Last year, EA kicked off its next-gen racing experience with Need for Speed Most Wanted, so it’s only appropriate that this fall see Need for Speed Carbon appear not just on Xbox 360, Xbox and PlayStation 2, but also on the PlayStation 3. Last year’s Xbox 360 outing had some holes yet managed to be one of the year’s most purely enjoyable racing experiences, so it’s surprising that EA went back to the drawing board for Need for Speed Carbon. And unfortunately, going back to the drawing board this time around actually meant undoing much of what was so fun about last year’s outing in the first place.
First, the improvements. EA definitely noticed gamers’ complaints about Most Wanted’s monochromatic color palette. To EA last year, “next-gen” apparently meant “brown.” Need for Speed Carbon ups the color ante tenfold, as the game no longer takes place in a surprisingly arid seaside town, but in a lush, Hollywood-esque burb near Carbon Canyon. With multiple districts (Chinatown, downtown, etc.), the decor and environments themselves seem much more varied than the last outing, making the game on the whole feel much more diverse.
The two most notable changes, though, affect the gameplay itself. The first is the very structure of the game. Rather than complete somewhat random challenges on your way to the next boss showdown, as was the case in Most Wanted, Need for Speed Carbon borrows a page from EA’s The Godfather in that the entire city is broken down into territories/neighborhoods, each of which is controlled by a rival gang. The objective of the game, then, is to complete challenges in each of these ‘hoods and lay your claim to the most territory in the city.
To help achieve this total town domination, players can recruit other drivers from the city, be they scout (find shortcuts), blocker (bash other racers out of the way) or drafter (let you draft them for extra boost), and use them several times per race to gain an advantage. Considering the gang-based organization of the city and plot, this build-a-gang model makes sense, but it all just falls a bit flat. The territories make the city larger than the world in Most Wanted, and the town is definitely more active with ambient traffic, but there isn’t the same sense of compulsion to keep going through the campaign that there was in Most Wanted. Unless you’re into marking your territory in real life (and for your spouse’s or roomates’ sake, we hope you’re not), there’s just nothing to really push you through.
The one redeeming quality of the territory wars is the showdown races in Carbon Canyon. Where the routes in Most Wanted were pretty benign, a corner taken too quickly in Carbon Canyon can mean an airborne trip up and over the guardrail — and to your (or your opponent’s) doom. If that’s not motivation to follow the best racing line, I don’t know what is. But again, other than these Canyon races, the rest of the game is pretty bland.
As in previous Need for Speed outings, there’s the option to tune your car to your heat’s content, and for the first time, you’ll have several different car classes from which to choose: Muscle, Exotic and Tuner. Each class handles somewhat differently, and in theory the variety lets you choose a class that best suits your preferred racing style. However, in tweaking the physics to let each class handle differently, EA has succeeded in making some of the most squirrelly controls we’ve witnessed in several years. To be perfectly honest, there were several instances where we asked out loud “since when was I ice racing in Rallisport Challenge 2?” In a sense, the cars handle more realistically, as oversteering is one of the fastest ways to knock yourself clean out of a race. But since when was Need for Speed a realistic racing series? By injecting more car classes and handling diversity, EA ripped out the arcade fun that made Most Wanted so enjoyable.
Need for Speed Carbon was actually the one racing game this year we were looking forward to, which makes the squirrelly handling and uncompelling plot and structure so disappointing. With a few tweaks to the color palette and online modes, EA would’ve had our “most wanted” racing game of 2006. But by going back to the drawing board, by starting over with car classes and their correlating new physics, Need for Speed Carbon has actually taken us back to square one as well, leaving us only one thing to say: “there’s always hope for next year.”
- Overall: 7.3
- Kudos for EA trying something new, but the new physics make for some squirrelly controls, and the territory wars just feel forced and boring. The Canyon races are compelling, but that’s really about all that is.
— Jonas Allen