Need for Speed: Carbon (Xbox)

Need for Speed: Carbon
Xbox (2006)

Need For Speed Carbon, the latest entry in Electronic Arts’ popular racing franchise, picks up where last year’s Need For Speed Most Wanted left off. More than just a “carbon” copy, the most recent Need For Speed game tweaks the franchise formula by adding several new options and features, resulting in a slightly different (but equally fun) racing experience.

The perpetually dark Palmont City is a stark contrast to the autumn backdrop of Most Wanted’s Rockport City. Urban streets and neon lights have replaced last year’s rustling leaves and rural landscapes. Palmont is divided into four territories, each of which is then subdivided into smaller counties. Initially rival gangs control the territories, but it’ll be your job to take them over one county (and race) at a time. In between races a mysterious back-story unfolds, delivered through Need For Speed’s patented (and somewhat creepy) mesh of CGI filters placed over live actors. The story, with a plot as deep as most episodes of Scooby Doo, involves a bag of money getting switched, a double-cross, and (thankfully) a lot of racing.

Most of the racing formats have carried over from the previous game: circuit races, sprints, checkpoints and speed traps are all back. The clunky drag-racing event from last year’s game has thankfully been dropped and replaced with drifting. In drifting races, the object is to slide your way around a course, scoring points along the way. The closer to the wall and the longer you stay there, the more points you’ll rack up. By linking drifts together you can add score multipliers, but spin out or tap the wall and your drift is over. The physics and control inside drift races are so different from the rest of the game that they almost feel like a completely separate mini-game.

After taking over an entire territory players will face one of the game’s gang leaders on a one-on-one duel. Boss races occur in two stages, the first of which is a routine sprint race where you’ll take on the boss heads up through his or her own city. The second part is a two-part race through Carbon Canyon. The first time through, you’ll chase your opponent down winding canyon roads, earning points by how closely you can trail your opponent without bumping their car. Once you reach the end it’s back to the top for a second run, this time with you in the lead. The goal is to reach the end of the run while maintaining a positive score. Without nitrous or your friends to help you, later runs through the canyon will put your ultimate driving skills to the test. One wide turn on a tight canyon corner and you’ll achieve massive airtime the hard way.

To appease old school, new school, and wishful-thinking racers, Carbon’s cars have been divided into three categories (muscle cars, tuners, and exotics) with three escalating performance tiers. Players begin with a couple of tier one cars from each category to choose from, but can unlock others by winning races. Performance items can be won, unlocked or purchased and installed on your ride, but eventually you’ll need to upgrade to a higher tier car to continue your winning streak.

Carbon ups the car customization ante with the addition of Autosculpting, which allows gamers to not only apply different body kits to their cars, but also mix and match kit pieces to create entirely new looks. There are literally hundreds of flames, vinyl stripes, tribal designs, and other symbols that can be added your car, each of which can be then rotated, skewed, or repositioned. Along with all the wheels, spoilers, hoods, roof scoops, muffler tips, paint colors and schemes, ride heights, and dozens of other parts that can be added to your car, the possibilities are infinite. Each car tier also has half a dozen performance mods that can be unlocked and purchased, from turbo and nitrous to brakes and suspensions. Each performance piece contains adjustment sliders that allow gamers to adjust each part, so you can do things like configure your nitrous to either last longer, or blow harder. True gearheads will no doubt get a kick out of constantly tweaking their rides.

The biggest difference racers will encounter in game is the addition of wingmen (and wingwomen, for that matter). Hirable teammates can be unlocked, hired and fired at different points throughout the game. Crew members come in three flavors: drafters that can lead you through races at record speeds, scouts who will drive ahead revealing track shortcuts, and blockers who’ll smash into your rivals’ rides, giving you an opportunity to take the lead in the process. As helpful as they may sound, EA’s implementation of wingmen is done so awkwardly that your “friends” more often than not cause you to lose races instead of helping you win them. The drafters are the least useful of the bunch – they’re great on straight-aways, but will unfailingly lead you crashing into a corner headfirst at breakneck speeds. Blockers aren’t bad early in the game, but you’ll soon find they rarely have enough nitrous to hang with the pack, resulting in a continual barrage of “I can’t keep up!” from your sidekick. Scouts are probably the most helpful with their ability to point out all the game’s hidden back alleys and shortcuts, but even they have a way of inadvertently hitting the brakes and smashing into your car or even running you off the road and into a wall as your opponents sail by, laughing.

The only major disappointment Carbon delivers is the de-emphasis on police chases, particularly in career mode. Police chases are no longer missions of their own, and escaping from a pursuit delivers few rewards. The police cars have been scaled back from their nearly indestructible status in Most Wanted, making them fairly easy to cripple or simply outrun. The cops’ inclusion this time around is half-hearted at best, which is too bad as the chases in Most Wanted delivered some of the series’ most adrenaline-pumping moments. While there are a few pursuit-related missions in the game’s Challenge Series, their inclusion feels tacked on.

While the heart of Need for Speed has always been Career Mode, there is also a Challenge Series that contains three-dozen challenges, each of which will unlock game-related items. From the main menu you can also check your reward cards, to show tasks that need to be performed within the game to unlock additional items. While the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Carbon also include various online racing modes and scenarios, the Xbox, PS2 and GameCube editions do not.

With so many changes between editions it’s hard to say whether Need For Speed Carbon is better or worse than its predecessor. Racing fans will enjoy the new tracks and the limitless amount of tweaks that can be administered to their virtual rides. The canyon challenges are a fun addition, and drift races are a welcomed replacement over last year’s frustrating drag races. On the flip side, the idea of wingmen is better in theory than its implementation, and the lack of police challenges throughout career mode is disappointing. While the game delivers in the racing department, the video sequences and plot are epically goofy. Need For Speed Carbon is a fast and friendly racer that’ll have you squealing the tires for many gears to come.

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