Need for Speed Carbon Review
It left me a little puzzled when EA revealed Need for Speed Carbon earlier this year and that they've reverted back to a night-time setting. After Most Wanted being so praised and people rejoicing for some sunlit roads, you'd think that maybe EA would've got the hint. Well I guess they didn't, for whatever reason that may be. But don't let the game's setting throw you off, because Carbon continues to be very much a terrific entry into the Need for Speed franchise. NFS: Carbon now marks the 10th main entry the series has seen since 1994. And that's not counting all of the spin-off titles such as V-Rally, the portable releases, the Special Edition versions, and so forth. Yeah, this series has been around and it remains one of EA's largest cash cows. Thankfully, there's always something new to be seen in every iteration, and Carbon is no different. With the arrival of AutoSculpt, Carbon's customization enters a whole new level.
Even though the basics between the first Underground and Carbon have remained practically the same, Need for Speed continues to lure me into its web of ridiculous speed. I won't even sugar coat it, but I've been addicted to every Need for Speed game I've ever played. I'm an enormous fan of the series, so every time EA attempts to do something different with it, it makes me a little nervous. Thankfully with Carbon, EA keeps that signature formula the series has been running with for the past 3 years, while at the same time giving us something no racing game has done.
AutoSculpt is a feature that allows you to take specific add-ons to the car and customize them to your needs. Feel like your new hood can use wider slots? Expand them. Don't want slots? Close them. Want a wider lower grille for your bumper? Or would you like to flare out your side skirts a bit more? How about we get your body kit to sit one inch away from the asphalt? Hell, why not customize your rims to have them look how you want and then make them as large as you want (seems like 24-26" is the max). The combinations are practically endless, which means so is the variation between cars. You can AutoSculpt your wheels/tires, spoiler, side-skirts, rear bumper, front bumper, hood, roof-scoop, and exhaust tips. Ideally, no two cars will look in the game, unless they're both stock. Carbon gives the gamer that kind of freedom, and AutoSculpt alone is probably worth the price of admission.
But the game retains its pre-built body kits and accessories, so if you don't wish to customize then you don't have to. Likewise, the game still features an extensive list of brand name wheels for you to roll (or blade) on. Without a doubt, for anyone who was concerned, Carbon is easily the deepest entry the series has seen when it comes down to customization. In addition to aesthetic stuff, you can do some minor performance tuning to your car as well, when you purchase your upgrades. A suspension upgrade will let you dial in oversteer or understeer when you purchase it (you can always go back and re-tune anytime you want). Engine work will ask you if you'd like more torque out of your car or horsepower (strong bottom-end pull or strong high-end pull). Likewise, to compliment your cars engine work, transmission work will allow you to put a greater emphasis on acceleration or top-speed.
But the tuning isn't anywhere near as detailed as Gran Turismo, so don't even get your hopes up. Basically for every upgrade package you purchase you're allowed to tinker with its individual contents and by doing so, you customize your preference. So for instance, one of the Nitrous packages contains a Direct Port Nitrous Kit, Pressure Controller and 20lb Nitrous Bottle -- if you adjust the Pressure Controller to the left, you add more a little velocity to your nitrous, but shorten its duration period (and vice versa). Different parts have a different impacts on tuning -- but you'll see all of that when you're actually playing.
So yes, AutoSculpt and tuning works pretty well and adds a new dimension to the game. Now what about changes to the gameplay? Well, EA's added a new crew feature to the game that allows you to have a wingman drive with you during most of the game's races. There are a number of different crew members you can have, all with their unique talents. You have the blocker, the drafter and the scout. The game will detail the use of different types of crew members to you at the very beginning, but there really isn't much to remember. I personally use Sal (who is a scout) because he's very fast, tells you when there's a shortcut coming and will often times win a race for you if you made an enormous driving error.
Your crew's ultimate objective is to take over all of the zones in Palmont City by winning all of the races. Before you take over a zone completely, you will have a boss race. The boss races are fun, and they now have a new twist. In addition to a standard race to the finish, there is now a second round that you have to endure.
This second round is a downhill challenge of sorts, called Canyon Duel, where you have to stay as close as possible to the boss (you can also pass him) throughout the entire drive. The closer you are, the more points you accumulate. If you're good enough and you pass the boss during the drive down, and hold a lead for ten seconds, you win the entire challenge. Likewise, if you fall back too far for 10 seconds, you lose. Once you make it to the finish, it'll then be your turn to lead and attempt to lose the boss from your tail. This time, the points you have earned will be depleting! So the closer the boss is to you, the faster the points will count away. Make it to the finish with points left, and you win the challenge. Oh and, make sure you don't fly into the yellow barriers, because they break and you'll go diving -- race over. There are probably a few more new features I'm leaving out, but those are the most important ones to know about.
Much like its predecessors, Carbon doesn't skimp out on the car selection. The game features nearly 50 vehicles scattered throughout three designations: muscle, tuner, and exotic. The car's all display a new physics engine that has them reacting, handling and controlling differently from one another. A boat-like muscle car of the 60s will handle as you'd expect to -- a boat. Where as a Lotus Elise will prove to be the rollercoaster of the game, seeing as how it can change directions in an instant.
Additionally, at one point the game will force you to purchase an upper tier vehicle (there are three tiers in the game), as the vehicle you started out with will not be competent enough no matter how many upgrades were done to it. This helps maintain the flow of the game by keeping it as fast as possible, as well as allowing you to diversify your car collection. Don't forget, having numerous cars will come in handy when you want one car to have its police heat lowered.
But when you're not playing the Career, you can always go into the Challenge Series mode and continue to unlock more and more of what the game has to offer. So while the career mode you can probably beat in less than 15 hours, you'll still have another 10-15 hours to sink into Challenge. Ideally, the game features two core modes for the gamer, because until you complete both, you haven't completed the game -- and that's pretty awesome.
Of course, if you're going to pick up Carbon, you're going to want to play it online. The game allows for up to 8 players to compete (although limitations force the game to downgrade the graphics a bit), and there are even some online exclusive races that many will find themselves playing over and over again. Online features don't bring anything new to the table, but being able to play with cops and take your personal car and race it against others is always something welcome in any racing game. Thankfully, unlike a few other launch games, Carbon didn't see its online component nixed either.
There are some draw backs to Carbon, though. The first is: no drag races. What's the deal EA? The second is: no dyno. The third is: no 1/4 mile test track. And the fourth is: really clumsy drifting. Seeing as how this game puts an emphasis on playing around with performance settings, it'd have made sense to include both a dyno and 1/4 mile track (as it was present in NFS: Underground 2). But I don't understand why EA pulled the drag races (they should've just made them straight line, without annoying traffic cars) and why the drifting has become so touchy. You'll adjust to the new drift mechanics, but you won't want to. With the flick of the analog stick, your car is sideways and before you know it, you've hit a wall. The drifting will take a bit of practice, so get ready. I, personally, wish EA would've just stuck to the original drift mechanics.
Visually, there are a number of things to say about NFS: Carbon. The PS3, PC and Xbox 360 versions are the best versions to play, without a doubt. The PS2, GameCube and Xbox versions just look dated at this point. Where as in the older console versions the flickering and aliasing issues in the background make it hard to judge your turns, this is non-existent in the next-generation versions. Furthermore, the frame-rate of the Xbox, PS2, and GameCube versions is the same sub-30 we've all come to expect. Where as the PS3 and X360 versions are both locked at framerate of 30 (and so is the PC version, if you're hardware is good enough).
But (and this is one massive but!), do not attempt to play Carbon on a standard-TV. If you do not have an HDTV, you might as well forget picking up Carbon for either next-gen console and consider the PC version if your PC is up to par. Carbon seems to exclusively run in 720p, so anything less than that results in excessive aliasing issues (read: jaggies) that bring back painful memories of the PS2 launch. In fact, I'll go off on a whim here and say Carbon via standard definition boasts more jaggies than Ridge Racer V did when it launched on the PS2. Carbon looks practically unplayable without an HDTV, and that will come as a shame to many.
But when the game is played with its desired output in mind, it looks pretty average. The overall quality of the game won't make anybody cringe in disgust, likewise it won't awe anybody either. Because it is a multiplatform game, it's definitely not a visual showcase -- and it's certainly the lesser of good looking next-gen multiplatform titles too. The cars are fairly detailed, as are the environments. But you'll see some spotty texture work in the city; likewise you may notice some quirky pop-up issues too. The lighting and reflections are the NFS standard and they continue to do a decent job of keeping the flare of the game appealing. Overall, it's not as visually impressive as you'd hope for it to be, but it's certainly not a bad looking title at all. Thankfully the frame rate keeps up, and so the game benefits from that.
Surprisingly, it came as a big surprise to me to find out that the EA Trax in Carbon weren't very bad. In fact, a majority of the songs are pretty decent. Still, the gear head in me would rather listen to the soundtrack of the cars, as opposed to what EA compiled. The rumble of a 6-liter GTO coming through my speakers and subwoofer make up for one kick ass sounding experience. But I do have my gripes with the audio. First off, why do the tires screech at every motion of the car? Whether I'm going 90 and lightly maneuvering the car's direction, or if I'm going 20. It's annoying that even under the most un-extreme conditions the tires squeal. Second off, Carbon is yet another game that doesn't utilize custom soundtracks. So if you don't find yourself liking the audio in Carbon...there isn't much you can do but just turn it off.
After completing NFS: Carbon, I can certainly say that it was yet again another satisfying experience. The amount of customization options behind the game easily make this the most worthwhile NFS 'tuner' title to date. Carbon may not be for those who still have a non-HDTV as the picture displayed is pretty poor and that's unfortunate. But if you do have an HDTV and aren't awaiting to be blown away by the visuals, then you'll find yourself quite content with Carbon. While it may have reverted back to a nocturnal setting, the series continues to offer a good deal of replay value -- as the gameplay retains its addictive traits and features. The audio boasts terrific surround sound output with the engine and exhaust notes coming to life in your room, but the EA Trax may not please all. And of course, online will likely have you coming back every now and then.
Still, for next year, I'd like to see a change in direction for the series. Four tuner titles is enough.
12/25/2006 Arnold Katayev