All the next gen racing games I’ve been playing have finally gotten to me. Project Gotham Racing 3, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Riiiiiige Racer, and Test Drive Unlimited apparently drove their way into my brain and set the parking brake because a few weeks ago I bought an impractical sports car. It’s even tricked out with a custom front bumper and a huge aftermarket air intake that makes the engine roar and whistle at the same time.
So when I sat down with Need For Speed: Carbon and began tuning my car, I realized that somehow I had accidentally ended up playing these games in real life. And in both cases, it’s an expensive way to have fun, because the 360 version is the only one worth playing.
[image1]Having ditched the cops in Most Wanted, you return to Palmont City in Carbon Canyon, where it turns out you have a muddied past. Years ago you were part of the racing scene here, and competed in a big race. The sack of cash that should have been the prize somehow turned into a sack of newspaper, and most people think you took it.
The story is told once again in the deliciously campy cut scenes, by soft-focus actors emoting stereotypes so obvious, you can’t help but smile. I love it. Carbon’s style has also gotten less gritty; all the races have gone after hours as you tear through the neon lit streets of Palmont to techno beats. Add a little XTC and you’ve got yourself a rave.
This time you’re not just climbing a ladder, Carbon is all about gaining territory. The city is divided up into zones, and by beating races in those zones, your crew can take control. You’ll also be called upon to defend your territory from rival crews on occasion. You’ll confront them in different orders, depending on what initial car focus you choose: Tuner, Muscle, or Exotic. Once you’ve unlocked new cars, however, you can drive any kind you want without being locked down.
Dozens of real-world rides return in all three categories, and while they look almost real, the driving physics are a bit more lenient. Your car stays preternaturally glued to the road as you make impossible turns and take out signposts like they’re not even there. It’s actually a little easier than Most Wanted.
The 360 version has upped the number of racers to eight, and even has a “race wars” (Hey, I didn’t name it) event with twenty cars. The Xbox and PS2 versions have to settle for four cars, just like before, and a complete lack of “race wars” which for the first time in any context is actually a bad thing.
[image2]Carbon really phases out the police chases, which are a rare occurrence in the single player game. Instead, their new hook is the addition of a “wingman” who races alongside to help you win. They come in three types: Blockers who try to run targeted opponents off the road, Scouts who know all the shortcuts on every track and lead the way for you, and Drafters who will pull in front of you and let you draft and slingshot for a speed boost.
This, unfortunately, has the effect of making already easy racing way too easy. Take the lead once and the Blocker will keep everyone else far behind you; just follow the Scout for an easy victory; and just never hire a drafter because the unnaturally curvy streets of Palmont aren’t suited for it. This imbalance gets even worse on the Xbox and PS2 because with only four cars in a race, you’re only really racing against two other cars, with help.
The boss races (for control of large areas), however, hit the other end of the difficulty spectrum. These “canyon races” have no wingmen, and instead have you following the boss driver down a twisty canyon road. Whoever stays closer to their opponent on the way down wins. The computer won’t screw up, so all it takes is one bad turn in either race and you have to redo both of them. You’ll be doing that a lot.
The graphics are pretty, as long as you don’t have a PS2. The cars look great, the city is full of colorful night lights whizzing past you, and at high speeds everything gets cool motion blur effects. The 360 version is fantastic, with a rock-solid framerate, and the Xbox game holds up well too. Things are simplified a bit, but it’s still a great looking title. The PS2 version apparently got beat down with an ugly stick, because it’s a jagged wreck with a framerate that might as well have Tourette Syndrome
[image3]All three versions sound good. The actors read their cheesy lines like they mean them, the engines roar and the tires squeal right on cue, and some of the music tracks I actually look forward to when they come up on the radio. Your wingman, however, needs to learn to shut up and drive.
When I said this was an expensive hobby, I meant it. The 360 version is by far the best of the bunch, but that’s sixty dollars, or if you want the collector’s edition with a bunch of extra cars and tracks, seventy. Then add a bunch of cars, performance mods, and custom vinyls you can buy on Xbox Live Marketplace, and you can actually spend more than a hundred bucks on Carbon. Some of these additions can be unlocked in the game, but some are only available if you put up the cash. It’s not a bad concept, and if I could pay a couple of bucks to get my S2000 in the game, I would. So why does it feel so much like a scam?
In the end, this race is barely a race at all. The 360 is the winner by a mile, and for the price of those wheels, no doubt it should be. The Xbox comes in a distant second with fewer cars and none of the cool online modes. And trailing way behind that is the PS2, a run-down jalopy that probably shouldn’t even be on the road. Pick your car carefully.