capsule review

Need for Speed: Carbon

At a Glance
  • Electronic Arts Need for Speed: Carbon

    Macworld Rating

When Electronic Arts (EA) announced in mid-2007 plans to publish games for the Mac, it surprised many gamers by including one game series that hasn’t raised its head on the Mac before—the venerable Need for Speed series of street racing games. That was in stark contrast to the other titles making up EA’s revived Mac efforts—notably Madden NFL—which had been on the platform before in one form or another. So now that Need for Speed: Carbon is available on the Mac, how does it fare?

If you’ve played any of the recent Need for Speed games available for the PC or video game consoles, you’ll have a basic idea of what to expect. If not, here’s the executive summary: You’re a street racer who’s returned to the city after an extended absence, only to discover that the town is now controlled by several rival gangs who have taken over different neighborhoods. The only way you can achieve your former glory—and control of the city—is to race against them in a variety of events and win, avoiding cops, other drivers and all manners of objects like telephone poles and concrete barriers in the process.

Let me say at the outset that Need for Speed: Carbon isn’t particularly realistic. If you’re looking for an actual racing simulator, you’ll be better off with something like Colin McRae Rally from Feral Interactive. But if you’re looking for a cinematic game that will make you feel like you’re in a scene from The Fast and the Furious, Need for Speed: Carbon is really hard to top.

In Need for Speed: Carbon, you can pick among tuner cars -- like this Nissan 240SX -- exotics ranging from Alfa Romeos to the world's fastest streetcar made by Koenigsegg, and good old-fashioned Detroit muscle like vintage Camaros.

Events vary from canyon runs that will have you caroming down hairpin turns at top speed, threatening to go over the edge at every moment, to “drifting” (that is, sledding your car around tight curving courses, spinning the wheels and fishtailing as much as possible for points). And of course, there’s straight-up slaloms through busy city streets with a pack of opponents on your tail (or in front of you, depending on how good you are).

Each race you win will earn prestige, not only for you but for your little racing club and its control of territory. Wins also net you cash, which you can turn over into seemingly endless varieties of car customization or new vehicles that you’ll be able to unlock as your influence and your list of winning races increases. You’ll be able to race everything from front wheel drive subcompacts to roaring ’60s era muscle cars by the time you’re done, with a few supercar exotics thrown in for good measure.

As you impress the locals, you’ll build your own racing gang or team; each additional character actually races along side you and can help you out in a pinch. They each have different specialties: Blockers will keep a particularly pesky opponent from another team at bay, while scouters will go ahead of you and look for shortcuts. Drafters will get in front of you and let you ride in their slipstream, which lets you reduce your throttle and accelerate like a slingshot at key times when it really matters. Sound cues are used to good effect; you hear teammates over the radio barking out information and providing situation reports as you make your way around the circuit.

Production quality in most aspects of the game are very good. Actors—real life-actors overlaid with some CGI effects—are decent for the most part, although a bit melodramatic and silly at times, and the music is the run-of-the-mill urban beat/hip-hop stuff you’d expect out of a street racing game (or a kid with a Honda and 3,000-watt stereo).

Control of the game with a keyboard is actually pretty good, although I favored a game controller, similar to how I’d play this game on a console. If you’re not a console gamer, you might not really care about having a game controller, but, being familiar with this game series and this general genre on the consoles, a controller made the difference for me.

As another game that’s been brought to the Mac by TransGaming’s Cider translation-layer technology, Need for Speed: Carbon runs only on Intel-based Macs, and will only work right on Macs that have discrete graphics chips. (That means that MacBooks and Mac minis are left off the list of supported devices, unfortunately).

The game ran fantastically on my 2.33GHz MacBook Pro, but it wasn’t without problems—a few times, the game quit on me. There’s been no patch and EA is, unfortunately, something of a black hole for tech support. If you can’t find a canned answer on the company’s support Web site, don’t plan on getting substantive advice from its support team. EA and TransGaming obviously need to work out a few issues going forward—telling users to manually hack a config file with a text editor and change an arcane value from 1 to 0 to fix a problem with native screen resolution isn’t a very user-friendly solution, especially for a game.

Need for Speed: Carbon’s actual events will get repetitious after a while, even though they take place in different areas—much of the scenery begins to blend in together after a while. There are boss battles to break up the action, too—special events that make you use all of your skills in one single race against the leader of a rival club.

That’s not to say that Need for Speed: Carbon is just a flat series of street races. There’s a storyline, too, that will take you from event to event. And there’s a cast of characters who you’ll get to know over a series of races—bad guys, good guys, the whole nine yards. It makes for an entertaining mix that will keep you occupied.

Need for Speed: Carbon supports multiplayer action against other PC users, though you’ll need to set up an account on EA’s servers to do so. That’s a big plus; there’s no artificial division between Mac and PC users. (I’m glad to see this ironed out, because it hasn’t gone that smoothly for EA’s Mac release of Command & Conquer 3, which required a patch to enable Mac to PC play.) Racing online also enables you to post your scores on leaderboards maintained on EA’s Web site.

Although Need for Speed: Carbon is essentially the same version as the PC game “wrapped” in technology to make it work on the Mac, there is one element missing that you will find in the PC version: Online cars and mods that some gamers may have created and used with the Windows game can’t be imported to the Mac.

Need for Speed: Carbon has been rated E10+ by the ESRB, meaning it’s safe for kids 10 and older. There’s no naughty parts or bad language, just some mean behavior that might not set a good example for the impressionable elementary school set.

The bottom line

Need for Speed: Carbon is a welcome new addition to the Mac fold, and one of EA’s most playable and fun titles of its new crop of Mac games.

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At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Variety of different cars to choose from
    • Engaging storyline
    • Mac-to-PC multiplayer support

    Cons

    • No MacBook support
    • A few spotty reliability issues
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