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Back in the day, Need for Speed was a nondescript arcade racer with no real defining features. It was the Vauxhall Vectra of racers - just sort of...there. Then, shows such as Pimp my Ride came about, EA flung themselves at the customise yo' ride bandwagon and hey presto, we have a new niche in the racing games market.
The last few incarnations of Need for Speed have been based around street racing. You buy your car, stick bits in it and on it, and race for money, pink slips and what have you. Need for Speed: Carbon continues on from Most Wanted, the previous title.
That brings me neatly onto my first good point about the game. This game has a story behind it. After disappearing and racing in a strange city in Most Wanted, your character returns to his home for this installment, and he is met with a frosty reception. Once again, you have your big racing mack daddy who runs the racing scene in the city, and your racing days will culminate in beating him. I like the fact that EA have added a decent storyline to a racing game, as it really does give the game more depth and meaning than your average Gran Turismo or Burnout.
To add to the storyline, you now have "wingmen", people who will drive for your team/crew/posse, and will help you win, either by finding shortcuts for you, or blocking the opposition. You progress through the game by winning races in territories, until you eventually take over the entire section of city. Then, you get the boss of that part of the city in a one on one race to formally declare the area as under your rule. Nice touch.
My second good point - the customisation. Using the new Autosculpt feature, you can stretch and shrink all the different bumper and bodyparts you stick on your car. This is a welcome addition, as the pre-set body kits in Most Wanted were, for the most part, horrific. I know this game is aimed predominantly to the demographic who think Westwood should be considered a human being, and so enjoy cars that look like props from a low budget sci-fi film, but some of us prefer subtlety in design. There are more cars in this game, including muscle cars and the welcome addition of the gorgeous Alfa Romeo Brera. Also, you can tweak the technical upgrades. This is very pleasingly simple - you just choose whether you want your chosen mechanical part to make your car fast and lairy, or grippy and agile. Good idea, that.
My third good point concerns the welcome return of drift mode. Here, it matters not how fast you go, but for how long you can hold powerslides. The longer you do it, the more points you get.
So, thus far we have a game that has more depth than the average racer, as well as some features which cannot be found in any racing game. They have enhanced the customisation aspects, and brought back drift mode. Hooray.
But here is where the blue skies darken a little for Carbon. I'll start with the price. I bought a second hand copy for £42.99. That is the cheapest I could find it for without going online. Had this been a PS3 original, perhaps it could be worth it, but you can buy this game for every console there is. However, maybe the game could redeem itself by being brilliant? Uh uh.
Yes, the game has a storyline. But it is pretty much the same storyline from the last game. You know the gorgeous girl will wind up falling for you, you know the evil man will do all he can to beat you down and out. It is horribly, horribly hackneyed. Given that you can free roam the city between races, there could have been more to the game than this. The gameplay is also affected by this.
Secondly, the sound. Yes, I know this is a game for, frankly, chavs. But did EA every consider the fact that human beings might buy this game too? Yes, the engine noises are great. On the muscle cars they are fantastic. But to race your shiny new car to the sounds of Lady Sovereign? It's like the audio equivalent of meeting a nice young "lady" in Thailand. everything is great until...y'know. Some normal music would have been nice. Motorstorm proved that Queens of the Stone Age make the best racing music.
Next gripe - controls. There are no new controls to handle, so why exactly did EA feel it necessary to change it all? The controls are set to R2 for accelerator, L2 for brake, a la Motorstorm. Yes, you can change it back to the traditional layout, but you can't customise the controls, meaning that if you want to race like a traditionalist, you have to cope with the circle button being your boost, where it used to be R1. This makes the controls fiddly and actually quite hard work for your thumb, as it now has an extra job to do. Whilst on the topic of gameplay, the wingmen idea adds far too much complication to the races. The whole concept of tag team racing and having some horrible American crackling on at you all race is enough to make you kill your own housepets. Oh, and the AI of the traffic would have you believe that a newborn, heavily drunk baby hippo was at the wheel. Also, the police chases don't seem to have any real point to them now. You can progress through the game just racing, so the police chases are just annoying, as you have to lose the police before you can return to your garage after a race.
And now, my final moan - graphics. Yes, the cut scenes are good. They have used motion capture with what looks like cel shading to make the characcters look like real life people, but with a weird, cartoony quality to them - a bit like a Max Headroom for the 21st century. But the in game graphic just aren't up to scratch. They are far too sharp, there are far too many jagged lines and the movements just aren't smooth enough. It just feels like a PS2 game with everything a bit shinier. Apparently the cars can be damaged, but most of the time, after a race where you bounce off the walls and cars and scenery, you will have some flecked paint down the side of the car. There's no actual proper damage, just asthetic scarring. And I guess asthetics is the whole point of the game.
The lack of originality in this game could be redeemed if it looked and felt like a PS3 game rather than a re-heated PS2 title. Much the same, if the storyline was freshand the gameplay addictive, I could forgive it for looking a little iffy. But it does neither of these well, and furthermore, with a price tag of up to £50. Buy motorstorm instead for £40, and spend the extra £10 on sweets. Or a Lady Sovreign CD so you can smash it up.