Version tested: Xbox 360
Like a lot of EA's annual cash-cow staples, Need For Speed has been through more peaks and troughs than your average cardiograph. Perhaps inevitably, after last year's palpitating return to form with Most Wanted, Carbon's solid but formulaic approach to street racing struggles to raise the pulse for much of the time. The problem? It's just too damned easy and plays down the role of the police to the detriment of the game.
As well as lacking a long-lasting challenge with weak opponents and wide, easy tracks to race around, the premise is a whole lot simpler this time around too. In terms of look, feel and structure, Carbon feels more closely connected to the hugely popular Underground games despite picking up where Most Wanted left off. After an ill-fated chase sequence with bounty hunter Cross, you hook up with an old 'friend' Darius and begin the familiar process of taking over territory by winning races against rival crews across the neon-lit Palmont City.
But despite offering what appears to be a vast number of challenges to overcome, the truth is that even newcomers to racing games will be able to see off the majority of the tasks at hand in the main Career mode on their first or second attempt. The basic idea is to work your way around Palmont's streets and scalp territories by winning the various race challenges dotted around on the openworld map. But as with previous NFS games, you can quickly jump to each race by simply calling up the map and selecting which one you want. Every victory wins you cash and unlocks more powerful cars and upgrades, and by applying the necessary performance enhancements and buying the appropriate cars when they appear for sale, you'll easily see off three of the game's four territories without really breaking sweat. It's more forgiving than your average priest.
Need for new ideas
For the record, most of what you'll play in Carbon has been seen many times in the other recent Need For Speed titles, and feels instantly familiar. The roll call of modes includes your common or garden Circuit races against seven AI opponents, the solo Checkpoint races, point-to-point Sprint races, and a welcome reprise for Most Wanted's excellent Speedtrap races, while you might recall the old Drift races from the Underground games. If you've played a Need For Speed game in the past four years, you'll know the deal - it's incremental update territory once again, with the same basic handling and glossy, mainstream approach to street racing that sells faster than fake Burberry.
Fortunately, Carbon is saved from being a complete rehash of old ideas thanks to the trio of modes formed around the challenging and snaking Canyon tracks; first up there are basic point-to-point (Sprint, in other words) Canyon races; secondly the immensely challenging Canyon drift races and, finally, the Canyon Duels. Arguably the most challenging mode in the entire game, these two-part races demand intense concentration and skilful driving to win out - not to mention a fair bit of joypad-bashing frustration towards the very end of the game.
In the first part of Canyon Duels you're tasked with driving as close to your opponent as possible for the duration of the race. The closer you drive, the more points you clock up, and - better still - if you manage to overtake your opponent for 10 continuous seconds you will win the race outright. Slip up, though, and you risk losing the race outright if you drive to your doom off the edge of the track or fall too far behind for 10 seconds. Assuming you manage to get to the second leg, you then have to do the whole thing in reverse and get to the finish line before your accumulated points tally ticks down to nought. As with the first leg, if you cock up and allow your opponent in front for 10 seconds, or drive off the edge of the cliff you have to start the whole thing from scratch.
Exclusive to the 360 version is Race Wars. Present in both the challenge mode and as a post-boss extra in career mode, the only real difference between this and, say, the circuit race is that you get an extra 12 AI opponents to race with - but given that they're all pretty easy, the novelty of racing against more AI is generally redundant after you've boosted past them all on roughly the second bend. Ah well, thanks for trying.
The other big new addition to this year's Need For Speed are your crew members. Available for hire after certain key races in Career mode, you get the choice of racing alongside one of three 'wing men' during Sprint, Speedtrap and Circuit races. The first, and arguably most useful, is the Blocker, thanks to his ability to skid across the path of opponents ahead of or behind you, thus giving you the chance to either extend your lead or claw back a deficit. Later on you also gain the Scout, who helps you find the numerous shortcuts, while the Drafters - in theory - let you slingshot past them at great speed if you drive in their slipstream. The problem is, unless you're driving on a straight it's near to impossible to gain any extra speed, and given that you'll most likely boost on straights anyway, they're a bit redundant.
As interesting as it is to have your crew helping you out in races, the feeling persists that EA's effectively added a cheating device to make it easier to win races. The truth is, for most of the game the blockers are a little too effective for their own good, and as result you'll power through the bulk of the game before you really have to learn how to get the most out of the handling. Beyond the third of the fourth major territories, they actually become completely useless and unable to keep pace for much of the time - although speccing up their rides does help.
Get off my case
At the point that the game starts to offer a serious challenge, you'll also start to realise that the AI is every bit as elastic as it was back in the Underground days. Just like then, you'll find yourself a few seconds off the pace, improve with every race and continue to be trailing behind despite finishing with a better time than the AI's previous winning time. It's not quite as ball-busting as it once was, but you'll still see it crop up once you're on the final set of territories and desperate to get to the endgame. But like we said, the key to cutting a swathe through the game is undoubtedly choosing the right time to upgrade your car, and applying the numerous performance upgrades.
Evidently happy with the upgrade system from last year's effort, Carbon continues to offer a simple and straightforward means of upgrading whichever Tuner, Muscle or Exotic car you've chosen to drive. With three tiers of each car unlockable at key stages in the game, you get a clear signal of when to upgrade (such as clearing a territory and moving onto a different portion of the map) and doing so is as simple as jumping straight to your safe house, purchasing any available upgrades to your tyres, engine, brakes, transmission, engine and so on. Further tweaks are available via a slider bar if you prefer, for example, a little more drift just before entering those races, but the option of 'optimal' settings gives you an easy means to carve a safe passage to glory without getting your hands oily.
As usual, there are visual upgrades aplenty, and EA has gone one further this year by effectively applying its Gameface technology to the cars. By messing around with the slider bars, you now have the ability to tailor the look of your car just so, but there's no actual in-game reward (such as extra respect, Juiced-style) to taking time to apply any of the visual upgrades that you unlock. In a way, we're glad that pimping our ride wasn't a mandatory exercise - especially given that we found the game far easier to drive in the bumper cam view (one of four camera views, by the way).
Neon sign of the times
Carbon certainly can't be faulted in the technical department. Building on last year's excellence, gone is the autumnal charm of Most Wanted, and back comes the glossy neon-lit urban sprawl of Underground. Fortunately, the next-gen capabilities of the 360 have afforded Carbon a far more charming look and feel than the baby-oil-soaked Underground games, and with a much more realistic approach, a solid handling system and a nippy, generally rock-solid frame rate (generally, as in very, very occasional dips), it's always a fun environment to drive around. In many senses, it's simply a night-time version of Most Wanted, with an appropriate balance of windy city streets and expansive freeways.
Where Carbon ultimately feels most unsatisfying is the bit-part role that the law plays in the game. Possibly as a direct consequence of the steep challenge of Most Wanted, the police barely get involved during the career mode, making an appearance maybe one time out of every ten race events. When the area's 'heat' is high, they're more likely to get on your case, and when they do it's the exact same drill as Most Wanted, with the idea to take out the rozzers and evade them by whichever means necessary. In other words, that entails knocking scenery items down onto them, taking shortcuts and trying to find cool-down spots once you've evaded their attention. You can, of course, drive around in Free Roam and stir up trouble if you so wish, but there's precious little incentive to do so. Realistically, Black Box should have integrated the police more closely into your career progression, and the fact it hasn't makes Carbon feel like a significant step back as a result.
The 36-event long challenge mode makes more of the police pursuits, with six events specifically set up to test you on how many cops to evade, cars to take down and how long the chase should go on - but it's a bit of a missed opportunity to make the police a sideshow. It's understandable why the emphasis was more on racing this time, but the reality is it feels like the balls have been ripped out of the game. Most Wanted's racing had consequences after almost every race, but Carbon feels too polite by comparison.
Fortunately, the online racing (again, exclusive to the 360 for reasons we don't quite understand) is extremely solid. All of the game's career modes are present, as well as Pursuit Tag and Pursuit Knockout, and the usual Xbox Live set-up options allow for ranked or unranked matches, along with worldwide leaderboards and a experience-based system that awards points based on performance. Regarding the modes we haven't explained as yet, Pursuit Tag puts one player as the racer and the others (up to seven online opponents) as the cops, with the goal being to evade the rozzers for as long as possible - with the person who busts the racer then switching sides. Meanwhile, Pursuit Knockout is a lap-based race where the last-placed player becomes the cop and then tries to bust the racers. From the limited time spent online (based on few people actually playing anything other than straight sprint races), the matches were relatively lag-free, with connection meters helpfully offering the chance to weed out those who might cause the lag. Interestingly, the cars you're able to use online depend on what you've unlocked, so you've got a straight choice of ploughing 10-20 hours into the career and challenge mode or forking out for EA's rather cheeky unlock packs on Xbox Live Marketplace.
Incidentally, EA's limited edition version of the game includes four exclusive vehicles, 10 pre-tuned cars (already in the game but now fully modded), six new races and three new challenge series events - but this extra content can be downloaded via marketplace for roughly the same price difference between the two versions. What's not quite so acceptable is that it's not altogether clear what EA has withheld from the game in the other content pack online. The wording suggests "many" components are in the game, but doesn't specify how many. To be honest, you'd have to be barking mad to need any of the extra content to beat the game, having seen how easy it is to do with cars that are by no means the best. We wish EA would be a little more transparent about what you're actually buying, because it sets a rather unsavoury precedent to have to pay to unlock content that's already on the disc that you've paid top whack for. 360 games already demand a premium.
But when it comes down to it, no amount of extra content can disguise the glaring fact that Need For Speed Carbon is a backward step from last year's release. The fact that it's less challenging may make a lot more accessible to the mass market audience that it's so desperate to pander to, but the net result is that it's also, on balance, a slightly less exciting and enjoyable game. But let's be clear: Carbon is never less than a solid, polished and effortlessly entertaining game - and the online component gives it long-term appeal - but after roaring through the gears with Most Wanted, this is most definitely EA going Carbon neutral.
7 / 10