Initially I wanted to place this editorial style review on EA's feedback forum in order to actually provoke some thoughts and reactions from the people involved with the game. However, seeing as EA's registration system leaves much to be desired (basically not allowing me to register), I decided to dedicated it to Everything2.
A few things before I begin my dissection of the game - I am currently participating in both a "Game Theory" and "Game Design" course at a local university, so please pardon me if some of my conclusions seem unfounded or irrational - education seems to have that effect on people ;). Partaking in these courses has an additional side-effect: I will be commenting on things involving the creation-process of the game and not necessarily the game itself. Also, I have recently played Need for Speed: Most Wanted and seeing as Need for Speed: Carbon is heavily based upon this product's engine I will make several references regarding differences both positive and negative. In other words, read a review about Need for Speed: Most Wanted or preferable - play it. It's great fun...
Anyway - here goes...
Need for Speed: Carbon is EA's latest iteration in their Need for Speed series which according to most critics deserves a respectable place in the 80% rated area. Which isn't all that bad. How does the latest game fare then? Well that's what I'm about to lay out. I'm not going to list all the mundane details regarding which fictional city the game now takes place in, or a who's who in the game, or even which cars have been included. Instead I'll focus on specific features that are unique to this particular iteration or differ from the last (Need for Speed: Most Wanted).
Now then, Need for Speed: Carbon returns to the roots of the underground racing theme found in Need for Speed: Underground and Need for Speed: Underground 2 while adding its own unique quirks - which is admirable. Unfortunately - having just completed the game I can honestly say that almost none of the gambles have paid off in any worthwhile way. Let's take a look at some of specific features...
The racing is solid. It's based on the Need for Speed: Most Wanted which played well - so logically this plays at least as good. And yes - it does play well. The physics seem a tad more believable this time around, though not nearly as fun because the focus has been shifted from city police to you, your underground crew (which I'll tackle later on) and your underground rivals. In other words, cars aren't as bouncy as in the last game. They have more of a "car weight" behind them.
Instead of beating a blacklist of 15 baddies (in Need for Speed: Most Wanted) - you now take on a cityscape owned by rival gangs. Each territory requires you to win and subsequently "own" a majority of the races found in it. A fair way for the player to progress through the game. What's not as fair is the re-playability that is foisted upon the player by having other gangs try to take over your territory. This in itself is not a terrible concept - but if you absolutely hate a certain race and savor the day you beat it - nothing is more excruciating than being forced to run it again. It's arguable that you don't need to stop the rival gangs, as you only need a majority of the races within a zone, but eventually you will end up losing it if you do not intervene. Clearly, allowing you to still own a territory by "owning" the majority of races, will often allow you to lose races you hate to repeat and still own the region - which is good. But the idea of prolonging the game using this game mechanic feels cheap - even though I'm certain it was planned long before the game was finished.
The city - within which the entire game takes place - is pretty bland and uninteresting. It doesn't help the game that everything takes place during the night. Sure, some areas are easy to pick out from others; there's a large las vegas like section in the game and a harbor area, but seeing as races always take place within a small section of the city, a lot of time is spent turning hairpin corners. I assume this will please a lot of hardcore racers who enjoy a tight scenario, but personally this rubs me the wrong way when almost every race is one long twisting and turning bend. But again - this is a matter of preference.
A final note concerned with the general impression of the game. It requires quite a bit of hardware to run well compared to Need for Speed: Most Wanted and in my opinion the extra juice seems misspent. The car shines like it's dipped in every glossy substance known to man unless you color it in matte. As for the cityscape, it just seems to melt into one giant black indescernable blob.
One of the biggest features in Need for Speed: Carbon is your crew. They are entwined with the storyline, they appear in most of your races and they effect the game even when you aren't racing. An enormous amount of effort has been spent fusing both your crew and your rivals properly into the game. I'll comment on how well they are integrated later, but right now I'm going to concentrate on how well the crew works as a game mechanic.
Claiming that the crew does not have any real impact on the game and comes off as a complete waste of effort, is a harsh statement. Unfortunately, it's not far from the truth in my opinion. What works best with the crew - keeping in mind that best in this context only means good compared to the other crew features, and not overall good - is their in-game participation. One crew member will race alongside you (as a wingman) in the majority of the races. Your wingman will either function as a scout, a drafter or a blocker. Most of these terms are self-explanatory, but let me just elaborate on them anyway:
- Scout: A passive aid. Your crew member will tell you where you can take short-cuts as well as highlight these on the map.
- Drafter: A toggle able aid. You can call upon your wingman to provide you with a slipstream with which to accelerate faster. Essentially this means your crew member will try to place him/herself in front of you in order to absorb most of the wind impact.
- Blocker: Another toggle able aid. You can command your crew member to try and temporarily knock out an opponent.
Each of these types work reasonably well. It's very satisfying when an opponent is done away with by your crew member. The scout is a nice way to side-step the issue of players not knowing where the short-cuts are. Finally, the drafter... Well... Drafts... It works... Sort of. As I said before, the presence of your crew within the races works best of all the crew related functionality. But it doesn't work well enough. As tolerant as players can be towards other players making mistakes, almost the opposite rings true for computer controlled players making mistakes. The team behind Need for Speed: Carbon is well aware of this, as your crew will sometimes perform ridiculous maneuvers in order to avoid colliding with you. From the sides. If only the same could be said for rear-ending your wingman. More than once did I enter a hairpin turn while a crew member was doing the same, when he suddenly decided to slow to a crawl. Of course I rear-ended my crew member and spun into a wall. Such a thing should not happen. I'm not arguing that my crew member cannot be in the way, but I should never feel that he is the direct cause for any of my failures. If this is the case, he is doing more damage than good on the track.
Aside from this irritation, I rarely used the crews abilities. Drafting with a fellow crew member is often so distracting and fast, that I am more liable to hit corners than when I drive alone. Scouts help pick out short-cuts, but if they're not in-front, their verbal aid is not always descriptive enough. Only knowing which side to look after a short-cut can sometimes lead to fatal mistakes. When the brain wants to find something it sometimes finds it, even if its not there. As for the blocker, in approximately half of the situations where his intervention would have been critical, he was too far behind to help. Mainly the blocker served to keep runner-up's off my back when I already had lots of effort to spare. In my mind it all comes off as a pale feature that adds little or no satisfaction to the game. In other words, a feature I could do without. The worst part is that this is the best part.
Your crew's effect on the non-race part of the game seems even more redundant than their in-race participation. For some odd reason you can only have three people in your crew at any one time. Essentially you can only use one crew member in any given race, but you have the ability to hire, fire and subsequently re-hire anyone you see fit. Provided of course that there's room in your crew trio. The decision to limit the player to only three crew members at any given time is completely idiotic because it has no consequence what-so-ever. Every decision that a player is presented in any given game should be interesting and have consequences. This one has neither. Fortunately, the crew's effect on the non-racing part of the game is so minimal that it really doesn't matter who you hire (aside from the fact that the game forces you to meet them all once - I'll get to that later). As far as I'm concerned, they might as well have scrapped this idea because right now it's only white noise in the background.
And yes - I am aware that one of the crew members actively lower the amount of police attention in the city-sections you own, but that's only a single crew member, and personally I never noticed or felt effected by it. Every single other crew member gives you a temporal bonus that only requires their employment at the very moment you need to utilize their skill.
When concerned with the story and how it attempts to immerse the player, it feels only fitting to continue the rant concerning the crew. Need for Speed: Carbon is a racing game after all, so none of the characters are particularly deep. But that's ok, because they could be different, colorful and properly portrayed by skillful actors. Sometimes... The most colorful and interesting character is the re-occurring Sgt. Cross (who is now a bounty hunter - another point I'll elaborate on), the rest are just sort of bland. IGN's reviewer put best when he wrote "They're all kind of creepy, to be honest.". But that's ok, because they might have interesting dialog and add something unique to the story. Unfortunately, no. Don't get me wrong, the FMV sequences are at least as impressive as in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but the content itself is tasteless. But I'm getting ahead of myself - let's start off with the story itself....
I played the game without any prior knowledge to the pre-text of the game, and I must admit - during most of the game I was thoroughly confused. Imagine my speechlessness, when the main antagonist in the game eventually claimed that I had finally pieced the entire puzzle together, but really I was just confused as hell. Nothing falls more flat when you're told one thing, but feel the complete opposite. At this point, some of you are probably thinking that I couldn't be more simple-minded with regards to Need for Speed: Carbon's main plot, because it's almost as simple as they come. But it feels like the writers felt it was so simple, that any gamer worth his reputation would be insulted if force-fed with the straight facts. Instead they opted to cut the story into several pieces (told by each crew member) and many supposedly "obvious" events and circumstances are simply left untold. Perhaps leaving a few of these obvious plot-points untold is a good idea, but so much basic story is left untold that it's much more confusing that interesting. And when each crew member eventually fills in their part of the story, it rarely seem relevant. Forcing the player to meet each of the crew members as they are a "crucial" part of the story feels... Well, forced.
Even though I have no doubts regarding the issues I am exposing concerning Need for Speed: Carbon, it still feels vague, because a lot of what I am griping about is not completely broken or faulty, it's just precisely enough off target, that its bad. So I thought an example might do some good. Let's take my personal favorite character Ex-Sgt. Cross. He has some comparatively good lines and is woefully underused in this iteration of Need for Speed. In Need for Speed: Most Wanted he spends most of his time yelling and trying to hunt you down. Need for Speed: Carbon starts out with him chasing you in what looks to be his old car. The only point in the game where it hints at his new bounty-hunter profession is when he says "I'm just a bounty hunter.". Yes - this is a clear indication that he is a bounty hunter, but it opens up a host of questions. Why is he a bounty hunter, is he perhaps also still a sergeant, and what happened to cause his career change? All of these stupid and perhaps inane questions could be easily answered by applying some additional (and much needed exposition) from the dear Sgt. Cross. He initially catches up with the player and rants about having a score to settle - if I had had the chance, I would additionally have him say "And by the way... I wanted to thank you for relieving me of my previous employer - the rockport p.d. Who really needs a retirement fund anyway?". Enacted by Dean McKenzie and the right amount of sarcasm, this single line would have enlightened the game so much more in my opinion. But even this example is mild compared to other circumstances you're simply not told until it's way too late to understand anything at all... It's best not to think about it really...
However, everything is not as bad as it seems. The team behind Need for Speed: Carbon have clearly gone to great lengths in order to incorporate their characters into the game. Universal capture techniques were applied to many of the main actors in order to properly transplant them into the game. Most of the work comes off quite impressive. Some of the characters' digital models pull off some amazing facial expressions. It's actually quite scary at first. It doesn't really look real as such, think more of it like a digitized version of the actors. Unfortunately, not all of them look so good. The only female antagonist looks quite horrid in her digital representation. To make matters worse, the captured expressions don't appear quite as often as one could expect - especially considering the amount of effort put into it. I know from watching featurettes concerning Need for Speed: Carbon that a lot of expressions have been captured, but perhaps time caught up with the team and they had to deliver the product. Whatever the case, the game could easily have done with more of those captured expressions in my opinion.
Noteworthy and comparable elements
I thought I'd list a few elements in an "easy to glance at" list. Be aware I may repeat a thing or two just to emphasize it.
- Autosculpt: More car customization is always a welcomed addition and I'm sure that several fans of Need for Speed will enjoy the new possibilities this offers.
- Shift of Focus: As I've mentioned before, shifting the focus in Need for Speed: Carbon away from police chases and towards underground crew racing elements is an admirable attempt that falls flat on its face.
- Story progression: Forcing the player to meet up with every potential crew member that contacts you feels very out of place since so few other things are forced. Fortunately, there are only 5-6 potential crew members.
- Canyon racing: An interesting addition to the other wise tried and true races. Like most of the ingredients in the salad-bar that is Need for Speed: Carbon, it leaves something to be desired.
- The Crew: Sigh.
- Bugs and stability issues: I encountered two bugs in Need for Speed: Carbon. One a major annoyance, the other a quite severe problem. The game would occasionally send me straight to the desktop for no reason. Either right before a race, or while loading a car model. The much more troubling issue regards quitting the game. A little under half of the times I tried to quit the game would simply lock up. More than half of those times I was forced to reboot the machine in order to regain control. Completely unacceptable for a retail product.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that my experience with Need for Speed: Carbon is not something that I am particularly fond of. Especially when Need for Speed: Most Wanted was such a good title. Good gameplay, passable story, enjoyable & silly acting, challenging races, and great police chases. Need for Speed: Carbon features ok gameplay, terrible story, mediocre to forgettable acting, challenging and somewhat annoying races, and a practically redundant crew. So when we add all of this up, what are we left with? In my mind, a completely mediocre racing title which I will dub the bastard child of the Need for Speed series. Go play Need for Speed: Most Wanted instead...