• EA: more regular than Santa. You know it’s holiday season because the annual editions of Madden, FIFA, Tiger Woods, NBA, NFL and Need For Speed start appearing on store shelves. It’s unashamed and very much calculated, each franchise performing extremely well against any rival software every year. Whilst last year’s Most Wanted took the lid off the underground and presented an almost entirely new game (and was well received because of it) 2006 has brought us the bastard child of Most Wanted and Underground 2. It’s back to night racing, bathed with a neon-glow throughout, and it’s back to the over-promotion of visual modifications, even to the extend of the Autosculpt, which I’ll get to later. EA have clearly been keeping an eye on the couple of Tokyo-based car-flicks this year, as a percentage of Carbon takes place atop twisting mountains, albeit American ones and not Japanese.

    Story mode is back too, with at least one familiar face from Most Wanted, and although the plot is as thin as compound tyres it’s far better integrated into the Career mode, with more frequent cut-scenes and a much better developed sense of involvement. Without spoiling the story, it’s about your driver being excluded from the city of Rockport due to apparently abandoning your fellow racers and having to take shelter in nearby Palmont, where it’s always dark. Naturally, you’re not flavour of the month but there’s certain (four) key individuals out to ruin you permanently – and these are boss characters who maintain areas of the city: each sub-section is split into 3 races (of various types) and victory in 2 of these means you take over that particular bit of the map. Gain enough ground, face (and beat) the boss and move onto the next.

    Need for Speed: Carbon

    It’s linear enough to keep a hold on the story, yet you’re free to avoid certain race types if you don’t plan on grabbing the Achievement for owning every race. It’s a welcome gesture, although not one explained at any point, but it also means that you could in theory fly through Story mode in about 5 hours having only completed about two-thirds of the races. Race types include familiar favourites like Circuit, Sprint and Speedtrap, the single- car time trial that is Checkpoint and returning from Underground: Drift. These are single car (although you’re up against the scores of invisible others) events either on dedicated tracks (as they were in Underground) or down the aforementioned mountains. The dynamics are incredibly simple though, and I fail to see how anyone could find getting massive scores a problem.

    Another ‘new’ mode is Race Wars, and although these only occur on completion of a territory (and thus, a victory over the boss) these are tremendous 20-car street races, a sight to behold on the start-grid, and a mode that oddly seems to maintain the frame-rate with no problems whilst drifting alone can batter it. Boss races tend to be a straight one-on-one race through the city followed by a dual down one of the mountains – these are split into two, with you following the boss trying to keep as close as possible (or overtake for 10 seconds) then flipped around, with you in the lead. Tense and exciting, these are the highlight of the game’s Career mode.

    The other twist here is the clear segregation into car types. Every car falls into the class of Tuner (mostly Japanese sport sedans and coupes like the Skyline and Eclipse), Exotic (everything from the DB9 to a Lambo) and Muscle (big heavy American things that don’t like corners) and throughout these you have 3 tiers. Naturally, you’ll start in tier 1 and only be able to buy upgrades for a tier 1 car, but as you progress so do both the car tier available and the level of performance kits. This keeps the action tense (unless you buy an 80 point unlock from the Marketplace which gives you a tier 3 car at the beginning) and the races close, although there’s some obscene catchup here too, especially in the boss races (Angie, the third boss, is probably the worst culprit of this, and is also possibly the ugliest woman ever to appear in a videogame – ugh, that laugh!).

    Visually, it’s something of a step-back from Most Wanted. The cars look wonderful, crisp and solid, and even the vinyls and graphics all look high resolution, but the environments are low-poly, repetitive and the insane amount of motion blur is distracting (and cannot be switched off) and make the vehicles look stuck-on (as they do not blur at all, oddly). Apart from the cut-scenes (which blend real-time cars and motion captured actors) which are brilliant, and the occasional pre-race intro Carbon looks like a high definition PS2 game, which going off the sheer number of ports EA have handled, it probably is. The frame rate attempts to run at 60fps, but is more often than not jumping back and forth to 30 (and sometimes less) and doesn’t seem dependent on the number of cars, your speed or indeed anything quantifiable.

    Production elsewhere though is through the roof – the load times are tiny, the menus are particularly well designed (although the person who decided to list vinyls by name in a massive long list without thumbnails wants shooting) and the music throughout is probably the most appropriate for a racing game for some time, with different genres playing depending on your progress and style. Auto-save can be switched off (handy when your car is impounded by the police) and apart from a couple of occasions when the dreaded Dirty Disk Error has arose (the game constantly streams the track ahead) I’ve not experienced any glitches or bugs.

    The big new thing this year is the Autosculpture tool. Once you’ve hired the appropriate crew member (you can have three at a time in your crew who perform tasks such as blocking other racers or finding shortcuts, but only one member per race) you can unlock Autosculpture in the customisation menu. This basically enables you to stretch out various sections of your bumpers, skirts, wheels, hoods and roof-scoops (and more with the right crew member) to your liking, although it’s nowhere near as fluid or as creative as you’d like. It’s essentially just the standard body-kits in game with a few sliders, but we’re sure next year’s game will enhance this feature somewhat. You can now have 20 layers of vinyl per car, and all layers can be stretched, moved and coloured to your liking – like a mini version of the one in Forza Motorsport.

    Online, like most Xbox 360 titles, is fully integrated into the menus and although there’s no free roam a la Test Drive Unlimited, finding a suitable game is a breeze but be prepared for some trash talk at the start line, usually by someone yet to reach puberty. The presence of top-spec cars on Marketplace for very little cash means you’ll see the quickest cars in the game sat next to whatever ride you’re driving, but thankfully these people don’t know how to drift or take a corner, slamming into each other every time there’s a bend – take it easy, brake, and leave them in your mirror. Disconnectors abound, sadly, but at least you’ll get the credit if you’re the last one racing. Various modes have been added, such as the popular cops and robbers Pursuit mode, so if you have a group of like-minded mates with the game, Carbon can be a great laugh.

    With heavier handling, a better story and tighter Live play, Carbon should have been far greater than it is. Sadly, sub-par graphics and an overwhelming sense of deja-vu prevent it from ever reaching the standards set by fellow racers TDU and even the earlier Need for Speed Underground games, when all this was fresh. It’s common- practice to cite the 3D0 version of Need for Speed as the best in the series, but EA really do need to take this in an all new direction for next year’s game. Carbon is bright and brash, and has it’s moments, but we’ve all done this before and don’t really want to do it again in 12 months time.

    Score: 7/10

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