Not that we want to get all misty eyed or anything, but it's been a long and winding road for the Need For Speed series. Long, windy, and littered with a fair few fatal pile ups along the way. Does anyone actually remember the pre- Underground games anyway? The end result after more than ten years of Need for Speed games is a racing series so popular that it already has one greasy hand up the annual Christmas number one skirt. Need for Speed is the world's biggest driving game right now, and the news is good, because we can categorically state that Need for Speed: Carbon will be a launch title for PlayStation 3.
The question is, though, will it be any good? The answer, you'll be pleased to learn, is yes; at least it is so far. Need for Speed might sell like strawberry-flavoured lubricant at a mass orgy, but it's never really come close to either Gran Turismo or Burnout in terms of sheer gaming class. Even so, given what we've played of the game already, the potential is certainly there for the quality to finally match the sales, and that's mainly courtesy of the game's unique new setting and twist on the illegal racing scene. Or as the real-life actress Emmanuel Vaugier, ominously puts it in the game's opening sequence, "This place is a battleground now, crews fighting for territory, and it all gets settled in the Canyon..."
A GRAND CANYON
Canyon? What canyon? That'll be Carbon Canyon, as in Need For Speed: Carbon, and this is where much of the new game's excitement takes place.
It seems the old bill of Need For Speed: Most Wanted fame have been cracking down on illegal driving tournaments, and in a complete departure from the traditional citybased races of Underground, drivers have been forced to move further afield to get their speeding kicks - hence the relocation to the mountains. What's really clever is that there's genuinely some semblance of reality in the idea. With films like The Fast And The Furious fuelling a huge increase in illicit street racing for real, cops are actually becoming increasingly vigilant, and Japanese tuner addicts have really been forced out to the canyons. You'll be able to use the hidden passages to race, trade and score girls.
Whether you hold with the idea or not - chav racing will always be the preserve of the Lidl car park scene in our eyes - it's an interesting concept, and one that seems custom built for getting the best out of the PS3. All manner of clever visual effects designed to (potentially) permanently blur your vision have been thrown into the game, and despite the fact that things aren't quite moving at nextgeneration pace yet, the makers assure us that there's still huge amounts of work and polish to go into the visuals. In terms of looks, this is already the best Need for Speed yet.
INTO THE VALLEY
So, onto the actual canyon racing itself, and our thorough playtest involved two cars going at it head-to-head on a narrow mountain road. Clearly a grossly irresponsible activity, there was bound to be an accident, and it wasn't long before one of the drivers failed to brake in time and ploughed through a flimsy fence to a fiery death in the rocky valley below.
It all looks spectacular, but there's more to the canyon sections than straightforward racing. Pitting two drivers against each other, man-toman, each contest actually consists of two races. In the first, you trail your opponent and earn points for how close you can stay to him during the length of the run. Then the roles are reversed and the points are added up to find a winner. There are other ways to secure victory too, such as overtaking the lead car and staying there for ten seconds, or if you're the lead car, pulling so far ahead that the race is over - particularly satisfying if you're racing for car ownership and the loser has to walk home. Of course, all of these sub-rules become irrelevant should you take the fastest route to defeat and plough off the road, which is a constant danger given the precarious nature of the out-oftown roads.