For a game literally called Carbon, isn't it weird that only your hood, roof scoop, and spoiler can be carbon?
If you ask people what the black sheep of the NFS franchise is, you'll likely get a variety of answers these days. Usually it's one of the "different" ones; Prostreet, Shift, Nitro, maybe even Most Wanted 2012. If you ask me, however, I'd argue that the NFS I know has a bit of an identity crisis, and as such so many of the games are "different" that I don't see any of the "different" ones as anything strange. "Different" is damn near the norm. And as such, my answer would be Carbon. Carbon is like Underground 3, but… not. It's like Most Wanted 2, but… not. It absolutely reeks of being rushed, but what people don't realize about Carbon is how much sheer potential a lot of its ideas had. So I'd like to go over both what Carbon is… and what it could be.
…And uh, I don't know where else to say this, so I'll just tack it onto the end here: I played through Carbon on Xbox 360, and don't have any experience with the many, many other versions.
What defines Carbon?
It's important to establish a couple of things that make Carbon unique before I can really discuss what it does right and wrong. First of all, Carbon features 3 car classes (Tuner, Muscle, and Exotic), each with exaggerated differences; even more than your average arcade racer. Tuners have low top speeds, but absolutely dominate the corners. They're the easiest to drive as well. Exotics have high top speeds, but low acceleration; they have a lot of inertia to them and heavily punish mistakes. Muscle cars have ridiculous acceleration, but turn like boats. The game's career is experienced by picking one of those three classes and sticking with it to the end, which generally only takes a few hours. Secondly, the map. Palmont is a very curvy city, split into 4 districts. Each district must be claimed by winning the majority of the events there, after which the player faces off against the district boss in the canyons. The first three districts are dominated by a crew driving a specific car class, and you start your career in the district dominated by a crew driving your car class. Beat the first three to unlock Silverton, the fourth and final. Lastly, the crew system. As you progress through the game you unlock some friends that join your crew, and you can pick three to have active bonuses at once and one of those three to accompany you in races. There are three types of crew members; Blockers, Drafters, and Scouts. Now I know it's a bit weird to start the review with this, but believe me when I say that these three aspects are absolute game changers, and the nuance regarding how they work, what the devs were going for, and how they could work if done better, is absolutely insane. Now that we've established all of this, let's start with the review proper.
Need for Speed Carbon looks gorgeous. From the lighting to the reflections to the colors, this is exactly the standard I expected the first NFS game made specifically for 7th gen to look like. The game also absolutely oozes style, just like UG1. Every part of the UI and HUD looks extremely distinctly Carbon. It's a great style. If you pay close attention you can notice some draw distance hiccups and a couple of frame drops, but they don't take away from the experience whatsoever. Of course, it doesn't look all that great today; comparing it to later Xbox 360 titles gets a bit iffy; but for an early 7th gen game, it's excellent. Not since UG1 have I had no major gripes with an NFS game's presentation.
Take notes, Ghost. At least, that's what I would say if Ghost still existed. This is how you do a racing game story. It's not intrusive, it's not the focus, but if you pay attention it is entertaining and unique. How often do you see a racing game with a mystery story? …A predictable mystery, but still! I'm not looking for an epic or a masterpiece of writing in a racing game, but I am looking for something unique and unintrusive, and Carbon delivers that.
– Replay value
Due to the career being very short and the car classes being so different, Carbon is easily the most replayable NFS of them all, and it isn't even close. You could easily just sit down one day, decide you want to play Carbon, and bust through the career on that same day, but then come back the next day and do it again, having a very different experience. It's extremely easy to pick up, and very hard to put down, no matter how many times you've played it.
– Challenge Series
Carbon's challenge series rocks. It isn't all that long, but unlike the garbage from MW2005, Carbon's features every event type and two pursuit milestone types, each with three separate events. These give you a great taste of what different cars feel like, are pretty damn challenging and fun, and even have a few easter eggs thrown in. Want to chase the M3 GTR down the canyons, driving what's basically Cross' Corvette? How about toying with the cops while driving a dump truck? Hell, the gold Pursuit Evasion event has you driving the GT-R R34 that would eventually be adapted into Payback's hero car. They referenced a game that wasn't even out for 11 years! …Or Payback's devs were just too lazy to design a different car, so they picked one from a random challenge series race in the NFS everyone forgets about and hoped no one would notice… yeah, actually, it's probably the latter.
– Drift events
Drifting in Carbon is the very definition of dumb fun. It's so stupid and ridiculous that it just loops back around and becomes the best thing ever. You go so stupidly fast and the physics are so awful that it's just good. Not to mention that you don't have to buy a car specifically for drifting, so have fun drifting your tier 3 exotics! The AI sucks at these too; once you get them down you'll absolutely demolish every single one effortlessly. Even if you mess up a few times you'll still get so many points that it seems like the AI isn't even trying.
– Visual Customization
While I personally think Autosculpt isn't all that great an addition as it's both extremely ricey and just adds the illusion that your car is one of a kind, the vinyl editor in particular steals the show here. You can move, scale, rotate, and skew every single vinyl, resulting in the most diverse visual customization yet. Unfortunately there are more omissions to body customization than even in MW2005, as it's been reduced to just a few bodykits, hoods, spoilers, roof scoops, and rims. But this is more of a lack of a positive thing than it is the presence of a negative thing, hence I'm not putting it in the ugly category (also because that category is… a bit unique this time, and I want to maintain the focus there.)
Yikes. Not only are barely any of this game's licensed tracks memorable, but the score plays in most races (and all pursuits!) so you don't even get to hear them. The canyon score is repetitive, and it blares louder than anything else in the game.
– The bosses
The boss of each area will first challenge you to a circuit race, then a new exclusive event type called a canyon duel. There are two major problems with canyon duels. First, they take forever, so if you mess up it's really frustrating. Second, the canyons favor tuners and hate muscle cars. Watch in awe as no matter which career you choose or when you choose to face her, Angie (who, in her infinite wisdom, chose muscle) struggles to even put up a fight, even if you make her your last boss before Silverton. It's so blatantly unbalanced.
– Event Types
One thing I forgot to mention in the MW2005 review was the Speedtrap event type, which I like because even though it controls the same as the rest, it forces you to approach driving differently. In Carbon though, it goes without saying that acceleration is extremely important for these, and so muscle cars dominate them. It should also go without saying that tuners dominate drift events. So what do exotics dominate? …Nothing. The hell happened there? So much for balance.
No categories here because everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is connected here. Buckle up cuz it's time for a rant.
Firstly, a lot of people will say that Carbon's map is so curvy that tuners are favored heavily throughout. They aren't really wrong, but I can see what the devs were going for. Exotics suffer in Downtown because of the varied road structure not giving them a chance to reach top speed, but excel in Kempton because it has the most straight-ish roads. Tuners suffer in Kempton because of the straighter roads, but excel in Fortuna because there are so many winding curves. Muscle cars suffer in Fortuna because the winding curves don't give them a chance to accelerate anywhere, but the varied structure of Downtown makes acceleration important. Note that you never start in an area where your car class is meant to excel or suffer. I think this is an absolutely PHENOMENAL idea… too bad they screwed the balance up entirely. First of all, tuners are too fast. The difference in top speeds and acceleration isn't enough; they still manage to not be at as heavy a disadvantage as the other classes. Secondly, the canyons exist and heavily favor tuners for obvious reasons, which is dumb because they're arguably the most important events in the game. Thirdly, Silverton is basically tuner city; it's so ridiculously tight and full of corners that anything that isn't a tuner can't handle it efficiently. On paper, the idea of a curvier and varied map combined with this class system is genius; they just managed to screw it up in every possible way!
Carbon's speedbreaker not only works better than that of the other two entries that feature it, but it also is implemented the best. The curvier map makes it so much more interesting to use; corners that would be difficult to judge are everywhere, and you don't really have enough speedbreaker to just use it at every tight corner like in MW2005. It encourages you to learn the map and strategize. But of course, there are two things that totally ruin it. First of all, tuners are so good that they barely ever need speedbreaker, which defeats the entire purpose. And secondly, Nikki. I'm not joking. You see, Silverton is the area where speedbreaker is the most useful; it's full of tight corners. So you'd think that it'd be difficult to manage your speedbreaker there, thus making it an effective test of your ability to judge the road and strategize, right? lmao nope. Nikki is unlocked as a crew member once you unlock Silverton. Despite the other crew members getting tier 3 cars whenever you do, don't for one second think that means they'll be able to keep up with you, cuz they won't. Only Nikki can in Silverton, and just barely. Guess what one of her bonuses is? +50% NOS and speedbreaker. With all that, you can basically just use speedbreaker at every slightly challenging corner and never run out.
Speaking of crew members, isn't that a cool idea? The one that accompanies you into races will attempt to help you out in some way. Blockers take out opponents on command, Scouts find shortcuts for you, and Drafters make you go fast by giving you a slipstream. My question is, why the hell is this in the same game with the overly curvy map? Colin is literally only viable in Kempton, but his bonuses suck so you would only use him in an exotic playthrough if you made Kempton your second area. What a perfect world that would be. Oh and by the way, want to know the easy way to win Speedtrap events? Just use a Scout. They rubberband to keep up with you, hence blasting by the speedtraps. Blockers are just broken. Not only can they never keep up with you, but they also can't keep up with whoever they're supposed to target and take out. Not to mention they're inexplicably unavailable to command most of the time. Might as well just be racing alone! Oh, and none of the crew members can drive. Scouts are particularly noticeable here because they're programmed to attempt to stay in front of you at all times, and to take all shortcuts. But they always get stuck on walls trying to take shortcuts, brake check you in corners (and then blame you over radio!), and, just like Blockers, become inactive for no apparent reason. I could go on and on and on about this, but the entire crew system is such a good idea, but ruined first by the curvy map, and second by piss poor programming.
There was something people really liked about MW2005… but I can't seem to remember… oh yeah, police! They exist. Barely. Carbon's pursuit system is essentially a slightly beefed up version of that of MW2005. The problem is that there's no incentive beyond reward cards to engage with the police. I'm not kidding when I say in my first playthrough (I did two; one with tuners and one with exotics. I used the RX-8, RX-7, and Evo for the first, then the Brera, DB9, and Murcielago for the second) I didn't get in a single police chase besides the prologue until 63% CAREER PROGRESSION. Not to mention, Carbon features fast travel to literally everywhere. There's no incentive to freeroam either. Hence, the police are nearly nonexistent in this game, unless you get unlucky. It's a massive shame too, because engaging with the cops here is really fun. Pursuit Breakers and Hiding Spots are less plentiful and much more spread out than in MW2005, requiring you to learn the map and strategize, which not only adds challenge but makes repeat playthroughs fun. So why the hell do the cops mean nothing in the career mode? I never even got above condition 2 in either playthrough because escaping is so easy!
Carbon is absolutely a good game, but it's one that was far too ambitious for the time it had in the oven. People often cite this as the beginning of the end for Black Box NFS, and I can see why. People also say that this game failed to innovate, but with that I don't entirely agree. Carbon really, REALLY tried. And I want more people to see the potential its ideas had, and the intentions of the developers. It won't make this game any better than it is, but if we were to revisit its ideas, and devs were to make an NFS game more akin to what Carbon wanted to be… it would be one of the most uniquely memorable NFS games ever. Between the distinction of the car classes, the crew system, the curvier map, multiple career modes… so much of what Carbon does has potential that goes untapped. If tried again, I truly believe the seeds Carbon has sown could make something truly great. As it stands, however, Carbon remains a fun game, but a forgettable and strangely made one.
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