Written by: Rik
Date posted: June 28, 2015
Need for Speed: Most Wanted had such a lasting impact on me that in real life I periodically imagine a 4×4 driving on the opposite side of the carriageway suddenly careering towards me in an attempt to ram my car into a wall. Not only was it a very good game, it was also a long lasting and occasionally gruelling one, and you certainly couldn’t say that it was short of content – even if it did fall into the trap of making the player do rather a lot of the same thing over and over again.
There’s not a lot of scope for innovation when it comes to racing games, particularly when there’s a yearly release schedule to meet, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that Need for Speed: Carbon is very similar to Most Wanted and actually serves as a direct sequel, story-wise. Having (spoilers!) retrieved your beloved BMW from silly Most Wanted bad guy Razor and escaped to freedom, you inexplicably continue driving around in it (in direct contravention of the series’ own rules on individual vehicles’ ‘heat’ levels) until eventually cop-turned-bounty hunter Nathan “I’m always very” Cross tracks you down and engages you in a chase that ends with your accursed BMW getting smashed up. Vorsprung Durch Technik indeed! [That’s Audi, you prick – FFG reader].
Fortunately, an old acquaintance named Darius turns up to get rid of Cross and offer you a replacement car if you join his racing ‘crew’. Darius doesn’t seem very happy to see you, though, and neither does anyone else in Palmont City – which is, evidently, the setting for the game. It transpires that you used to race around these parts but legged it after some cops showed up and some prize money was nicked: everyone thinks you did it. Hence, there’s a lot of “you have a lot of nerve showing your face around here…after what you did” type dialogue flying around in the early stages.
Darius is trying to be nice but it seems unlikely that he actually is, because he’s wearing a permanent sneer and also a jacket and hat combo borrowed from M. Bison. Conversely, his girlfriend Nikki (who – groan – used to be your girlfriend) is a bit stroppy at first, but you get the sense that she’s probably alright really – perhaps because she’s already been all smiley and approachable while delivering the mandatory introductory disclaimer that you shouldn’t drive in real life like you would in the game. Unlike last time, incidentally, the main actors are vaguely recognisable: Nikki is played by Emmanuelle Vaugier, who had a significant stint in CSI: NY, while Darius was apparently in the 00s retooling of Battlestar Galactica.
Anyway, all of this is an excuse for you to be relegated to the bottom of the pile in a new town while lumbered with a shit car and nothing better to do than work your way back to the top of the tree again. This time, you compete for territory in Palmont, and when you’ve taken over all of a particular region of the city (of which there are four) the ‘boss’ character will come looking for you and challenge you to a duel. As usual, as you progress, you can upgrade your crap car and eventually replace it.
It all sounds very familiar, especially to those who’ve played previous NFS games, so it’s probably worth identifying a few distinguishing features. Well, for a start, after Most Wanted’s daytime escapades we’re back to permanent night-time for this one. I don’t mind this too much: it looks kind of cool (do people still say “cool”?) and does at least explain the low levels of civilian traffic, but at the same time, we sort of had this already in NFS: Underground. Meanwhile, as mentioned, Most Wanted’s Blacklist has reverted to a take-over-the-city type deal, and for such purposes you’re supposed to have your own ‘crew’ of racers, complete with naff logo. This leads us to one of the new features – the fact you have a roster of friendly teammates, one of whom you can choose to race alongside you as your wingman for selected races. There are various types: a Scout will race ahead and identify shortcuts; a Blocker will smash a targeted opponent off the road; while a Drafter will take up a position directly in front of you so that you can milk a speed boost by loitering in their slipstream. Each crew member also has skills that provide off-road benefits – such as a percentage increase on race cash prizes, or reduced police attention.
Cars have been separated into three distinct classes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Handily, there are also three different attributes for vehicles, and each class is best at one of them. Tuner vehicles have the best handling, Muscle cars the best acceleration, and Exotics the best top speed. There are three tiers of vehicle class too, with each one becoming available shortly after you beat a boss and start winning in a new region of the city.
The race types are largely the same as in previous incarnations: Circuit is laps, Sprint is a point to point race, Speedtrap is based around top speed through certain parts of the track, and all are against AI opposition. From Most Wanted, Tollbooth races have been renamed Checkpoint, while Drag races have disappeared, but the Drift events from Underground have returned. The all-new feature in this regard is the Canyon race, a twisty-turny downhill affair that comes in a few flavours, but most notably in a one-on-one duel against a zone boss.
The police remain, although in a substantially reduced role that means they’re more of a minor irritant than a primary focus of the game. Generally they show up during a race (each race event has its own ‘heat’ level indicating how likely this is) and once this happens, the mechanics are the same as before: you have to evade their sight for long enough to end the chase, aided by Pursuit Breakers (bits of scenery you can crash into in order to block the path behind you) and Cooldown zones (areas where you can hide from sight and bring the pursuit to a conclusion) and the longer it goes on, the more tenacious the cops become. Unlike last time, though, there’s no incentive for you to extend the chase – you need to win races, not become ‘most wanted’ and so most chases are over fairly quickly.
In one way, it’s a relief, because there was so much cop chasing in Most Wanted that you had sort of had enough by the end – well, at least to the extent that you don’t want the next game to be more of the exact same thing. But it also means that quite a big chunk of content has been taken out of the previous game and replaced with one or two new bits and pieces which don’t really add up to much.
There are good things in NFS: Carbon: the reduced number of bosses mean that they’re slightly more memorable than the MW blacklist members, and here they’re actually rendered in-game rather than existing purely in video clips, which makes their pre-race taunting more effective. You’re also treated to an inset display of their reaction to good or bad performance during a race – adding to the feeling that you are actually racing against a character rather than a faceless drone.The Canyon events are also a genuinely good addition, particularly the duels, in which you take it in turns to chase each other down a hill. In the first round, you build up points by staying as close to the car in front as possible throughout, and then, when the roles are reversed, your points total is reduced by your opponent getting close to you – the object being to finish before your total reaches zero. If a chasing car overtakes and keeps the lead for 10 seconds, the whole challenge is over, likewise if the chasing car falls too far behind, or either car falls off the edge of the canyon. Carbon’s best moments are certainly to be found here.The wingmen don’t really add much – they’re a bit like a power up that you can use when your driving isn’t really up to scratch. The Blocker is really effective in the early stages, ramming the car in the lead off the road at the touch of a button, while the drafter isn’t really about exploiting a slipstream but giving you an artificial speed boost as long as you can follow your wingman’s car (in real racing, the whole point of this technique is to actually overtake the car in front). To give some credit, their incessant chatter does add to the feeling of being part of a ‘crew’ and there is some unintentional comedy value in observing them doing something moronic like driving into a wall and then announcing apologetically over the radio, “I’ve got a problem here, sorry”.
Otherwise, though, the races could be from Underground. The only major change is the difficulty: Carbon is generally an extremely forgiving game, and for the first three quarters of the career mode, most races can be won on the first or second attempt. There’s a slight hitch in the final territory when you’re temporarily up against Tier 3 cars without one available to buy for yourself, and it was at this point I realised my muscle car handled like a greased pig that I couldn’t actually drive very well – but up to this point, there had been no real need to do so. Swapping to a Tier 3 car with better handling restored order, and, this brief spike aside, the game was completed without much further fuss. You can get away with a ridiculous amount of bouncing off walls – real, or invisible – and the feeling is that you win most events without even a basic mastery of the route. The Canyon races, with their occasionally fatal cliff-edge corners, come as blessed relief, although even here Carbon isn’t playing to traditional Need for Speed strengths, which have never been precision twisty-turny driving, but sweeping through occasional traffic on straight roads. Carbon still has that, of course, but the thrills seem recycled.
Recycled is a good way to describe NFS: Carbon (and I’m sure there’s a joke there somewhere: I still have no idea why it’s called Carbon, incidentally, but assume all of the jokes that could be made were at the time of release – “is the next game to be called Need for Speed: Carbon Dioxide?” etc.) because it seems as if, since Underground, EA have been using the same basic materials, adding and subtracting a few bits, and twisting a few dials here and there, to come up with a slightly different game. With Most Wanted, all the tinkering added up to an optimal experience, so it was probably a mistake to try the same trick again. Carbon isn’t a bad game, but it certainly ranks as a fairly insubstantial chapter in the series, and compared to Most Wanted, it feels like a retrograde step.