There’s no denying that, at 15 years of age, Need for Speed is becoming elderly. In its day, it was an early pioneer of racing games to feature licensed cars, and arguably one of the best, but in recent years we have seen the franchise decline into a cringe worthy identity crisis.
Underground felt like an inane attempt to appeal to those who thought The Fast and Furious was a crowning cinematic achievement, and ever since then, it has consistently failed to recover from this slithering slump. Last year’s Undercover veered dangerously close to terminating the series for good, so does Shift have the horsepower to jump start this age old franchise or is it about time it settled down for retirement?
First and foremost, this is unlike any recent iteration of NFS. Gone are the woeful storylines, open ended environments, police chases, poster babes and tasteless street racing vibe. Instead, with the assistance of Slightly Mad Studios who helped develop GTR 2 for the PC, what we have here is yet another new direction which sees NFS wanting to be a full blooded racing simulation, with a stark focus on tight circuit racing. It’s certainly a drastic shift (no pun intended) considering we are accustomed to the illegal street racing ways of the past, but then this also means that Shift is up against some very fierce competition, namely with Codemaster’s GRiD.
As I previously mentioned, there is no contrived storyline featuring live action “actors” this time around – the only real hint of a plot is that you take the role of an anonymous rookie racing driver with the ultimate goal of winning the world tour championship. Yes, it sounds terribly unoriginal, but this new approach makes the experience pleasingly more streamlined.
This is evident by how clear cut the career mode is, as every racing event is divided into a set of clearly defined tiers. There are four rising tiers in total, each of which contains a set of increasingly difficult events to compete in before you eventually make it to the game’s climactic world tour. Drivers race across an assortment of real world tracks, such as Laguna Seca, Brands Hatch and the infamous Nürburgring, along with a few fictitious tracks, such as an obligatory street course in London. At 18 tracks, there is no shortage in variety, but it is hardly an ambitious number. Having said that, the real life tracks are rendered with a splendid amount of authenticity for the most part, but in some cases, EA felt the need to EA-ify the designs to include some added scenery and abundant advertisements.
Along with standard lapped races and time trials, each tier combines a variety of race types, the highlight being Car Battles. Here, a predetermined head to head duel is orchestrated between two rival manufacturers, which make for some genuinely exhilarating races. Each Car Battle comprises of two main races, whereby you must either come first or stay ahead of your rival for five seconds, but if the result is a tie, then a final grueling race will settle the winner. The only real flaw to this system is the fact that if you can successfully ram the other racer off the track, then you’ve gained yourself an easy five second lead.
Drifting competitions do not fare quite as well however, and sadly feel jarringly out of place against the other contrastingly full throttle races. Like the Car Battles, you are required to complete three consecutive trials before your final score is allocated, but the problem is that Shift makes drifting seemingly impossible to execute. As with many of the other racing events, a car is selected for you with its own custom setup, but in this case, even the slightest tap of the throttle will result in the car losing control no matter how hard you try. It’s incredibly difficult to be precise when the physics are this erratic, and the overall tone of the mode feels like it would be more at home in 2007’s Pro Street.
Playing through Shift is a bit like sitting through an exam – everything is serious, humourless and relentless to the extreme. Even the game’s recurring voiceover is dreadfully dry, as he utters his mechanic, monotone voice of wisdom. In fact, the overlying tone is so serious, I’m surprised it doesn’t come bundled with a hardened pair of racing overalls. For some, the punishing nature of the game will arguably suck all of the fun out of the experience, but those who were bread with veins of crude oil will welcome Shift’s reliance on realism. But then if you fall into the latter category, the chances are you will feel embarrassed to admit you are playing a game under the NFS umbrella.
For example, the very first race acts as a driving test of sorts, measuring the default difficulty setting by basing it entirely on how well you drive, which is quite an innovative mechanic. However, this examination continues throughout every successive race, as the game constantly evaluates your performance with a particularly fine blot of red ink. Every action is noted down in real time, such as your racing line and cornering ability, which will accumulate a stream of points to determine your current racing rank in order to unlock further awards.
Further to this, the game will paint a driver profile based on your own individual driving style by categorizing you as either precise or aggressive, depending on how you drive. If you race cleanly and proficiently, the game will recognise you as a Christian racer, whereas driving viciously with no consideration for the other opponents will suitably dub you as a raving lunatic, which is also carried over to your online profile for all to fear. Naturally, I took advantage and went for the latter considering it’s hard to find a game of this nature which actively rewards you for obliterating the competition.
Finally, star ratings are the core of the career mode’s hierarchy, with each concurrent event requiring a certain amount of stars to progress. Finishing a race earns you stars, finishing at a podium position earns you more stars and completing the bonus objective of each race earns you… yes, you guessed it, more damn stars. All in all, there are lots of gold stars to be won; it’s a completist’s worst nightmare.
If all of that sounds overwhelming, then that’s because it is – as the game bombards you with all of your achievements at once after each race. Such meticulous evaluations can sometimes make you feel like “the man” is forever monitoring you with his scornful eyes. However, this system helps to give a sense of reward and progression, as you feel like you are continually advancing as a testament to your driving skill. The star ratings also add some compelling objectivity to races, but can feel like a chore to complete if you are after five star ratings for every last race.
But that’s enough about the game’s stringent academia. Where Shift really excels is through its gritty depiction of the undiluted racing experience, and its ability to sit you firmly in the front seat.
Take the cockpit view for example, which singlehandedly puts others to shame by adding a level of immersion that’s unfounded in other racing games. It is honestly like no other, because your point of view is actually from the driver as opposed to a standard static camera. As a result, the point of view shudders at high speed and various blur and depth of field trickery enhances the effect. The result is profound and this is only emphasised when you make a mistake – have a crash in Shift, you’ll feel it as the camera judders violently, and the driver even lets out a pathetic wince as he almost blacks out.
And then there’s the frightening sense of speed, which is absolutely colossal and easily one of the best illusions I have seen in a racing game. Push a top tier car to its limits and prepare to be mesmerised by the sheer sensation of velocity as the aforementioned effects work their magic. Coupled with the jostling aggression of the AI opponents, it all makes racing on the track intensely exciting for once. Naturally, you can also take the action online with up to eight players in either a standard quick race or the tournament esque Driver Duel, which is great fun and usually lag free.
It also sounds good. Since the developers have done a terrific job with the game’s audio, engine sounds are biblically brash and suitably bassy, it effectively makes Gran Turismo’s engine efforts seem considerably hollow.
But how does it drive? Well, Shift’s aspiration of realism dictates that the handling requires you to brake heavily on corners, giving the cars a heavy, and at times, sluggish feel. It takes some adjusting to, but in time, you can really tackle each track with a layer of satisfying precision, and if you find the handling too tough, then you can easily tone it down. The crash physics are not so commendable however, and can be downright bizarre at times. At one point, a single knock sent an unsuspecting Lotus Elise into an exaggerated rollover, which is certainly comical but hardly realistic.
Shift’s garage houses 72 of the most desirable exotic supercars, covering a wide range of manufacturers, such as Porsche, Bugatti (yes the Veyron makes an appearance) and the phonetically ambiguous Koenigsegg. They are all rendered well with some solid graphics overall, but sadly the damage modeling is disappointingly scarce, which after religiously playing DiRT 2, is disappointing. The frame rate also seemed to seriously dip during replays, and let’s not talk about the loading times.
It almost pains me to say it, but for once we have a NFS game that is worthy of purchase. It doesn’t quite have the flamboyance of GRiD or the class of Gran Turismo, but Shift is an encouraging and belated reboot for the struggling series. Presentation wise, it is a near faultless experience that captures the excitement and brutality of close racing at its most brilliantly raw moments. It’s a shame that its execution is so overbearing at times, but personally I’m still holding out for a Hot Pursuit 3.
The sense of speed is staggering and the car models are impressively detailed, but other games shine brighter in this regard.
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It effortlessly captures the soul of racing, resulting in a very intense, if all too serious, experience.
Put your foot down here and you certainly feel the effect. The engine sound effects are very well done and sound exactly like you would expect from a high performance racing car.
There are enough race events to keep you occupied, but the linear nature can be off putting. Online adds to the lifespan, but the options are too limited.
Shift certainly isn’t perfect nor is it as realistically accurate as it wants to be. What it does do, however, is make you almost feel the g-forces of racing and encapsulates that adrenaline rush like no other game of its genre – this alone makes it essential for racing fans. The fact I am saying that about a Need For Speed title is complimentary in its own right.