Friday, December 02, 2011

Need for Speed - Carbon

Carbon, better than Most Wanted, or did this game shifted down the series...

EA is a company synonymous with mere "updated" sequels for its titles, but has still managed to secure great sales and success with its franchise hits over the years. As a distaste for the company's practices and gaming development strategies has drawn sentiment against it in the gaming community, it's not hard to understand why. When looking at a title like Need For Speed: Carbon, one can easily understand the thoughts and experiences gamers go through to come to conclusions about Electronic Arts.

STORY: The story this time around is unfortunately washed out and disappointing in this year's rendition of the NFS series. Following from the events surrounding the end of last year's Need for Speed: Most Wanted, you return as the unnamed/unidentified racer who has wandered his way back into a city where he obviously has some bad history and isn't very well liked. Right into the story, you find a returning character from Rockport (the city in Most Wanted) who helps add some familiarity to the title for those who played the last one, but also unfortunately adds little to the story development and progression.

It's surprising that players will span almost the entire length of the Career mode without knowing what's clearly going on in the game's seemingly non-existent plot. In other titles in the series, EA has managed to fill in a decent storyline to compliment a genre where it's often hard to do so, but this time came up short. Fans of Most Wanted will find it a turn off this time around as the narrative is much less engaging and appears to be more than an afterthought.

Also returning from last year's rendition are the FMV-based cutscenes that drive the story. This year's belle is played by Emmanuelle Vaugier, who adds a surprisingly more down to earth face, but unfortunately falls victim to shallow character design and story. The FMV sequences themselves remain beautifully crafted and characters are much less stereotypical and "cheesey" this time around, but odd dialog and a storyline villan that lacks flair and tenacity of last year's fan favorite Razor. The dialog is much slower this time around and leaves a bland taste in your mouth, and remains barely enough to help drive the narrative. The menu system is very user friendly and slightly easier to navigate than in previous title. Different shots of your currently selected vehicle will be shown in real-time as you navigate every menu, and that adds a nice touch as you'll appreciate it in the hours you spend selecting option after option in the car customization menu.

Customization is vast and extensive. The AutoSculpting feature sounds better on paper, as number of parts to sculpt are limited, and unfortunately the same for all cars in a class and most will chose to still with the much more visually stimulating Aftermarket Body Kits. Vinyls are the heart of car customization. Here, you can layer, color, move, rotate, resize, and skew any and every vinyl available to create some impressive or down-right fugly car designs.

This especially pays off by being able to customize a crew member's car to match your own, to really drive home the feeling of racing on an actual team. Players will be eager to show off their creations in photo mode and online garages, and it's nice that EA's attention to detail in their presentations of games still remains through thick and thin, and is enough to overcome the horrible and shallow plot. EA's production values save the day once again.

GRAPHICS: The most noticeable change EA has made visually is the return to night racing a-la the Underground renditions. While last year's Most Wanted broke the recent trend of the late-night illegal street racing scene, Carbon brings it all back home to Underground where it was first perfected. Unfortunately, some things were left behind.

The environments are filled with neon lights, glowing billboards, parking meters, trash cans, trees, and road construction objects galore. Here's one area EA definitely payed attention to. The physics are impressive as each object hit reacts accordingly, and the attention to detail to include any and every sort of obstacle in a realistic manner is refreshing. It never feels like overkill, and having so many things fill your surroundings helps settle in the feeling of being in a thriving large city-scape environment.

The lighting systems is simple but effective. Headlight "cones" remain the same for every vehicle, but are enough to light up the road and off to the sides, casting shadows and reflections properly as they should. It is strange to see after-market installed fog-lights not turned on frontal shots of your car, however. The time when the game really gives the thrill to night racing occurs during one of the many Canyon races. These occur on a very curvy 2-lane downhill track located outside the city. Surroundings are dim, but overlooking the city from far down below and reflections from road markers really add a nice touch.

Car models are much more detailed this time around, but seem to be wrapped in a plastic sheen. This become very apparent in races where there are a lot of neon lights sending the games car reflection into an unrealistic mirroring surface. Changing your car's paint scheme from Gloss to Chrome, Candy, or Iridescent only makes this worse as while driving your vehicle will appear more like a disco ball than the beautifully modeled car it once was. Players can slightly remedy this by lowering the Car Detail and Reflection Refresh Rate in the options menu, but having to sacrifice the extra detail hurts. Where the reflections were perfect and vivid in the day-lit scenes of Most Wanted, here, they are an annoyance.

Another visual aspect EA seems to have misimplemented is the game's Motion Blurr. Not only does it not react realistically to the sense of speed while driving (simply turn the option in the Video settings and watch everything onscreen instantly blurr while standing still), but it also spoils some of the visual flair of the game. Modes become slightly washed out and the environment & surroundings become greatly distorted. Again, one can't help but make the comparison to Most Wanted where the Blurr featured a blaring sense of speed, caused slight shaking of the screen, and nailed the tunnel-vision without sacrificing model quality.

Road reflection is another aspect that worked well in Most Wanted, but was greatly toned down in this rendition. You'd figure that a game at night would have MORE reflection, but that's not the case. It's only noticeable when the setting is turned all they way, but it then becomes a performance issue and is simply not worth it. The particle effects seem to remain unchanged, and that leads to the rain looking bland, thin, and most of the time unnoticeable since this time the driving occurs at night.

One can't help but notice that some of the visual elements that worked so well in Most Wanted and made it a visual feast were simply neglected this time around and poorly implemented. While the screenshots may look impressive, seeing the game run is an entirely different story. Something clearly gets lost in the translation as the ultra high-res and beautifully crafted cars leave your garage and head to the streets, where they become ultra-shiny mirrors that wash out a great deal of detail.

SOUND: EA has always been a master of the sound scheme with their high production values, and Carbon shows no difference. The voice acting is spot-on, even if the same cannot be said for the choice of story and dialog. The real star is of course the car sounds. The "beefiness" of muscle cars is particular impressive and realistic, setting it apart from other racing games. Everything from engine over-revs, screeching brakes, and car collisions are done quite nicely and gamers can't imagine it getting any better.

Chatter between drivers is something new, and also very well done. Not only does your current crew-member racing along side you provide you with helpful tips and comments like a teammate should, but their vocal reactions to situations always seem appropriate. When it comes to hearing the voice of a Boss during a canyon duel, not only will they chuckle and taunt you, but become aggravated and pissed off accordingly if you are racing extremely well.

One swing and miss this time is the EA Trax. You can select and turn on/off which songs you choose, and the inclusion of more rock and techno-like tracks are refreshing from the general hip-hop feel of most street-racing titles. However - and that seems to always be the term associated with EA Games - it is completely forgetful. Where as previous soundtracks have stood out and made themselves known, music this in this game seems to be more than a background effect. Between the driver chatter, sound effects, and menu sounds, it's easy to forget the soundtrack where hardly any songs stand out and none that you would miss hearing.

GAMEPLAY: Career mode is where most of your time will be spent, and unfortunately it's short. The ability to jump to a safe house, car lot, or any event using the World Map greatly cuts down on gameplay time, as you will hardly experience any random encounters or engage in any police pursuits unless forced. Having to drive to every event would have been a much better gameplay implementation.

The Career mode is divided into Territories controlled by other crews, mainly 4 rivals, although there are other minor crews you will come accross throughout the course of a game. Winning 2 out of 3 events in a territory nets you control over it and an unlocked item. Get all of them and you'll be challenged by the crew Boss. Occasionally your own territory will be challenged by a rival crew and if you don't accept and win the race, you will lose the territory (a-la Saints Row).

Races are your run of the mill regulars with the exception of Speed Traps and Drifts. Gone are the career Knockout and Drag races, which will anger some fans. Making their return are Drift racing events, where you try to accumulate as many points possible. The faster you go and the more your back-end swings out, they more points you'll earn, along with comboing your drifts from corner to corner. Hit the wall and your drift and combo multiplier ends. It sounds good in theory, but also can seemed half-ass at times because of the main following reasons: a) Drifting controls are almost the same for every vehicle; b) you are not penalized for hitting walls; and c) the scores accumulated at low speeds are very generous. Most players will find Drifting events way too easy to win in Career mode as going slow and steady without hitting anything will net you a win without having to pull off any impressive drifts the entire time.

Canyon Duels are the most impressive race types. They re generally Boss battles that occur throughout the game. They are 2-leg races without Nitrous in which drivers take turns chasing each other down a dangerous and curvy downhill canyon highway, earning points for pulling ahead, or chipping away points for staying close. These encounters are made even more dangerous by having multiple corners where your ride can easily go flying off of the edge if you're not careful, ending the race. One mistake will can cost you the race, but manage to pull ahead for 10 seconds, pass your opponent and remain in front for 10 seconds, or send him/her flying off the edge, can instantly score your a win in either leg of the race. Winning any event in career mode unlocks at least something, and each event states what it unlocks at the World Map. Winning each piece of territory unlocks a vehicle, and once again taking down a Boss gives you the opportunity to win performance/visual upgrades, extra cash, and possibly the pink slip to their ride with Bonus Markers at the end.

Fans of Most Wanted will find one aspect to be SEVERELY disappointing - Cops. Not only were police pursuits in last year's title both engaging and a thrill, but they also mixed in lovely with the narrative. In Carbon they are well more than an afterthought. It's hard to understand how EA could turn their backs so blindly on the success of Most Wanted's most cherished aspect. Police this time around are methodical, relentless, and just downright hard. Conditions (severity of the pursuit) will increase more rapidly, and roadblocks more frequent. They will block of the ENTIRE road, forcing you to slam through them or take off-road shortcuts, deploy tons of spike strips, and will actually sometimes avoid pursuit breakers. Sounds like more of a challenge which is welcome, except for the fact that you will hardly ever engage in any of them as there is no Bounty you need to increase and you can use the World Map to avoid driving around aimlessly. The thrill of illegal street racing has essentially been removed from Carbon by this aspect.

There's plenty of unlockable content and Challenges to be had. It's a little disappointing that some of the unlocked vehicles cannot be used in career mode, but what's done is done. The inclusion of the Muscle Car class this year is sure to make tons of fans happy, and vehicles like the '07 Dodge Challenger Concept, Chevy Camaro Concept, and '67 Shelby GT500 will quickly become favorites. Overall, it's still more of the same as the usual Lambos, Proches, and Mazdas make their return. It would've been nice to see more variety and an expanded car library, especially with the customization options, but it's enough to make it interesting. It is ironic how a street racing game is missing so many of the more "casually realistic" street racings cars - Civics, Accords, Acuras, older Mustangs and Camaros, Scions, BMWs, etc.

CONTROLS: Handling is straight forward and the cars behave how they should. Muscle cars are insanely powerful and have lightning fast acceleration that can almost be seen as unfair, but they handle worse than Rosie O'Donnell in a 3-legged sack race, which counters that. Tuners handling like a dream and are small and light, and a well "balanced car." Exotics have blaring high speeds and are just beautiful. EA did a nice job at handling car physics although it seems little odd that running into boxes and parking meters can slow your car down by as much as 30-40 mph.

Complaints are generally about the set-up, particularly because the keyboard and button mapping options are weak and hardly their. Not being ablet to remap look behind and car reset keys to controller pads and steering wheels hurts and is, quite frankly, a severe annoyance. Force feedback is fantastic and full support for the clutch is an added bonus, especially if you were lucky enough to get your hands on the new Logitech G25 Racing Wheel with its H-pattern shifter and clutch pedal. I have personally been able to sample this, and it works perfectly with Need For Speed: Carbon. There are a few compatibility issues with drivers, so some Logitech wheel users might find it necessary to be forced to use the Logitech System Profiler to receive full functionality.

PERFORMANCE: In simplest terms - poor. The optimization is horrible. This might not be apparent for those with cards that only support Shader Modeler 2.0 as motion blurr will be unavailable and shader detailed lowered. However those with 3.0 cards will feel the wrath as this game seems to have some horrible running moments. It's almost necessary to lower the Shader detail to medium as the loss in quality is minuscule (you lose the ability to see each and every metallic particle in a paint job...boo hoo), but it's amazing that EA could not optimize the performance of the motion Blurr. Even those with high-end card (nVidia 7800+ and ATI X1800+) will find it strange as their framerates will drop into the 30's frequently at high settings, while they can handle games like Oblvion, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and even Most Wanted without a problem. The motion Blurr seems to abuse SM 3.0 features, and gamers will often be forced to chose between quality and performance. nVidia owners also seem to take the blunt of this blow.

Another huge disappointment, and yet another synonymous EA blunder, is the lack of out of the box Widescreen support. Here we are in 2006 and 95% of games are developed with support for widescreen (at least after patches), and yet EA chose to avoid it again. Thankfully a method for changing the resolution can be found from searching the web, but it's just another classic example of EA ignoring fans and gamers alike and doing what they please. The only positive thing that can be said about Carbon's performance is that load times are kept to a minmum. Bottle line is, that EA botched the testing by either not using a wide range of cards/systems, or simply not caring. Excuses are wearing thin.

OVERALL: The game is way too short, the car library isn't as deep as it would seem, the story is almost non-existent and lame, there are far too many performance issues without any excuses, and what has been done to Police Pursuits is almost criminal (pun intended). It's hard to comprehend why EA would turn a blind eye to many of the huge aspects that made Most Wanted such a success last year.The game seems like a Rough Draft that needs to be re-written before being turned in for a grade. Overall it feels incomplete and has too much missing, but high production and flashy visuals help sugar-coat this title for easier swallowing. I hate to sound like an EA-basher, but another classic example of "Production Values through the roof....Gameplay through the floor."


NAME: NEED FOR SPEED - CARBON
SYSTEM: PC, Nintendo DS, Game Cube, Play Station 2, XBOX, XBOX 360, Game Boy Advance, Play Station Portable, Nintendo Wii, Play Station 3, Zeebo

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