EA's Need for Speed series still has the pedal to the floor with its latest release, Need for Speed Carbon, launching alongside the PlayStation 3's North American premiere. Released not too long ago on the Xbox 360 and current-gen systems, the game is something like a sequel to last year's Most Wanted, but has enough changes to the layout and format that it warranted a new name.
Many of the race modes from Most Wanted have returned, namely things like the Speedtrap races. While cops are still about, you don't need to build up evasion runs like you did in Most Wanted to progress. Cop Heat is still an issue that you'll have to contend with, however, meaning that while the cops have taken a backseat to the actual racing, they're still prevalent. We're certainly supportive of this design.
The main new race type in Carbon is the Canyon races. After finishing enough races to take over a territory on the map, you'll meet up with that crew's boss along a cliff side in a winner-take-all competition. These races are pretty cool in that the side of the track is a simple barrier that overlooks a very long drop, so if you push your car too much you may wind up at the bottom of the canyon in a heaping wreck. It's pretty cool in concept, though we wish they were more prevalent in the game.
One returning competition type from the Underground games is drift racing. Drifting is very arcadey in Carbon, with a simple tap of the brake being all you need to put the car into a slide. Rather than being based on moves like faints or over-steering, everything is based on speed and how sideways you can get. You'll get bonus multipliers for stringing multiple turns together, but that's about as complex as it gets, for better or worse. The drift races wind up being a decent bit of simplistic fun. Like the Canyon races, they're basically tests of how far you want to push your car to win.
Need for Speed Carbon's single-player story is focused around taking over and defending territories. Each territory has a number of individual races, and taking over more than half of them will earn you the territory. After you're in possession of a territory, other crews will occasionally try to take them from you and you're prompted to compete in a defending race. This whole system is reasonably cool in setup, though since you're allowed to retry any race you fail you're never really in much danger of losing anything you've earned. It would have been cooler if you couldn't retry, giving the whole scenario a more back-and-forth and dynamic feel, though that doesn't quite fit in with the game's very arcadey setup.
Tying into the territory thing is your racing crew. You're allowed to have up to three crew members at any one time, and one of the three members of your choosing will race with you in applicable events. These wingmen come in three types: Brawlers, Scouts and Drafters. Brawlers will crash into an opponent and take them out of the race for a bit. Scouts will always take the quickest route through a track, helping you find the shortcuts, and Drafters will set up a nice wake in their path and allow you to gain some speed.
This system works reasonably well, though Brawlers are far and away the most useful wingmen since they can hold off other vehicles. Scouts are decent to use the first time or two in a specific section if you're not very good at finding shortcuts (which isn't hard at all), though once you know where they are they're not of much use. Drafters can also be somewhat helpful at times, though you have to ride in their line to make use of the speed burst, which isn't always ideal.
When it comes to the actual racing in Need for Speed Carbon, EA has largely stayed true to the same formula it's used forever. Cars are easy to drive and largely feel very similar, courses are generally long and winding with a few sharp turns here and there, and traffic is reasonably sparse. And yes, everything still takes place at night.
While the cars still do feel very similar to one another, there are three different classes this time around that do each have their own unique characteristics. Muscle cars are extremely powerful, but are more likely to slide around a turn. Tuner cars are quick and agile, while exotics are extremely fast but don't handle as well as the tuners. Of the three, muscle cars are the most fun to drive as they kick and scream with power that forces you to watch the throttle and go easy on the gas when exiting turns. Sadly though, one of the things that made the muscle cars most fun on the Xbox 360 is the controller rumble, and as the SIXAXIS doesn't feature said ability, they're left a tad more lifeless.
Speaking of the SIXAXIS, the PlayStation 3 version of Need for Speed Carbon makes use of its tilt controls for steering, though only for giving it a little extra oomph. Once you've pushed the analog stick all the way to the side, you can tilt the controller to squeak out just a little tighter angle, though in practice it's really not noticeable.
The franchise has had great customization features for a while now, though Autosculpt takes them to the next level and is easily the most impressive new aspect of the series. Instead of replacing parts with pre-existing add-ons, Autosculpt gives you control of a section of the car and lets you dynamically shape said area. For instance, you can raise and lower air intakes, fatten, spin and split wheel spokes, lengthen, flatten and raise spoilers and more. It's an absolutely fantastic system that allows you to truly customize your car. It's limited, mind you, as you can't change the overall, basic body shape of any vehicle, but you can customize its individual pieces to no end.
One disappointing aspect is that the PlayStation 3 version of the game doesn't have a couple of the "show off" features that the Xbox 360 game does. The 360 version lets you pause the game at any time and enter a photo mode. It's basic, sure, but you can spin and zoom the camera and take a snapshot of your vehicle in motion. You're also able to upload a photo of your modded vehicle for others to drool over, but the PS3 game lacks this feature as well, sadly.
Visually, the PlayStation 3 version of Need for Speed Carbon falls short of its Xbox 360 counterpart. The two games run at roughly the same framerate, but the PS3's filtering effects, specifically the blurring, can be ugly. Road textures look nice and detailed at low speeds, but when you're flying down the road and the game blurs everything, they simply look poor. A few other odd things don't match up either, like the Drafter's wake, which is a transparent cylinder on the 360 and some rather ugly blue streamers on the PS3.
Need for Speed Carbon is an overall fun racing game, though in large part it's simply more of the same from EA. Cars still feel too similar to each other, and as they're the stars of any racing game, we wish there was a bit more character here. Autosculpt is a fantastic addition to the series' already great customization features. Carbon winds up being a pretty fun racer, and fans of Most Wanted likely won't be disappointed.