Thursday, September 24, 2009

Speed: Needed

One of the reasons I picked up Need for Speed Carbon, despite the fact that I still feel guilty about not finishing Most Wanted on PS2, is that I was looking for something else to make use of the Nerf Wii Wheel peripheral that so far I've only been using with Speed Racer. Now, I've only played it for two days, but in that time I have learned two things. One is that the game is generally pretty fun and the other is that the default "steering wheel" style control scheme is an unmitigated disaster. It is possible to control the car only in the loosest sense of the word, in the same way that if you shake a box with a cat inside you could be said to be "controlling" the cat. Yes, your actions affect its movement, but not in any kind of predictable or repeatable way. It's not a matter of the tilt being too sensitive or not sensitive enough; somehow it is both. Your car won't turn enough, until after the turn is over, at which point it will curve straight into a wall even though you have straightened the wheel. I've seen it said that there is a learning curve here, and maybe if I could figure out exactly when in the turn I ought to stop turning my car even though the turn is not done yet, there would some way to do it. But I suspect that by the time I mastered such a thing, the experience would bear little resemblance to operating a steering wheel anyway. Furthermore, I believe a simple thing like maneuvering a virtual car around a corner while not even at top speed should not require a learning curve tantamount to landing the space shuttle. Call me crazy, but that is just how I was raised.

At first I feared the game, though graphically gorgeous (for the Wii anyway) would be completely unplayable. There is no excuse for control this hopeless (especially when the Wii's other racers prove it's possible), and I can only conclude that the guys at EA simply failed at it. Maybe there is some specific issue with their physics model, which was designed to be controlled by an analog stick, that cannot be ported over to a tilting controller without destroying the fabric of the game. I don't know.

Happily, there are 5 control schemes here to choose from. One of them involves tilting the nunchuck, which works marginally better than the Wiimote (imagine an angry cat on a leash instead of in a box), but twisting a nunchuck is nothing like using a steering wheel anyway, so why bother? The last two options involve steering with the analog stick, which is an absolute delight, especially after an hour of slamming your unruly car into walls with your Wii wheel. The analog stick steering is, in fact, especially good, and furthermore, the Wiimote throttle control, in which you tilt the controller like a gas pedal, works like a charm. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive and completely stupid, but in fact it triggered an epiphany -- the key to racing, especially in these games, is actually not steering at all. After all, any idiot can steer (once he is using a sensible control scheme and not one that is fundamentally broken); one usually blows a race by trying to take a turn too fast. This is because mastering finesse with the gas, brake and handbrake are the key to success. Once I tried control scheme 5 (4 is nice too, as it tethers the Wiimote to brake/reverse as well as gas, but unfortunately the handbrake is operated by jerking back on the nunchuck, which doesn't seem to do anything), I found myself commanding the throttle and handbrake with an assurance and precision I had never experienced playing NFS with a conventional controller. In fact, it works so well, I wondered if EA's programmers had consciously not bothered to perfect steering wheel controls, so certain were they that the weird nunchuck-analog/Wiimote gas pedal scheme was superior.

So yes, the game is playable and so far, a lot of fun on the Wii -- not just in spite of, but even due to, the Wii's unique controls. But not the ones you expect.

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