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Need for Speed Carbon Review

Developer: EA Canada Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: November 17, 2006 Also On: GCN, PC, PS2, PS3, Wii, Xbox and Xbox 360

The Need for Speed series took an exciting turn last year when Need for Speed: Most Wanted introduced exciting police chases and even more high-speed races than previous games. This year, EA Black Box is taking the series even further with Need for Speed Carbon, which will be the fifth Need for Speed game on current-gen consoles, the second on Xbox 360, and the first for PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii owners this fall.

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Electronic Arts and EA Black Box held a Need for Speed Carbon Community Day event in Vancouver, B.C., Canada August 24th-25th. I attended this event and left well informed of all the new features that Need for Speed Carbon will offer, as well as a few returning features that series fans will really enjoy. I got my hands on the Xbox 360 version of the game for about three hours during the event, so all gameplay impressions are taken from that version.

Scott Nielson, Line Producer for Need for Speed Carbon, wants to be sure that racing fans know one thing. “Need for Speed Carbon is not Need for Speed Underground 3 or Most Wanted 2. We’ve evolved from those games with deep feature sets and new game modes.” With that said, Mr. Nielson carried on to show Community Day attendees just what separates Carbon from the other games. The most exciting new gameplay feature, and the first thing he talked about, was the new Canyon Racing gameplay modes that are the icing on the Carbon cake. Canyon racing is a dangerous event that street racers do in the mountainous regions of the world: they’ll race as fast as possible down winding hills, drifting around corners and avoiding a fatal fall off of a cliff. Not only is the goal to avoid dying, but it’s also to stay in front of whoever challenges you to the race. Alternatively, if you challenge another person to a race, you attempt to stick close to your opponent or pass him before the end of the race. It’s fast, it’s dangerous, and according to Mr. Nielson, “It’s insane.”

Indeed, Canyon Racing was quite insane. Need for Speed Carbon begins with one of these races, giving you a great idea of what it’s all about. Drifting around corners is an adrenaline-pumping affair, as you’ll often barrel into a blind corner with limited visibility of what’s in front of you. In Canyon events you’ll notice a new scoring system. If you’re the racer in pursuit of your opponent, you’ll earn points as you maintain your speed and close proximity throughout the race. Alternatively, if you’re the one being pursued, you’ll have to try to avoid the pursuer and keep your score from depleting. In each Canyon race, you’ll play as both roles–that’s just how it works. If you don’t lose all of your points after being pursued, you’re considered the winner of the race.

Canyon Races aren’t all the game is about. Need for Speed Carbon has a lengthy (about 15-20 hours, according to a few of the developers) career mode that puts you right into the middle of an open city and a territory war fought between three different factions. Each of these groups has a preferred car class, which is where the game’s three car classes are introduced. Some of the guys will drive nimble tuner cars, while some will commandeer quickly-accelerating muscle beasts, and others will opt for the speedy exotic machines. As you win races in different zones (there are multiple zones that make up a territory), you’ll start to win these territories and take down the factions. Once you’ve won all of the different zones and territories, you own the city. Of course, you’ll have to defend your territories as well–in my short playtime, I was ushered into one of these defense races.

You’re able to choose cars from these different types. Tuner cars include Japanese imports like Toyotas, Nissans, and Mazdas. American brands like Chevrolet and Ford compose the Muscle category. Last, elegant European names like BMW and Porsche make up the Exotic list. You’ll want to align your play style with the kind of car you choose. For example, Muscle cars don’t have the handling of a Tuner car, but they’ll certainly punish them off of the line and on a straightaway. Exotics might be quick, but their less-than-impressive acceleration will have them plowing through the rubber of a Dodge Charger. In the end, you’ll be able to choose from more than 50 licensed cars, with a good distribution to each car type.

Throughout the career mode, you’ll recruit crew members that help you on and off the streets. EA Black Box insists that this RPG-like feature will add a lot to races, and from what I saw, it’s a welcome addition to the series because it introduces this new element. As you go throughout the city, gaining territories, you’ll meet guys and girls that will join your team. Picking the right characters is the key to having the best crew possible, and at any time, you can use two of your crew members.

Each character has two distinct abilities: one that can be used in a race, and one that can help you off of the streets. You’ll meet Blockers, Scouts, and Drafters that will help you on the track. Blockers are like “missiles,” as the training mission described: select them and activate their block ability, and watch as the person in front of you gets pummeled into a wall. Scouts will spot shortcuts and mark them on your in-game map, giving you an edge over opponent racers. Drafters will drive in front of you, giving you a large wind tunnel that will slingshot you in front of the competition.

The off-the-street abilities are equally important. Fabricators will allow you to pick up new visual parts like rims and bumpers, paint jobs, and vinyls. Mechanics will find parts that increase your vehicle’s performance. Last of all, fixers will bribe police officers and keep the heat down during your races.

Need for Speed fans might have noticed that something was missing in Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Drift Racing, one of the most popular features from the Underground series, took a year off. EA Black Box fine-tuned it and will reintroduce the feature in Need for Speed Carbon. New physics will challenge you even more while a new scoring system will force you to speed up and put some thrills into your drift strategy. Unlike Underground, where one could “snake” through the Drift courses, racking up hundreds of thousands of points, Need for Speed Carbon forces you to maintain a high speed to earn your points. As an extra “risk-reward” bonus for players who go for the big points, bonus zones near the dangerous insides and outsides of turns will give you bonus points in your drift combo. In my experience with the new Drift Mode, I had a difficult time adjusting to the controls, but it was truly a lot more exciting and rewarding than the mode found in older Need for Speeds.

Another new feature has been added to the game that I particularly enjoyed. Similar to other EA game features like MobFace (The Godfather) and GameFace (Tiger Woods, Fight Night Round 3), Need for Speed Carbon features a super-detailed, in-depth visual customizing mode. This mode is called AutoSculpt, and it allows you to alter almost every single area of a car’s appearance as well as the different body kits you can buy for a vehicle. Do you want your muffler to look a little bigger? Maybe you want your front bumper to ride a little closer to the ground. Perhaps you’d like to add a few more spokes to a rim or even make them pop outward. All of this can be done with ease by adjusting sliders found in AutoSculpt. Couple this with an even deeper vinyl system, and you’ve got a ton of control over what your vehicle looks like.

The Need for Speed series, I believe, has always pushed the bar for visuals. I can still remember being amazed by Need for Speed Underground’s pitch-black sky, neon lights, and detailed vehicle models. Need for Speed Carbon continues to push the visual bar. Art director Neil Eskuri walked the Community Day attendees through the familiar nighttime, high-contrast visual style that the Underground series was known for. This time around, the large city that Need For Speed Carbon takes place in will show flavors of West Coast cities like San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe. Each territory in the game shows off one of these tastes. You’ll spot this in the different regions, like the downtown area, the industrial area, and the casino area.

Tiger Woods fans were excited to see the new Universal Capture technology being put to work in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007, and Need For Speed fans should be equally pleased to know that UCAP was used for a few of the game’s more important, pivotal characters. For those of you unfamiliar with UCAP, it’s a technology that captures the most detailed facial animation to date, showing off the most realistic emotions and reactions ever in video games.

Jesse Lyon, one of the sound guys for Need for Speed Carbon, showed off what was different this year in the aural sense. Sound effects have been detailed a lot further. For example, cars will release sounds for both the engine and exhaust. Surround sound gamers will especially enjoy this, especially if they go into the game’s first-person view and the sound is amplified. The full in-game soundtrack wasn’t revealed, but I’ll tell you that it was definitely pretty funky! Given the quality of past soundtracks, I would guess that Need for Speed Carbon won’t disappoint.

The associate producer of the Sony PSP Need for Speed: Carbon, Matt Tomporowski, showed up with his version of the game (renamed Need For Speed Carbon: Own the City). The PSP version features a different story and open-world city than the console versions of Need for Speed Carbon, and it also has a few more features that you won’t find when playing the game at home. The crew system is intact, but pushing the RPG factor even further, you’re able to level up your crew and exploit their leveled-up skills. There are a few new crew types as well, like the Assassin, who lays a spike strip on the road, incapacitating any racer that runs over it. The PSP game also has its own gameplay feature called Crew Takedown. I felt that this was very similar to Burnout’s Takedown mode: you and your crew members simply take down as many opponents as possible in a short amount of time. Once you’ve done that, it’s your turn to escape from opponents trying to take you down. Unfortunately, AutoSculpt and Canyon Race modes are absent in this year’s handheld experience.

The PSP version also has a gritty art style that isn’t found in other versions of the game. Mr. Tomporowski compared it to the work of graphic novel artist Frank Miller (famous for Sin City), saying, “We wanted to be visually different [than the other versions of Carbon] and stand out.” The in-game cinematics show off this style through moving animations that remind me a lot of PSP’s digital comics (Silent Hill Experience, Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel). PSP gamers will be happy to know that Need for Speed Carbon: Own the City offers wireless multiplayer gameplay through the PSP’s Infrastructure system. And one shouldn’t worry too much about lag, according to Mr. Tomporowski. “Depending on the connection of each player, there should always be a solid frame rate.”

Despite a few hardware problems (games crashing, for example), my hands-on experience with Need For Speed Carbon and Need For Speed Carbon: Own the City was a great one. I enjoyed the Community Day a lot, and you can check out my Overview on Game Freaks 365 in the days to come or the Game Freaks 365 Forums. Other than that, check out the game when it speeds to retailers November 17th, just in time for the PlayStation 3 launch.

Written by Cliff