The success of the Need for Speed franchise is almost as well documented as Wayne Rooney's right foot, but we still struggle to comprehend just how effortlessly it has conquered the world. From being just one of a number of equally well-liked but equally moribund driving franchises in the late 90s, EA's super-car series broke the leash in 2003 with NFS Underground, all of sudden becoming the coolest thing since sliced iPods.
Incredibly for the lumbering, innovation-destroying mega publisher, EA seemed to be perfectly (ahem) in tune with the latest craze in global yoof culture - messing around with cars. (Or if you weren't an actual chav in a hotted-up hatchback, talking about and looking at glossy magazines of such activities.) The challenge since then has been to stay down with the kids, monitoring the car culture and making games to reflect its trends and aspirations. So far, it's done pretty well, dominating the Christmas charts three years running; but where can the series go next?
The answer, apparently, is up a canyon. Carbon Canyon to be precise, which from all reports is the focal point for a popular type of illegal street racing in the US car scene known as 'shooting canyons'. Here, the action is all about twisty, turny mountain roads where you're less likely to be harassed by the 5-0 and more likely to fall to a dramatic and fiery death (which makes it way, way more risky and therefore way, way cooler).
While details are still sparse, it seems Need for Speed Carbon (coming to the holy trinity of PS3, PS2 and PSP this Christmas) is set to assimilate this style of canyon racing, so you can expect plenty of heart-stopping, precipice-skimming action as you attempt to hold the inside track and nudge unwary rivals to their doom.
At the same time, NFS Carbon will bring many of the series' hallmarks to the next-generation: police chases à la Most Wanted, urban night racing à la Underground and extreme modding and tuning (and a free-roaming city) à la Underground 2.
Uniting all these things will be a game structure built around building a crew and using it to acquire territory. EA has apparently recognised that a core part of the car scene's appeal is that special feeling of belonging and being accepted (bless), so the new game will have a much more community-based focus to it. As you win races and gain respect, other racers will seek to join your gang, and it will be up to you to hand-pick a team based on their special talents and skills. You might choose a mechanic who can squeeze more performance out of your cars, a specialist in decals and modding or an expert drift racer. Better yet, you might find a buddy whose dad is the local police chief and can get the heat off when it counts. Every potential team mate will have something to bring to the party, as well as special racing abilities, and it's up to you to put together a crew that suits you best.
On top of this, the game world will be divided into three maps and 21 distinct zones, each of which is 'owned' by the gang that's posted the best times on the tracks there. The more top times you and your crew can record, the more turf you will acquire, the more respect you will win and the more options, cars and parts you will unlock. It's almost patronisingly simple.
Oh, and by the way, it looks absolutely amazing, though you probably picked that up from the stunning screenshots splashed across these pages.
The one caveat is that we haven't yet played Carbon with our own hands, so it could still end up looking like Pole Position and leave us all cursing EA for their devious PhotoShop trickery. Based on past performances, however, we don't think that's gonna happen. Look for Carbon at the top of the charts this Christmas.