Last year's Need For Speed was quite good, really, wasn't it? After a troublesome few years for EA's top-selling street-racing series, Most Wanted steered NFS right back into Burnout's slipstream. Reintroducing Hot Pursuit's cop-dodging antics was a master stroke, adding a degree of unpredictability to the races. The tracks were challenging, windy and as tight as a cheesewire seatbelt. And best of all, EA turned down the dial on their Chav- O-Meter, from Underground 2's rating of 'Hanging Outside Cash Converters With Mike Skinner' down to a far more ccceptable 'Endearing In A Fight Club Kind Of Way'. After this chav-light, fun-heavy weight redistribution, it seemed like it was finally okay to start liking Need For Speed again.
And then along comes Need For Speed Carbon, screeching onto our screens like a gold-rimmed, neon-lit freight train. Night time races are back, as is the emphasis on 'modding' and 'tricking up' (is that right?) your car, a process made that much easier with a new features called Autosculpt.
This allows you to shape every aspect of your car with the analogue sticks so you can measure your chaviness to within a cent on the Bling-O-Meter. Additionally, the big change this year is the introduction of team racing - you're no longer alone out there on the circuits (unless you count the races where you, er, are alone). No doubt about it, Need For Speed's rediscovered its Burberry jumbo-pants for 2006, and it's not afraid to get conspicuous right in your face.
SHAKE YOUR CARBON-BON
This doesn't automatically mean that Carbon is a step backwards. In fact, au contraire, as we'd say if we were French. Which we're not, so let us say this: on the contrary. Carbon is a direct sequel to Most Wanted, with a
very similar 'riches-to-rags-to-riches again' storyline. In Carbon, your character returns to California's Carbon Canyon after a five year absence, and is greeted with aggression o' plenty from his former colleagues. Worse still, your girlfriend (played by Emmanuelle Vaugier, much like she's played by her in our dreams) is so embittered by your town skippage that in her addled state of mind she's shacked up with Helo from Battlestar Galactica (eat your heart out, Xbox World360 designer Craig), and it's up to you to win her back. By illegally racing, of course!
The plot is needlessly complicated and at times slightly intrusive (you've got time to etch out a nice watercolour of your Xbox 360 in the time it takes the opening cinematics to finish) but it does the job of setting a familiar goal. And that's, here is the city in which you race - tear it apart.
CARBONNIE AND CLYDE
Structurally, Carbon is much improved over Most Wanted. Carbon Canyon is split into territories for you to overthrow, achieved by winning one of five set race types. The abhorrent drag races are out this year, so lollipops to the developers for that, which leaves the following: Race, Checkpoint (Time Trial), Drift, Speed-Trap and Canyon Duel. The last of which is a new addition - and a fairly welcome one.
It's basically a downhill game of chicken where you've got to follow your rival down a snail-shell-shaped windy canyon path without overshooting and flying off the edge. The closer you get to your rival's tailpipe, the more points are awarded. Once you've reached the bottom, you're magicked right back up to the top, this time with him chasing you. Your points total is whittled down by your rival until either you manage to finish the race or he depletes your score and you lose.