Here's something we didn't expect - this new NFS is virtually identical to Need For Speed Underground 2. Night races? Check. Free-roaming city? Check. SMS messages, short-cuts, tune-up garages? Check, check and check. They're all here. Carbon may use the best ideas from Most Wanted and NFSU2 but, as any modder will tell you, simply adding a few parts from a Ferrari 355 to the chassis of an F50 isn't going to turn it into a Mitsubishi Lancer. To the casual observer, there's little difference - it could be the same game.
But is that such a bad thing? In terms of atmosphere, NFSU2 had it nailed - now it's got gameplay to match. No longer will you be cruising for miles without braking - the courses are tighter and more exciting than before. You'll still get some serious speed up, but you'll enjoy some tricky corners too. And integrated into Carbon from Most Wanted is the long arm of the law, so now you'll have to avoid the heat too. It was the best aspect of that game and it adds greatly to the playability of this one. Frequently racing in one area will alert the cops to your presence and they'll get to know your ride, so hopping and swapping is in order if you want to keep the heat off you. It works well, but can be frustrating when you just want to clear an area.
However, the new canyon setting is the feature EA are pushing most. And although it's perfect for two-player battles, beating aboss over two laps of the track isn't that thrilling, no matter how likely it is that you'll topple over the edge and hurtle down the mountainside. Why not just have a showdown duel against a computer car with more aggressive AI, in a match to see who can shove each other over the cliff first? It seems like an idea used because it's 'new', not because it's appropriate.
But, of course, there are also some genuinely new elements to keep things fresh - they're just not immediately obvious. First, now you have to recruit your own racing crew. Each racer has their own abilities - some will automatically boost your cash winnings by a set percentage, while mechanically-adept buddies will be able to fit the more specialist parts or decals. Team commands can be executed with w while racing, which triggers blocks, shunts or slipstreaming according to your partner's skillz. However, we found that sometimes your comrades tended to inexplicably slam on the brakes as we approached them, stopping us in the same manner as the police. Why? Their powers of recovery are miraculous as well. One second they're spinning in a violent barrel roll, the next they're screaming past at mach seven. Odd.
Occasionally you'll be told a rival crew is attacking your turf (just like in GTA: SanAndreas) and you'll need to beat them to keep it. It's a nice idea, but these random events have a nasty habit of kicking in when you're trying to do something else. And the penalty-free restart option means you never have to - god forbid - lose a race, which negates the whole thing. Although it's technically possible to lose all your cars and cash and have to start the game again from the beginning, this won't happen to anyone in possession of a working set of thumbs.
Production values are sky high throughout though and the story, which carries on from where Most Wanted left off, is acted very well. New girl Nicky is niceenough, but we miss Mia (sniff). Everything is licensed, from the upgrades and cars to the soundtrack (which includes, brilliantly, Are Friends Electric by Gary Numan). Soaring past street lights to those famous tri-tones is one of the game's finest moments. The chat from your crew mates and the police radio is excellent too, adding immensely to the atmosphere.