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.
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