close you stay to your rival; then in the second half, your rival tries to outdo you. These events can be quite challenging because the courses are technically complicated, and the crew bosses tend to be better, more aggressive drivers than the average street racers. There are also a number of ways in which you can instantly fail. If, during the second race, your opponent manages to get ahead of you for more than 10 seconds, you automatically lose. But on the flipside, if you can get ahead of your opponent for more than 10 seconds in the first race, you automatically win both races. Also, each course is absolutely rife with cliffs. This means that if you take a corner at the wrong angle or speed, you can launch your car off of a cliff, immediately ending the race. All of these elements can make for a tough but fair race. However, failure takes you back to the first half of the canyon duel, even if you failed during the second half. It's kind of a minor point, but it's one that can turn a canyon duel into a real chore.
The structure of the canyon duels can be frustrating, but the way Carbon marginalizes the police chases that were so instrumental to the success of Most Wanted is even more disappointing. The cops still play a factor because each zone has its own heat rating that increases the more you race there. The higher the heat, the more likely it is that cops will start coming after you. While Most Wanted had you purposely baiting the cops, as well as attempting to rack up huge property damages and lengthy pursuits to advance the story, there's little reason in Carbon for you to attract the attention of the law. With the ability to hop directly to any race event through the world map, it's possible and quite easy for you to go through the entire story mode where you can count the number of police encounters on one hand.
Structural imperfections aside, the core driving in Carbon is really solid. There's a great selection of licensed real-world cars that you can purchase throughout the course of the game, which are sorted into three different groups--tuners, muscles, and exotics. And you'll find that each group handles differently. In the tuner group, you'll find a lot of souped-up Japanese sports coupes, like the Nissan Skyline, Subaru Impreza WRX, and Toyota Supra. The strength of these cars tends to be an ability to slide around corners. Muscle cars are all Detroit steel, including new stuff like the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Challenger Concept. They also include early 1970s classics, like a Chevy Camaro SS and a Plymouth Barracuda. And though they've got great acceleration in a straightaway, they're pretty loose in the corners. The exotics group is probably the most varied, with high-end offerings from Mercedes, Porsche, Alfa Romero, Lamborghini, and more. These cars also tend to demand a higher level of skill to use them correctly. You can buy cars from dealerships, or you can win them from crew bosses. And once you get them, there are all kinds of upgrades that you can apply to them. There are tiered performance upgrades, as well as a rainbow of paint colors, dozens of vinyl stickers, aftermarket rims, spoilers, and body kits. You can also fabricate your own body parts with the game's autosculpt system, which is oddly reminiscent of the Game Face feature in EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour games. It's a novel idea and great for making some really physically impossible-looking parts. But it takes too much incremental tweaking of settings to get something unique. And there's such a wide variety of prefab aftermarket parts that don't require all that toil, which means only the truly obsessed will get much out of the autosculpting.
If you keep your eye on the prize, you can see the credits roll in Carbon's career mode in well under 10 hours. But if you want to beat every event, as well as unlock every last car and upgrade, you can just as easily spend 20 hours. And there's even more racing to be done outside the career mode. There are 36 increasingly difficult races to take on in the challenge series, and the quick-race option lets you jump into something--no strings attached. The Xbox 360 and PC versions of Carbon also provide a pretty solid online multiplayer component, where up to eight players can participate in all of the race types found in the career mode, as well as multiplayer-exclusive modes, where players get to play as both cops and street racers. The rules in some of these modes aren't explained very well, which can make for some pretty confusing moments. But once you get past the learning curve, you can have some good, team-based fun. We also experienced some minor but pervasive latency issues, even when we were nowhere near the eight-player limit, as well as an odd bug where all in-game sound would drop out for the duration of a race. It's kind of flawed, but again, the actual feel of the racing still translates pretty well online. And an online experience system where you can unlock additional cars helps make it a little more interesting. By comparison, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions get split-screen multiplayer, which works poorly and makes the omission of online play almost feel insulting.
With Palmont City apparently living in eternal night, the game's feel recalls the Need for Speed Underground games, though the scenery changes in Carbon are much more varied. There's a distinct West Coast feel to Palmont City, and you'll find yourself in districts that recall the more posh parts of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. As different as it feels from the city of Rockport in Need for Speed Most Wanted, keen eyes and ears will notice a lot of recycled elements here. Vehicles, environmental objects, textures, and a lot of the sound elements have been cut and pasted into Carbon, making for some odd déjà vu. In some cases, it's a good thing because the squeal of the tires and the growl of various car engines still sound great. But hearing the same police radio chatter in Palmont City that you did in Rockport is just weird. There's some familiar, dramatic music in Carbon as well, although it's odd how poorly the game uses what is actually an interesting licensed soundtrack of rock, electro, hip-hop, and grime. You won't hear much of it, because the game seems to prefer its own music most of the time.
This is a game that seems as if it was developed for the Xbox 360 first and foremost, because the Xbox, GameCube, and PS2 versions feel compromised. One of the most telling points is the fact that the race-wars event type, which puts you in a field of 20 racers, isn't even an option in the non-360 versions. This is likely because of technical limitations. The 360 version looks great, with some heavy motion blur around the edges of the screen. It also has lots of good-looking bump-mapping, slick lighting and reflection effects, as well as a generally more stable frame rate and shorter load times than Most Wanted. The PC version has the potential to look nearly as good as the Xbox 360 version, though the motion blur is a bit more subdued. It takes a pretty high-end PC to get it looking that good, though, and even then the frame rate won't be entirely solid. While the Xbox version has a little less flash, it still looks sharp and runs smoothly. The GameCube version looks almost as good, though the frame rate can be a little inconsistent. The PS2 version, on the other hand, can be pretty ugly. Textures are muddy, there are a lot of jagged edges, and the frame rate is all over the place.
Ultimately, Need for Speed Carbon doesn't make the best use of some of the strengths from Need for Speed Most Wanted. Many of the changes made to the Most Wanted formula seem to be for the sake of change, but it all still just comes back to the solid driving action, which Need for Speed Carbon puts to good use.
Editor's note 11/06/06: Our review of the PC version of Need For Speed Carbon mistakenly scored the graphics lower than intended. The score has been adjusted accordingly. GameSpot regrets the error.