How’d It Age #1 – Need for Speed Carbon

More Info from EA

  • Genre: Racing
  • Platform: PS3 (via rpcs3)

I have a certain affinity for this era of Need for Speed games. They aren’t necessarily great games. The driving certainly isn’t the best. Their stories are campy as all hell. The AI is pretty frustratingly rubberbandy. However, they have an inexplicable level of fun that I can’t quite put my finger on. That fun is something that was lost for me in newer entries like Heat, where the driving was similarly intended to be arcadey but just never clicked with me. Carbon on the other hand has a few specific things that I can point at that really feed that feeling well.

The AI in these games could generously be described as unfair. You can be 10 seconds in the lead, then the AI magically gains enough speed to catch up and pass you. However, Carbon breaks that up in a way that still works well against modern games. Having an AI partner in the races just causes all sorts of wonderful chaos. Their core feature is that they can be a few different specs (blockers, drafters, and scouts), which all have their own version of wonderful chaos. Want to just clear your opponents and run free? Use a blocker to knock them all out of the race. Want to really push speed as a main motivation? Use a drafter and chain speed boost your way to victory.

These things even pretty specifically come into play in some event types. One of the most chaotic event types in the speed camera event, where you win by having the highest total MPH captured on a set of cameras. Normally this should generally just go to the first place car anyway, but with rubberbanding that isn’t exactly the case…..which is why you exploit your AI helper. I can’t tell you how many of these I won by purposefully knocking my ally into a wall at the start of the race, causing them to fall seconds behind. They would then go into a MASSIVE rubberband and easily win the events by 50-100mph. Exploit? Sure. Fun and funny as hell? Yep.

The same general idea could be used in normal races. Let your ally fall a bit behind, let them inevitably slingshot forward, then let THEM win the race. Ultimately the metagame at play here is for your crew to take over a city, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s you or the AI winning, as long as it’s your crew. It’s a great way to reinforce the whole overarching story in a way that continues to feel fresh. Seeing this kind of use of rubberbanding AI is just something I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Rubberbanding alone is something that I don’t generally see to this level of chaos in modern games, but being able to exploitatively use it to your advantage is something that I’m finding completely unique to this title.

The other thing that still works is that the driving is just really smooth. This is where I had my biggest problem with NFS: Heat. That game felt like it was forcing you to drift, and it made the driving feel really clumsy. This game just feels extremely tighter at high speeds than is realistic. It’s a very specific style of arcade game, but it means that once I get up to speed the game feels more about timing my turning flow, and less about trying to use mechanics to keep my speed up. It’s a driving style more akin to the Burnout games than later NFS titles, which tended to lean into a heavier floaty style that pushed drifting to the max. In terms of the two, I much prefer the way this or Burnout feel.

That said, hoooooo boy the story. It was campy at release. It’s just bad now. I’m not going to sit here and say that the NFS series has ever really had a good story, but oh boy is this such a specific style of camp that just doesn’t age well. In a lot of ways it feels kind of like your typical Syfy movie, where things are a really weird mix of camp and over seriousness that just doesn’t mesh well. It’s worth zoning them out. You aren’t missing anything.

This era of NFS is such a specific type of game, and it’s surprising to me how well it still works. If you go older than this into the PS1 era, those games just feel aged – even with greats like the original Hot Pursuit. If you go newer than this, they just feel like different games – whether it’s the clear Burnout Paradise sequels that worked well or some of the more experimental titles that….just didn’t. These sorta open world tuner titles though? These are my thing. I can drop into games like Underground and have fun, and Carbon really does a decent job of still holding up that style of gameplay. They may not have ever been great but it’s hard to not just have fun with them.