Need For Speed: Carbon Review (PS2)

Another year, another Need For Speed. November 2006’s flavour is Carbon, but does it bring enough fresh ideas to the franchise to make it a worthy purchase?

The game’s one on one races are a highlight Once again, the customisation allows you to make your car a unique machine

Since 1997, not a year has gone by without at least one Need For Speed title. They have varied in quality and sales in that time, naturally, but reached dizzying levels of popularity in 2003 with the release of Need For Speed Underground, which tapped into the car modding culture of movies like The Fast and the Furious. Since then, Underground 2 proved a little too similar, though 2005’s Most Wanted reinvigorated the series, with its police chases and heady daylight races.

Carbon takes the series back to the night, which is immediately apparent from the first moment you start playing; where Most Wanted used yellow and orange, Carbon uses black, blue and neon pink. In cut scenes especially, this gives the game a stylised quality, though the colourisation of some of the actors can often give the game a distinctly antiquated feel, as if photo-realism was not actually possible. Mixed with the fact that the dubiously talented actors are constantly talking to the camera, and addressing it as “you” – as in, ‘Oh, you’re back in town’ – it feels very much like early PC CD-ROM titles like The 7th Guest. The game’s storyline also leaves a lot to be desired, with a decidedly stilted attempt at a mystery surrounding missing money, though it’s hardly likely that anyone is playing Need For Speed games for the story anyway.

The game adds a few additions to Most Wanted’s formula, with the ability to set up a racing crew giving you the chance to pick a team member to race alongside. There are three kinds of crew members: blockers, who will try to take out your opponents, drafters, who will allow you to gain a boost from their slipstream, and scouts, who race ahead of you to find shortcuts. There’s a limited amount of times that you’re able to use blockers and drafters, but scouts will constantly race at the front of the pack, as long as you’re in second place.

Despite the commendable attempt to give the game a sense of realistic population and cooperative spirit, the fact that you’re only able to choose from six people all up reduces the impact – especially given they all search you out. Even worse, the use of scouts can sometimes give you what seems to be an unfair advantage; if you’re able to keep just ahead of, or at least keep up with, your opponents, the scout will always win the race, giving you a win by proxy. Plus, who really wants to see “Your team mate won!” at the end of a race? It’s actually vaguely demoralising, and takes a lot away from the feeling of being a “star underground racer”.

Muscle cars look great, but drive like school buses Blockers will take out anyone in your way

The car modifications are once again present, this time with the new addition of autosculpting, which lets you change certain elements of the particular piece you’re attaching to your car: for example, you can raise the height of air vents on the car’s hood or set how low to the ground the car’s front bumper will be. It’s a great idea, but there’s only four items for each car part to choose from, which feels severely limiting. Fortunately, there’s still a full supply of aftermarket items to use, as well as literally hundreds of vinyl decals to decorate your car with. The fact that you’re not able to see your car featured on magazine covers, like in Underground, is sorely missed though – there’s nothing to actually make you feel like what you’ve created is worthy of attention at any point this time around.

One feature from Underground that does make a return are the drift races, which have you sliding the back end of the car out to gain points. It was a great and enjoyable gameplay mode in Underground, but controls too badly in Carbon to warrant trying – especially on the winding canyon courses, which are borderline impossible. The canyon tracks are used to great effect in the boss races though, where you face off against a rival crew leader to see who can tail the other driver the closest down a twisting, narrow road that comes complete with breakable barriers; a wrong move will see your car plummeting down a cliff, ending the race immediately. The difficulty on these races is pitched perfectly though, and what could have been an irritating bottleneck in the game is, in actual fact, a tense but ultimately very satisfying battle that adds a real sense of achievement to your progression through Carbon.

Speedtrap, which forces racers to hit certain spots around the track at high speed, makes a return, as do the checkpoint races, and the obvious circuit and sprint modes. The absence of the drag races is disappointing, though – while they felt a little out of place in terms of control method, they did offer an enjoyable sense of variation to the proceedings.

Overall, despite some interesting and expectedly well thought out tracks, the night time setting of the game just doesn’t feel right after Most Wanted – almost as if the game has taken a step backwards in terms of environment. More so, the ability to choose your next race or head back to your garage from the world map removes a lot of the sense that you’re racing in a living world, since you’ll very rarely have to drive from one point to the other, which also means that the game’s setting is less memorable this time around.

That’s not to say that Carbon is a bad looking game; there’s still the same glistening sheen, and the menus are clean and easy to navigate. It’s just that there’s a lot less personality to Carbon than there was in Most Wanted, which feels like a sadly missed opportunity for EA to push the series into new ground. The game’s soundtrack is enjoyable enough, with tracks from Gary Numan, Pharrell and The Bronx, though they’re rarely heard, with an unengaging score taking priority for most of the time.

The exhilarating canyon race are nerve-wracking, but rewarding Once again, carbon fibre car parts can be used, but add nothing to the gameplay itself

The Need For Speed series is hardly regarded as the most innovative in the racing genre, but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by Carbon’s unwillingness to push any boundaries, especially after the jump for the franchise that Most Wanted represented. It’s undoubtedly fun, but it’s debatable whether it’s worth a purchase, especially if you already own its predecessor. With a little luck, EA will take the few innovative moments of Carbon and use them to develop something truly special by the time next November’s instalment hits shelves.

Top Game Moment:
The exhilaration that comes from winning a particularly difficult boss race is impressively compelling.

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