Need for Speed Carbon
Standard procedure in reviewing 90% of EA games is to fluff out the piece with an opening paragraph or two on the decline of gaming as brought about by the company's relentless annual regurgitation of flagship brands. From its ubiquitous sports titles to the myriad of other brands which the masters of the sweatshop coder own the license to, EA are the uncontested kings of the generic update and as such the focus of much criticism, both from gamers and other developers alike. Personally, I tend to take their games on a case by case basis. Maybe this is because I am wise enough not to expose myself to each twelve month update and therefore less inclined to witness the repackaging of the same present year after year. Possibly this is because I have been lucky in that the EA games I do review are either fresh IP or happen to be the incarnation where the franchise is receiving an overhaul. Or maybe I'm just weird like that.
Dragging this in the general direction of the game in question the last EA shake'n'bake that I looked at was NFS: Underground. Number one. I thought it was a fun little racer with much to commend and less to offend. I missed out on number two, passed by Most Wanted and have only caught up with the series again with this, Need for Speed: Carbon. This title mixes the street racer pimping of the Underground series with a bit of the cop chasing dynamic of Most Wanted. So we have a street racing game with lots of style-focused events with the occasional pursuit by the local rozzers thrown in to mix things up.
As is typical with almost all EA games the presentation of Carbon is flawless. I'd go so far as to say it's too damn good because it has a tendency to put the rest of the game in the shade. With all kinds of crisp and swirling logos, video pieces for all the characters, an eminently friendly map screen, blissfully un-antagonistic customisation options and some FMV that has a spookily ethereal quality to it the only thing that annoys about the delivery of the game is that once you get behind the actual wheel things take a jolting turn down an alleyway marked 'meh'.
Now we can debate about the importance of graphics over gameplay but in a game where style is so pervasive and the rendition of the gameworld so important it's dispiriting to breeze through sexy menu options only to find yourself driving down bland and washed-out streets. Compared to Underground from three years (and one generation ago) Carbon's cityscape is devoid of interest and colour. An old Xbox game should not really have better and more involving graphics then the second iteration of a game on a next-gen console. The 360 is capable of pumping out lush visuals but on the evidence of Carbon EA are not in the mood to push their developers to do anything spectacular. Okay, there are some blurring effects and other graphics trickery but for the most part these tend to make the game look worse rather than better. Because of this I completely ignored the free-roaming option and thanked the developers for giving me the choice of just warping to each race from the map screen. Not only did this mean I could bypass exposing my eyeballs to the near-monochromatic world of Carbon but I could focus all my time on competing in the actual meat of the game. Couple this with some very bearable loading times and getting from race to race was a wonderfully painless affair.
There aren't too many new race types in Carbon. There are now downhill drift competitions to join in with the return of the circuit based slide-a-thons. Unsurprisingly these involve slipping and weaving your way down the new downhill tracks without bashing into the sides and trying to chain together the drifts to increase your chances of beating the elastic competition. Yes, to my disappointment Carbon's AI is like those old Incredible Hulk toys you used to get which could be pulled and yanked to grotesque extremes. I honestly believe that years ago some EA monkeys coded a most wondrous recreation of a rubber band that they cannot help but pinging it at frustrated gamers with each update to the NFS franchise. This is at its most obvious and aggravating in the many street race variants, where after leading the pack for four fifths of the race a minor altercation with a guardrail is enough of an opportunity for the AI to catch up and scream past you, invariably on the second from last bend. It's a lazy way to extend the life of the game and while it is not an immediate concern the last stages of the campaign are frustrating beyond words due to the AI's ability to pip you to the post time after time after time.
Instead of relying on their bag of elastic tricks the game's creators would have been better off adjusting the difficulty of the majority of the game. It's entirely possible to breeze through half the races while using the first car you get, albeit tweaked out with the various upgrades that winning unlocks for the player. Losing a race here requires an impressive level of ineptness or a cat demanding attention at the wrong moment of one of the otherwise thrilling head to head downhill sprints. These new race types involve two runs down the same track with the player and their AI foe taking it in turns to lead the way. You earn points for the positive distance between yourself and your opponent with victory only achievable if you finish the second stage in the green. These are challenging races and the freshest thing about Carbon.
Carbon also has a clutch of Xbox Live a-like achievements to unlock which reward the player with useful things, like new cars or transmissions or wholly optional additions, like sexy new vinyls to plaster down the side of your hotrod. The modding aspect of the game takes more of a backseat this time. If it's your thing you can happily lose hours in the customisation garage, applying decals and paints and all sorts of after-market gubbins to your vehicle. Carbon even allows you to manually adjust the look of each spoiler, vent and rim you decorate your car with, a variation on their GameFace technology which has been allowing gamers to create obscenely grotesque basketball and golf players for the last few years. In the end it's all somewhat a waste of time as there's no reputation or other benefits to be gained from having the most ridiculous looking ride on the streets.
The 360 version also has a bunch of online options but seeing as EA continue to insist on using their horrendous proprietary online 'community' I only spent enough time in there to confirm that if you want to race against people online you can do so and it works well enough. What you cannot do, however, is play against a mate on your own 360, an omission which I will take as another indication of the weakness of the graphics engine. While there's negligible stuttering in the single player game you do get the distinct impression the game is running right at the very edge of its capacity and any more demand would see the whole thing coming to a juddering halt. Another step backwards.
One area where Carbon does innovate is in the use of crews. As you progress through the game you get to invite other racers to join your gang. There are three different types; scouts, blockers and drafters. For most street races you can add a member of your crew to the race where they will be on hand to aid you in your not insurmountable quest to come in first place. In fact, the presence of a crew mate makes winning even easier as you get credit for a win even if you come in last as long as your pal crosses the line first. Anyway, drafters will give you an extra speed boost if you nestle up behind them for a few moments. Blockers can be called upon to obstruct any opposition trying to muscle their way past you and scouts will pinpoint all the shortcuts on a particular track. I found the later the most handy as the murky graphics conspire with the blurring effect to make the hidden paths all but invisible.
You have to beat the other gangs who have carved up the map of Carbon city into territories. Win enough races in a territory and you have control of everything that lies there, such as safe houses for escaping from the law, (often an unnecessarily drawn out and tedious affair which brings no reward other than the ability to continue to progress) or dealerships and garages to expand your driving experience. Take over enough of a gang's territories and you must face off against their boss in one of the downhill challenges. Beat this and you get an FMV and the ability to continue drilling through the races towards the end of the career mode.
NFS: Carbon is an enjoyable enough game for a few hours. Testing out the new additions and playing around with the new options is more than mildly diverting. However, after a while the tediousness of the city-scape and the simplicity of the driving model conspire to make one think of the other things that could be done with the time. Despite its faults I really enjoyed Carbon for a few days but once my interest had piqued I found little to compel me to pick it up again other than to broaden my experience of the game so as to write a more complete review. Seeing as this is not a compulsion you readers will have to endure I think it likely that Carbon is best recommended as a rental as most of what can be had from the game can be squeezed out in a weekend's play. Hopefully the 2007 NFS will inject some much needed life and passion back into the series as there are a few promising aspects of Carbon which are unfortunately let down by some deathly dull graphics and a driving model that wouldn't challenge Lindsey Lohan after two bottles of tequila.