Some things in life are just too predictable. You know every year will bring another birthday, another Christmas, and another installment of every single one of Electronic Arts’ high profile franchises on every single platform out there. Is Need for Speed Carbon just another lazy incarnation of a popular series or does it hold its own as a full price title? Read on for our verdict.
The advantage of the umpteenth new game in a popular series is that at least it provides good reference material for comparisons. And thankfully the Need for Speed brand has been a strong and popular one for several years now, with its strong combination of fun arcade racing, hot pursuits, and a not too complex story so you can focus on the actual racing. Need for Speed Carbon presents no surprises in that respect: it’s got lots of fun arcade racing, some hot pursuits, and a not too complex story so you can focus on the actual racing. EA wouldn’t be a developer we’d expect to take risks would we?
In Carbon you play a street racer returning to his hometown, years after escaping from an incident where a lot of local street racers were arrested in a huge raid. Needless to say you did not exactly gather a fan club being the only one to escape the cops, but one guy remembers and trusts you and gives you a car to race the local gangs with. As you win races, you gradually take control over territories, eventually leading to a direct battle with the gang leader for final control over a whole district. Along the way you may get chased by the cops or be challenged, leading to high-speed chases through town, or you may need to defend your conquered territory against invaders. And then finally, after a cliche-ridden story with treason and everything, you manage to right the wrongs from your past by exposing what really happened that day. Blahblah, let’s skip to the racing.
As usual, NFS:Carbon is the same old NFS game with a number of specific twists. For starters, the game takes place at night entirely. Predecessor NFS: Most Wanted was all daytime action, and surprisingly presented a far richer world this way with environmental effects, overcast races, rain and storms and everything. Carbon’s nightly setting doesn’t really hamper the game though, it’s just a different approach for a different game. As a matter of fact, the night setting does a nice job of demonstrating the new and updated graphics engine, as you race through the city’s shopping and gambling districts with immense amounts of neon lights shining on cars and surroundings. After some initial doubts on my end about the graphical differences, I eventually popped in my NFS:MW disc and most certainly Carbon runs at a better frame rate with barely any drops, and the graphics are definitely more shiny and detailed, looking great at high resolutions. The cars also have an actual damage model now and look quite battered after a hefty police pursuit, although it doesn’t affect the driving one bit as it should with an arcade racer. Good job on developer EA Black Box for taking advantage of next-gen power properly now.
More twists on the genre were applied to the racing itself. The concept of crew members is an original one, with new members becoming available as the story unfolds and capable local drivers flock to your banner. You can select up to three to be part of your crew at one time, and one can be chosen to participate in your races as a wingman. There’s in general three types of crew members to choose from, allowing you to use them once or twice during a race to either ram your opponent, create a draft for racing faster, or find shortcuts in the circuit. Additionally, the crew members provide benefits like improving your revenues, nitro capacity and the like when activated. A funny variation, although in practice you won’t spend much time tinkering the crew probably.
Biggest twist is in the boss battles. Instead of battling it out in the streets completely, you first take them for a spin in the streets, and if you win that the fight is taken into the canyons surrounding the city. Canyon matches see you racing down the mountains through small mountain roads, first you trying to keep up with your opponent and then the other way around. The closer you stay to him while chasing, the more points you get, and the more you stay ahead consequently, the less points you lose. If the net total of the 2 races is in your advantage, you win the territory. Although the idea is fun, execution is hampered by some design choices. Firstly, when you make a mistake during the second part or simply lose, you have to start with the first race again. This in itself isn’t so bad, except for the fact that many of the canyon road turns have “soft railing” allowing you to crash in the ravine, forcing you to start over immediately. This becomes more frustrating by the fact that you will definitely need to have a very powerful car to be able to complete the canyon race, and if like me you didn’t yet get a new car before the first boss battle this will be highly frustrating. And if you quit to buy a new car… you even have to do the street battle again! Definitely made me curse a few times as I found this out.
There’s more gripes like this about the game which seem to be aimed at frustration more than at enhancing the experience. Like mentioned above, you can get challenged to defend your territory, forcing you to do the exact same race again. Not only do these challenges occur far too often, I once got challenges after each of 5 consecutive races, they also get progressively harder as you advance in the game. Once I got into the final territory, I didn’t have money left to buy a high-class car immediately because I’d been playing with the tuning options a lot, and consequently I got raped on most races and challenges because my ‘outdated’ car simply couldn’t keep up. Seeing racers accelerate twice as hard at the start line than you can hope to do with your current equipment is just overly frustrating. At least the tuning was fun and well executed, extending its reach into ridiculously detailed stuff like the exact dimension of every part of a spoiler now. Just don’t buy any of the ridiculous Marketplace items, you can unlock them all by just playing the game alright?
If the career mode gets boring you might consider taking a go at the Challenges, but I recommend you don’t after you made some progress in the career. The Challenges could’ve been more appropriately called Tutorials, since all they do is present you with races that you also need to do in career mode, but then with a preselected car. Once you got the feeling for a fast race car in your fingers, being forced to use a slow car that steers like a cow in thick mud is not an enjoyable experience. Online mode more than makes up for the lame Challenges though, and is quite well executed. The lobbies work nicely, and there’s a nice variation of race types to choose from, including some original new ones that let you play hide&seek with police players chasing the street racing players. I was also surprised at the fluency of the online play, despite my WiFi connection having some serious ping and packet loss problems at the time. Strangely my experiences with split-screen racing were completely the opposite: it felt slow, looked crap, and had obvious framerate problems. Although it’s understandable that split screen performs less than single player full screen, I’ve never seen this kind of discrepancies before.
The Achievements of the game deserve some attention too. We’ve known EA before for just packing 5 Achievements in a game of 200GP each, and give them for “score a touchdown” or “catch a pass” or other ridiculous stuff just to get rid of them. Not so in NFS:Carbon, which has the full list of 50 Achievements. Unbelievably, it’s highly probable that you won’t be getting a single achievement at all before you complete the career. That’s right, no progressive achievements as you play the game’s main mode at all, unless you take the time to engage in 12-minute police pursuits, tag heaps of police cars and the like. It’s good to have those, but why on Earth there are no Achievements in between is beyond me. Even better, there’s some absolutely retarded Achievements in there, with the grand prize going to Moderator Challenge which gives you 25GP for beating an EA Moderator in an online race. How did that get in there while the far more doable and realistic viral achievement was forbidden?
As you race through the city, a continuous stream of sound and music blows out of your speakers. The musical selection is very different from Most Wanted’s rock/metal tracks, this time presenting you with a wide range of techno-ish music, with a surprise appearance of Gary Numan’s 1979 classic “Are Friends Electric?”. When the cop heat gets on though we hear the same old up-tempo music as before, which could’ve used a bit more creativity. Same goes for the sound effects, which present some nice screeching and engine rumbles but are nothing out of the ordinary.
In the end Need for Speed Carbon is a worthy but predictable successor in a fun franchise, and if you ever liked a game in the series before you can’t really go far wrong if you pick this up. Although it doesn’t do anything revolutionary or ambitious at all, it’s a solid arcade racer to last some cold winter afternoons until the more ambitious games like PGR4 and Forza 2 come along, and it has all the classic Need for Speed feeling about it you either love or hate. I must admit I liked it despite its obvious shortcomings, and had a good time while it lasted.
Final Score: 7 out of 10 - Above Average (How do we rate games?)