What happens when Need For Speed takes a page from Initial D?
Need For Speed Carbon has a lot of new things to spice up the traditional street racing recipe that EA has created over the past few games. There are still a variety of racing events that take place within a free-roaming city, but this time there are also special canyon races that will test your limits as a driver. The addition of crew-based racing and a very good set of Wii controls help to make Carbon another excellent edition to the Need For Speed series.
The game starts off with you coming to Palmont City with only a car and a hope to reclaim a city that was once yours. Events are tied together with a well-produced (though corny) story that uses live actors as the main characters. As you win races and gain territory, you can bolster your place among the city's street racing hierarchy by hiring on more crew members to help out. Crew members have special abilities that can help you with off-the-track activities, like generating more money or unlocking more parts for use in car customization. They are much more important to you during races, wherein you can select one crewman from a maximum of three total to join you for each race event.
There are nice benefits to having a buddy on the track, the main one being you still win the race if your teammate wins. The three different crew abilities are useful in different ways, too. For example, you may want to consider bringing a shortcut-finding scout along if you race on a new track, or pull in behind a drafter for a speed boost in the speed trap events. Then again, crew AI is pretty dumb if they aren't activated to perform their designated roles. The blocker's job is to take people out for you, but if you get too close behind your teammate he'll inexplicably hit the brakes or swerve into you. Your mates also chime in with the same canned voice clips over and over again, although that's something you'll probably be willing to put up with given the benefits they provide during competition.
Your crew doesn't show up in all of your races, however. For checkpoint or drift events, and the new canyon events, it's all up to you to get it done. Canyon racing in Need For Speed Carbon is a nice change of pace from the regular street races. Much like Sega's Initial D series, the races take place on downhill roads that are narrow and twisty. Many sections of the track are on the edge of a cliff, so it's possible to veer off if you're not careful. Drift competitions can take place on these winding tracks, which is a perfect fit for the nature of drifting. However, the main event of the canyon tracks is the canyon duel boss battle. Once you conquer an area of the city, the controlling crew's leader will first challenge you to a one-up street race before heading over to the canyon.
The duel is a two-stage downhill race that first starts with you chasing the boss. The closer you stay to his bumper as you throw your car around the canyon hairpins, the more points you score. After reaching the bottom, part two begins back at the top. This time, the boss starts to chase you down the mountain. The closer he is, the more points you lose. If you run out of points before reaching the finish line the second time, you lose the race. The canyon races can get dramatic as you push hard for the goal before your points drain away. You can make the gap between you and your rival larger if you take a corner faster, but if you go into it too hot you'll slip over the edge. It's white-knuckle stuff.
The Wii controller can contribute to that excitement. EA made an honest attempt to get the Wii version of Carbon working with the remote. The result is five different control configurations, all of which are viable. One uses the Wii remote for all actions, a la Excite Truck. (The lack of buttons means a lot of double-button pressing for basic actions, however.) Another option uses a twist of the nunchuk to steer, with the remote acting like a gas pedal of sorts: The further forward the Wiimote is tilted, the more acceleration you get. The configuration I fell in love with was one where a forward remote tilt gives acceleration, an upward remote tilt activates braking, the analog stick on the nunchuk does the steering and an upward tilt of the nunchuk pulls the E-brake. The E-brake is especially nice, because it basically replicates the action you'd do in a real car in order to perform it.
That's one of the reasons why the Wii controls add a lot to the game. After finding a control setup that works for you and then getting used to it, it's quite a lot of fun driving the car. It feels nice to "stand" on the brakes to slow down (stand the Wii remote straight up), "pull" the handbrake (nunchuk) to slide around a hairpin and then "floor it" (literally) out of there. Even though playing a different version of the game with a standard pad will give you more precise control over your vehicle, you don't get the feeling that you're actually putting in an effort to drive the thing around the tracks like you do with the Wii setup. I like that feeling a lot.
The free-roaming part of the game lets you go from to new events, car lots, or your home base. If you don't want to spend the time driving all over the place just to progress through the game, you can open the pause menu and choose your next race via a regular listing. (The interface to do so is somewhat clunky, though.) If you do that, you may miss out on some extra free-roam events, like on-the-spot challenges by other drivers. They'll simply approach you, then instantly race you to a point of your choosing. Police are also an ever-present entity that needs to be dealt with. You can encounter them while driving the streets on your own, but many times they'll show up to try and stop you while you're in the middle of a race. If that happens, you need to outrun them after you finish. The police chases are fun, and you'll need every shortcut and environmental trigger you know to shake them. Just don't get caught by them too many times, or else you'll lose your car for good.
To make sure the cops don't spot you, you can alter your car's appearance to lower its notoriety. Of course, this means you'll want to head in to your garage and customize it with all of the paints, vinyls, logos, and aftermarket parts that the Need For Speed series is known for. This time around, however, EA created a new option to make your own designs. Autosculpt mode starts you off with some stock car body parts—hoods, bumpers, wheels, etc.—and lets you adjust individual areas of the item using sliders. The amount of customization possible with this method is certifiably insane. There are nine customization sliders just for the wheel rims alone. You could probably get a thousand people to make a thousand unique rims starting from the same single starter rim this way, so you can imagine the possibilities for the rest of the car. Autosculpt is great in that regard, but it might be a case of there being too many car customization options. The available tweaks may be overwhelming, but you can always ignore them and stick to the multitude of other basic options to get the look you want.
EA should be commended for the Wii version of Need For Speed Carbon. Instead of porting it over without much thought, they took the time to get something working that took advantage of the Wii's strengths. The result is a very good game that you should take a look at if you're on the hunt for post-launch software.