After rebooting the franchise with Need for Speed Underground, EA has continued to produce some solid street racers under the Need for Speed banner. Last year's Need for Speed Most Wanted, which featured hilariously over-the-top live-action cutscenes and seriously tense police pursuits, proved to be a high watermark for the franchise. Now it's being followed up by Need for Speed Carbon, which downplays the role of the police chases, introduces some simple team-racing mechanics, and occasionally takes the action off the city streets and into the outlying canyons. The new gameplay doesn't always improve the experience, but the racing can still be quite intense and still has a pronounced sense of style.
Carbon continues the story where Most Wanted left off. For those just tuning in, Most Wanted ended with you recovering your stolen car and bailing out of the city of Rockport while the overzealous, anti-street-racing Sgt. Cross continued his pursuit. At the start of Carbon, you're making your way to Palmont City when Cross, now a bounty hunter, catches up with you and totals your car during the chase. Before he can collect his bounty on you, though, your old friend Darius steps in and pays off Cross. You are then put to work, taking over the turf of the other rival street-racing crews in Palmont City. It seems that you've got a history in this town that predates the events in Most Wanted. And during the course of the game, you'll learn more about that fateful night you skipped town. Different characters will give their takes on the night you supposedly ran off with a big red duffle bag full of cash. And by the end of the game, you'll not only find out what really happened, but you'll have taken over all of the street-racing territory in Palmont City.
Outside of the actual gameplay, one of the more endearing aspects of Most Wanted was the way it used live actors in CG environments for its story sequences. These sequences invariably featured plenty of actor/model types, trying a little too hard to talk tough and failing spectacularly at it. The technique remains the same in Carbon, though there are more story sequences now and a slightly more self-aware tone. The heavy use of flashbacks is an interesting idea, but the story ends up being kind of muddled. And none of the villains come off as particularly menacing. Although it's hard to really qualify any of it as sincerely good, it's just over-the-top enough that folks who enjoy stuff like The Fast and the Furious, ironically or otherwise, should get some enjoyment out of it.
Most Wanted had you racing to raise your visibility with the police and take on the most notorious street racers in Rockport. In Carbon, it's all about turf. Palmont City is divided into four major territories, each of which is predominantly controlled by a different street-racing crew. Each territory is then further divided into zones, and within each zone, you'll find starting points for a variety of different race events. Winning at least two events in a zone will put it under your control. And once you've taken over all the zones in a given territory, you can take on the head of that crew. As you continue to extend your reach across Palmont City, rival crews will come back and try to retake territory the same way you took it from them, forcing you to accept their challenge if you want to maintain control. Having to go back and rerace events that you've already won is kind of a pain, but the open-world structure is nice and gives you plenty of options to take on races at any given point.
However, you won't be taking on all of these crews by yourself, because Carbon lets you bring along a wingman into many of the races. These computer-controlled companions break down into three different behavior types--blockers, drafters, and scouts. Blockers will run interference for you, spinning out opponents at your command. Drafters let you slipstream behind them, giving you some extra speed from the reduced drag, and from there you can pull aside and slingshot your way past them. Scouts have a knack for finding the many alternate routes and shortcuts that can be found in most races, and they have short neon tracers that follow them, making it easier for you to take advantage. You'll definitely find yourself in races where your wingman's influence is the difference between winning and losing. But often, your wingman's presence is either unnecessary or an actual hindrance. Blockers are only really effective in taking out competitors that are behind you, and even then, they're not very reliable. Drafters work as advertised, but the lengthy straightaway needed to set up a proper draft is rare in Palmont City, which limits their usefulness. Scouts are the least useful of the three because the neon tracers don't seem to get longer as the cars you drive go faster, so eventually, there's just not enough time for you to anticipate an alternate route. If you didn't call on your wingman, you might expect him or her to just hang back. But we found ourselves getting bumped into and boxed in by our wingman on several occasions. It's not ruinous to the experience, but sometimes it makes you wish they would just go away.
The game relies on some pretty tried-and-true types of races, but it also throws some curves. You'll find plenty of common stuff, such as lap-based circuit races, point-to-point sprints, and checkpoint races. But there are also some unique races, such as the speed-trap race, where your standing is determined by your cumulative MPH as you race through a series of speed traps. Most races take place on the city streets of Palmont, but there are also drift events, which can take place either on a closed racecourse or on the winding canyon roads that surround the city. The goal in the drift events is to score points by making clean drifts around corners. The car-handling changes completely for the drift events and feels much more slippery than in the rest of the game, which recalls the drift events found in Need for Speed Underground 2.
You'll also face off with the different crew bosses in the canyons, and these events may test your patience. Once you've taken enough turf for a crew boss to challenge you, you'll first race against him in a standard city-street event. If you beat him there, you'll advance to one of the game's canyon courses, which are narrow and undulating. Here it's a two-part race, where you'll first have to chase the boss through a point-to-point race, and then reverse roles for the second part. Your score on the first half is based on how close you stay to your rival; then in the second half, your rival tries to outdo you. These events can be quite challenging because the courses are technically complicated, and the crew bosses tend to be better, more aggressive drivers than the average street racers. There are also a number of ways in which you can instantly fail. If, during the second race, your opponent manages to get ahead of you for more than 10 seconds, you automatically lose. But on the flipside, if you can get ahead of your opponent for more than 10 seconds in the first race, you automatically win both races. Also, each course is absolutely rife with cliffs. This means that if you take a corner at the wrong angle or speed, you can launch your car off of a cliff, immediately ending the race. All of these elements can make for a tough but fair race. However, failure takes you back to the first half of the canyon duel, even if you failed during the second half. It's kind of a minor point, but it's one that can turn a canyon duel into a real chore.