For ages now, the Need for Speed series has been one of my favorite franchises of all time -- dating back to when the game was originally endorsed by car magazine Road & Track. 10 years have passed by since I first purchased and installed Need for Speed: SE into my PC and the franchise is still going strong. Now while the later NFS titles have gained some heat (Underground and Underground 2), I still thoroughly enjoyed playing them both on my PC. The first Underground for the PS2 was pretty tolerable, visually...but ultimately I felt like both of the games tried to accomplish way too much on consoles that just couldn't handle it. The frame rates were inconsistent, and the flickering/shimmering up ahead really made for an unpleasant experience that prevented you from knowing exactly where to turn next. Most Wanted, being set in the daytime, cured a lot of that; it made navigating through the city a great deal easier simply because the settings were in the daytime. So it's unfortunate that after the much celebrated Most Wanted, EA would go back to their nocturnal regime with Need for Speed: Carbon.
Although still a demo, visually, the game is pretty much complete. The framerate is the typical experience many of you are used to; it rarely runs at a consistent 30 frames and you can tell. Carbon isn't choppy, but running below 30 frames per second most of the time isn't something that we should be seeing this late into the generation. Consider this, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 is quite a bit older than Carbon, but it is a much better looking game, with a much better framerate. Again, this is still a demo, so ultimately I have to hold out on my final judgments -- but judging EA's past history with demos and the final product, don't expect Carbon to look any different when it's released in a few weeks. Pretty much the same things that have plagued both Underground games visually plague Carbon. And I understand that they're trying to get at the whole "tuner-scene" with the moonlit settings, but it's become redundant. The scenery ahead of you is blurry, and the copious amount of blur doesn't help your judgment as a driver, either. Not to mention the animated wind-streaks from behind the vehicles look so horribly out of place, as if they belonged in some anime cartoon.
It's unfortunate that the visuals of a game are crippling the overall experience, but that's what happens in a racing game. EA was on the right track with Most Wanted, and they somehow veered off the road. But surely though the Xbox 360, PC and PS3 versions of the game will not suffer from the aforementioned issue of not being able to tell where you're going. Obviously with the extra power processing, the three powerhouse versions of the game will provide gamers a crystal clear picture (provided you have a decent PC) and a rock solid frame rate. Too bad the same can't be said about the PS2, Xbox and GameCube releases.
The gameplay is a mixed bag. For those of you who will compromise, and bear the visuals they've become accustomed to, you will experience a customization experience unlike any other. But you may also find yourself hating the new drift mechanics. First thing's first...new for Carbon is a feature called "Autosculpt". Autosculpt allows the gamer to customize the size and shape of his car's body kit, hood, trunk, exhaust, rims, bumpers, grille, tires, spoiler, etc. etc. etc. Essentially (and you've heard this mentioned plenty of times...but this is the one time it's actually true!), no two cars will ever look the same. This is simply one of the best features a racing game has ever seen; and I'm absolutely anxious to try it out on the X360 or my PC (the PS3 release still isn't 100% confirmed for 2006).
Now the bad news...the drift mechanics. Drifting was always one of my favorite parts in the two Underground games, so it bothered me greatly when I felt the new physics. Let me put it this way, a quick tap of the analog stick to either direction will have your car facing sideways, you losing control of it, and ramming into a wall. If you think I'm exaggerating, wait until you see it for yourself. The touchiness of the new drift controls puts the OutRun series to shame -- there is absolutely no feel of the car whatsoever. I tried and tried to adjust to the new feel, but I just couldn't tolerate it. Where as before, I was able to annihilate my opponents -- in Carbon I am constantly dead last and by a wide margin. Thankfully, the physics of the actual races haven't changed, so I've got no complaints there. A few cool tricks have been added to the mix, you now use your nitrous during a drift and you can also call on a team member for help during a race. That team member will either intercept and ram into an opponent for you, or he will outrun one of your opponents and finish the race for you. There's a bit of strategy involved in developing your crew, as well. Each crew member has specific skills...so choose wisely.
As far as features go, Carbon is loaded with cars from three different genres, muscle, exotic, and tuner. You represent a class of car, and stick by that class throughout the entire game as you assemble a winning team. EA claims over 50 cars will be available, and you'll be able to race them in a large open-ended environment through a number of different districts.
Remember folks, if you have, or are getting, an X360, a powerful PC, or a PS3 then opt for a version of NFS: Carbon that belongs to one of those units. If you feel like you can handle the aesthetic mess of the PS2, Xbox, or GameCube then more power to you. But it must be said, Autosculpt is definitely something not to be missed. Look for NFS: Carbon to hit October 31st.
10/16/2006 Arnold Katayev