The game is set in the fictional town of Palmont. There are three major canyons in Palmont: East, West, and Carbon Canyon. Southwestern boundary of the city has a beach. The city also includes several rivers and a lake near Carbon Canyon. Palmont is divided into four boroughs early in the game: Kempton (in the southeast, mostly industrial area), Centre (East), Fortuna (to the west, especially suburbs) and Silverton (north resort area) one for each of the main crew. Highway system extending through the center of town is the main link between the boroughs. All boroughs except Silverton initially available for the player, access to Silverton is unlocked only after beating the crews in three other boroughs. The city is included in the massively multiplayer online racing game Need For Speed: World, along with Rockport, Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
The gameplay is based upon rival street racing crews. Players work crew and can be rented concrete street racers and their crews are in a friendly and active player known as the wing. Each contestant hirable street has two skills, which is racing skills (scout, blocker, and designers) and race skills (fixer, a mechanic and fabricator). Each skill has different properties from finding hidden alleys / back streets (keyboard shortcuts) to reduce the attention of police. Cars powered by wingmen are also different drive muscle blockers, drafters and scouts drive exotic CD tuners (although the first two unlockable wingmen (Neville and Sal) drive cars, according to the selected car class player at the beginning of the game). In career mode, players must race tracks and win to conquer territories and face off against bosses to conquer areas.
Unlike Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Underground, Carbon does not drag racing. However, carbon is the return of drift racing, a regime that were included in the previous two parts, Need For Speed: Underground and Underground 2, but omitted from Carbon "predecessor, Most Wanted and the new style of event, Canyon event based on Japanese Touge races. There are four types of Events Canyon: Canyon Duel, Canyon Sprint, Canyon Checkpoint and Canyon Drift. A special point to note is that Lap Knockout race events have been omitted in previous installments. Tollbooth races in Most Wanted was renamed "Checkpoint" compete in carbon.
Players can upload game screenshots of Need for Speed website, complete with statistics and modifications. NFS Carbon is the first NFS game feature exclusive online game modes. Pursuit Knockout mode and Pursuit Tag game modes that allow players to play as a player or a cop. Pursuit Knockout is essentially a lap knockout, with a twist. Competitors who are eliminated from the race back by cops and that is their job to try to stop other riders from the end of the race by any means. The player who finishes the race wins. Pursuit Tag begins with one player as a player and the rest of the players as cops. This is the job of cops to arrest the player. Cop makes arrest after it becomes a contestant and should try to avoid the cops. The player who spends most of his time as a player wins.
Gameplay control methods vary from console to console. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 steering wheel with control pad, during acceleration, braking and other controls can be configured and mapped to different buttons on the controller. Driving Force GT racing wheel and G27 can be used, and this is the first Need For Speed title to use force feedback and 900 degrees, turning radius. On Windows, joysticks and wheel controllers are supported, and those that support force feedback. Wii has no online play, but fully supports the use of the Wii Remote.
Need for Speed: Carbon features a new car customization option called "Autosculpt", enabling players to utilize aftermarket car parts and shape / mould the parts to their liking. Players can also have multiple customed vinyls as well. Performance tuning has been redone so that players, as upgrades are purchased, can tune the car for a number of different properties, such as higher top speed or higher acceleration. Unlike Most Wanted, all of Carbon's performance tuning / enhancing and car customizing is done inside the safe house.
Boss Race is accessible only through the game's Career Mode. Most of Carbon's focus lies through various canyon races, which the game's theme is based on. Players have to race against other racers, drift through canyons, or even face off against an opponent in a one-on-one competition known as a "Canyon Duel", borrowed from Japanese Touge races. This event has two stages: In the first stage, you chase the rival and accumulate points faster the closer you stick to your opponent. In the second stage, your rival will chase you and your points decline faster the closer they are to your rear-end.
As with Most Wanted, cops are everywhere in Carbon. Police chases can break out at any time, including when in Free Roam mode, when racing, or just after a race is completed. Some races do not have a chance of a police pursuit, such as Canyon races, and Checkpoint races. As with Most Wanted, there are five conditions. Players have to be careful to avoid getting pursued by state or federal authorities. The Collector's Edition features three additional heat levels. [Citation needed] Although the pursuit system is similar to Most Wanted, this feature has been reprogrammed in Carbon to ensure that police were not too dominant in arrest tactics in high pursuit levels. Some of the police tactics (such as the spike strips) while at the same time to make pursuits much harder to escape once a pursuit initiates. [Citation needed]
Players can choose from many licensed cars divided into three classes as follows: Tuners, Muscles, and Exotics. Each car has its own characteristic ranging from easy cornering to well-balanced road performance. Players must choose a class to start career mode on which the set of unlocks will be different, before choosing their car the player can initiate a test drive option. Players can also unlock cars that are reserved for quick races as the players progress throughout the game and earn reward cards.
The Own the City version differs with little regard to car class, and has many areas from the original game altered. There are new game modes, like Escape where the player must escape from a rival crew's territory, Delivery where the players and their crew have to deliver a package to a designated area in first place to win and Crew Takedown, where players have to eliminate a set number of rival racers to win. Crew management allows hiring of up to five wingmen per crew, with two active for racing. Players can use the crews for all races except for Lap Knockout, Escape and Crew Takedown modes. The city is also divided into many areas, some together into a district owned by one crew, with a total of six districts and 13 areas. Every area conquered gives new unlocks and new wingmen. Wingmen also have three different classes; a brawler that takes down racers, a drafter that drafts racers to give speed boosts, and assassins that deliver spike strips the player needs to avoid that can blow a car's tires, aimed for enemy cars.
The game also allows free roaming with crates scattered throughout the whole city that when broken, give special unlocks ranging from cash to game art. Police chases are only available in free roam, and are not available in races.