If the two-year-old Need for Speed Underground 2 cranked the Chav Factor up to Wik Level 10 with its baseball-cap-tiltingly comprehensive modding options, and last year's Most Wanted threw off the Burberry in order to concentrate on delivering some fast-paced, efficient and genuine competition for Burnout, this year's Carbon sits comfortably somewhere between the two.
First and foremost, it's a great little racer, unashamedly arcadey in feel, that moves like a greased weasel. Most Wanted's good work in this area certainly hasn't been ignored. But for the Ecko-branded, Co-op hanger-outer there's also a better, bigger and more startling array of car fiddlage than ever before, from massive spoilers that make rear-viewing fundamentally impossible, to winking lights that make no discernible difference to anything, it's all in here. What's also in here - and this is Need For Speed Carbon's self-proclaimed party piece - are team races, new for this year's NFS, and an interesting change in direction for the game. The bad news? We're not sure they work quite as well as they probably should. But as you'll see later, points for trying.
So, after a prolonged, nice-looking but, eventually, tedious story involving that bloke who plays Helo in Battlestar Galactica, you arrive in 'Californian' city Carbon Canyon ready to do your worst. And by 'worst' we mean 'best'. Because you're going to need all your wheel-based skills to a) get your girlfriend back, who's left you after you skipped town, and b) win money, prizes and plaudits in the game's succession of modes, including the simple but fun Canyon Duel.
Canyon Duels work like this: you chase an opponent down a winding hill, trying to get as close to their rear bumper as possible; the closer you get, the more points you're awarded. Once you get to the bottom, you and your opponent change positions, and he chases. Anytime he gets close to you, your points tally decreases, and once you've got to the bottom of the canyon again, you've either got points intact and you win, or you don't have any and you lose.
It's simple, a bit silly and very easy, but allied to the game's more recognised modes, it works. Something that can mostly be applied to the game's brand new team racing, a twist on the NFS template that sees you supported by 'blockers', who barge opponents out of your way as you race. Now this is a genuinely good idea that could have taken the series on a stage...but it only half-works in Carbon because there's one slight, and, by now, familiar-sounding flaw: it's so very easy. Blockers are so effective and opponent AI so incapable of dealing with them, that you simply waltz through team races, your brain phoning in a half-power performance as your progress through an already undemanding game is made easier.
And that's the punctured tyre at the heart of Carbon: its new 'things' work but not totally. You play them, you like them, but you're not convinced. Take the city - it's better than Most Wanted's, and is now split into territories, which you've got to seize control of by beating genero-schmos and 'boss' characters. So far, so fine.
The problem is, Carbon City ain't that interesting. Once it's showcased its upgrades - the new modes, the graphical tuning, the ability to drive through pieces of scenery and scatter bits of masonry and, er, metal Tyrannosauruses (no joke) into the path of opponents - it starts to get a bit samey. AI opponents try to oust you from your territory, but the process of driving them into oblivion doesn't change; you play exactly the same modes, using exactly the same tactics, on exactly the same stretches of road. You'll be shedding tears into the sleeves of your Stone Island jacket when you realise about a third of the way through that, in all probability, what you've seen up until now is what you will be seeing on repeat throughout the rest of the game. Worse? Playing on only confirms this.