The structure of the canyon duels can be frustrating, but the way Carbon marginalizes the police chases that were so instrumental to the success of Most Wanted is even more disappointing. The cops still play a factor because each zone has its own heat rating that increases the more you race there. The higher the heat, the more likely it is that cops will start coming after you. While Most Wanted had you purposely baiting the cops, as well as attempting to rack up huge property damages and lengthy pursuits to advance the story, there's little reason in Carbon for you to attract the attention of the law. With the ability to hop directly to any race event through the world map, it's possible and quite easy for you to go through the entire story mode where you can count the number of police encounters on one hand.
Carbon features an eclectic selection of more than 30 unique licensed cars.
Structural imperfections aside, the core driving in Carbon is really solid. There's a great selection of licensed real-world cars that you can purchase throughout the course of the game, which are sorted into three different groups--tuners, muscles, and exotics. And you'll find that each group handles differently. In the tuner group, you'll find a lot of souped-up Japanese sports coupes, like the Nissan Skyline, Subaru Impreza WRX, and Toyota Supra. The strength of these cars tends to be an ability to slide around corners. Muscle cars are all Detroit steel, including new stuff like the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Challenger Concept. They also include early 1970s classics, like a Chevy Camaro SS and a Plymouth Barracuda. And though they've got great acceleration in a straightaway, they're pretty loose in the corners. The exotics group is probably the most varied, with high-end offerings from Mercedes, Porsche, Alfa Romero, Lamborghini, and more. These cars also tend to demand a higher level of skill to use them correctly. You can buy cars from dealerships, or you can win them from crew bosses. And once you get them, there are all kinds of upgrades that you can apply to them. There are tiered performance upgrades, as well as a rainbow of paint colors, dozens of vinyl stickers, aftermarket rims, spoilers, and body kits. You can also fabricate your own body parts with the game's autosculpt system, which is oddly reminiscent of the Game Face feature in EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour games. It's a novel idea and great for making some really physically impossible-looking parts. But it takes too much incremental tweaking of settings to get something unique. And there's such a wide variety of prefab aftermarket parts that don't require all that toil, which means only the truly obsessed will get much out of the autosculpting.
If you keep your eye on the prize, you can see the credits roll in Carbon's career mode in well under 10 hours. But if you want to beat every event, as well as unlock every last car and upgrade, you can just as easily spend 20 hours. And there's even more racing to be done outside the career mode. There are 36 increasingly difficult races to take on in the challenge series, and the quick-race option lets you jump into something--no strings attached. The Xbox 360 and PC versions of Carbon also provide a pretty solid online multiplayer component, where up to eight players can participate in all of the race types found in the career mode, as well as multiplayer-exclusive modes, where players get to play as both cops and street racers. The rules in some of these modes aren't explained very well, which can make for some pretty confusing moments. But once you get past the learning curve, you can have some good, team-based fun. We also experienced some minor but pervasive latency issues, even when we were nowhere near the eight-player limit, as well as an odd bug where all in-game sound would drop out for the duration of a race. It's kind of flawed, but again, the actual feel of the racing still translates pretty well online. And an online experience system where you can unlock additional cars helps make it a little more interesting. By comparison, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions get split-screen multiplayer, which works poorly and makes the omission of online play almost feel insulting.
With Palmont City apparently living in eternal night, the game's feel recalls the Need for Speed Underground games, though the scenery changes in Carbon are much more varied. There's a distinct West Coast feel to Palmont City, and you'll find yourself in districts that recall the more posh parts of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. As different as it feels from the city of Rockport in Need for Speed Most Wanted, keen eyes and ears will notice a lot of recycled elements here. Vehicles, environmental objects, textures, and a lot of the sound elements have been cut and pasted into Carbon, making for some odd dÃ¸jÃ¸ vu. In some cases, it's a good thing because the squeal of the tires and the growl of various car engines still sound great. But hearing the same police radio chatter in Palmont City that you did in Rockport is just weird. There's some familiar, dramatic music in Carbon as well, although it's odd how poorly the game uses what is actually an interesting licensed soundtrack of rock, electro, hip-hop, and grime. You won't hear much of it, because the game seems to prefer its own music most of the time.
The missing online component in the GameCube, PS2, and Xbox versions makes the 360 version an obvious favorite.
This is a game that seems as if it was developed for the Xbox 360 first and foremost, because the Xbox, GameCube, and PS2 versions feel compromised. One of the most telling points is the fact that the race-wars event type, which puts you in a field of 20 racers, isn't even an option in the non-360 versions. This is likely because of technical limitations. The 360 version looks great, with some heavy motion blur around the edges of the screen. It also has lots of good-looking bump-mapping, slick lighting and reflection effects, as well as a generally more stable frame rate and shorter load times than Most Wanted. The PC version has the potential to look nearly as good as the Xbox 360 version, though the motion blur is a bit more subdued. It takes a pretty high-end PC to get it looking that good, though, and even then the frame rate won't be entirely solid. While the Xbox version has a little less flash, it still looks sharp and runs smoothly. The GameCube version looks almost as good, though the frame rate can be a little inconsistent. The PS2 version, on the other hand, can be pretty ugly. Textures are muddy, there are a lot of jagged edges, and the frame rate is all over the place.
Ultimately, Need for Speed Carbon doesn't make the best use of some of the strengths from Need for Speed Most Wanted. Many of the changes made to the Most Wanted formula seem to be for the sake of change, but it all still just comes back to the solid driving action, which Need for Speed Carbon puts to good use.
Editor's note 11/06/06: Our review of the PC version of Need For Speed Carbon mistakenly scored the graphics lower than intended. The score has been adjusted accordingly. GameSpot regrets the error.