Saturday, November 11, 2006

Need For Speed Carbon: Own the City @ PocketGamer

Ask the typical Trisha viewer about video games, and they'll probably look momentarily confused before a lightbulb moment – Need For Speed! Because if there's one franchise that embodies current mass-market gaming tastes, it has to be EA's all-pervasive racing mod 'em up.

Fact fans note: a Need For Speed game has achieved the Christmas number one spot for the last two years running, and you can guarantee this latest iteration will be thereabouts once again.

This isn't to criticise popularity for its own sake, but Need For Speed is fast becoming the Police Academy of the games industry. We're half expecting to be playing Need For Speed Party Time: Assignment Miami Beach next year.

The subtitle of 2006's DS variant continues in the usual vein. Own the City? How? By racing around in a yellow Golf GTi and indulging in gratuitous smack talk? It's a bit ludicrous, although it does contain a nugget of design truth too, as the game sees you driving around the usual gritty urban environment, challenging your rivals to street races.

Assuming you win, then you get to take back that part of the city under your dominion. The goal – getting to own the city – even in a yellow Golf GTi.

Let's get one thing straight, the DS version of Need For Speed Carbon isn't a disappointment because it sticks to a tried and tested formula. It's a disappointment because feels rushed, lacks long-term challenge and fails to play to the DS' and the franchise's core strengths.

Most obviously, the DS wasn't designed for fast 3D racing, as Need For Speed Carbon's blocky textures, scenery tearing and twitchy handling attests. The game runs at a reasonable clip of speed, but when you hit the 'nitros' button, a lurid warping effect kicks in, blurring the screen and making navigating anything other than a straight road next to impossible.

The series' other notable strength, the customisation of vehicles with engine parts, spoilers, decals and rims, is also compromised by the general visual paucity. There are certainly plenty of parts to fiddle around with, as well as the opportunity to get your hands on 50 vehicles, but you will be hard pressed to notice much difference onscreen.

Equally, enabling players to design their own decals via the touch-screen is a welcome touch, but when your efforts translate into a barely discernible mush when placed on your vehicle, it's a bit disheartening.

Indeed, the art design lacks punch and clarity throughout – the entrancing neon cityscapes and souped-up vehicles that work so well on next-generation consoles appear grey and drab here.

Some sophistication has been attempted in terms of vehicle handling; along with braking and a sharper handbrake, the D-pad can be pressed in either of the forward diagonal positions to execute a narrower turn. But it's seldom necessary in practice. Rivals rarely mount any real challenge, and at speed the cars simply can't react quickly enough to sharper twists in circuits. Stick to boosting on the straights and a cautious approach to cornering and you should win every race.

So, any positives? Well, yes. Get into the rhythm of the races and there's a certain amount of entertainment to be extracted.

There is also one good new feature: wingmen. These buddies can be called upon to help you beat your rivals using typically street methods such as ramming them out the way. Another option they enable sees you regaining your nitro power if you can follow their neon trail, like a sort of boost slipstreaming. Their artificial intelligence is sometimes wayward, but together with the 'rewind time' option that you can unlock, they are the most interesting areas in the game by a long shot.

The developer should also be praised for using the DS's second screen in novel ways, too. You can customise your vehicle's dashboard with different dials and even fluffy dice, giving you a vehicular affinity not reflected in the other iterations of the game. It's a cute touch, if hardly a saving grace.

Perhaps most disappointing is just how short the game is. Experienced players will be able to polish off the single-player element inside four hours, the multiplayer mode is limited to two players, and the career mode is also accompanied by a simple revenge plot that doesn't so much border on the risible as cross the line and set new standards in game narrative pap. For us, it's the final nail in Own The City's inner-tube.

While Need For Speed Carbon may well offer a joyous experience on the other platforms and go on to dominate the charts, the DS version is a classic example of unsuitable original material and rushed porting. Even given the paucity of decent racing games on DS, we suggest you drive on by.

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