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US, September 10, 2009 - EA's Need for Speed franchise has had its up and downs. Unfortunately, the past few years has been one of those "down" bits, with the last couple games doing nothing to advance the series in any way that you would call good. So, something had to be done, and EA decided to hand off the reins to Slightly Mad Studios, the folks behind the PC racing series GTR, to create Need for Speed Shift. So did the changing of the guard pay off?
Oh, yes it did, and in a huge way.
There are so many things done right in terms of design that this feels like the freshest take on the "simulation" racing genre in many, many years. I put the word "simulation" in quotes because while Need for Speed Shift is undoubtedly closer to that end of the racing spectrum than, say, Burnout, Slightly Mad made some very smart choices in deciding what would be realistic and what wouldn't. The result is that the team is essentially giving you a racing experience that is extremely close to the real thing in terms of presentation, while keeping the controls just arcadey enough to allow relative newcomers a much easier entryway into the game than the likes of Gran Turismo.
Click the image to watch our video review.
Let me step back a little bit before delving into the racing experience. NFS Shift returns to the track-based racing of old (and ProStreet) rather than the open-world stuff seen in most of the modern titles. You'll find mainstays like Laguna Seca, Willow Springs and Nurbergring as the backdrops to your tire burning, and each of these are brought to life excellently. They're not 100% accurate compared to their real-world counterparts however as Slightly Mad has tweaked the scenery to provide more compelling views in spots that were a little drab, but the course layouts are indeed intact, which is what's important. Given the course selection in the game (totalling somewhere around the 20 track mark), it's of little surprise that practically every meter of road in the game is fun to drive.
Unlike pretty much every modern day Need for Speed title, there's zero story involved, and I'm very happy about that. The closest thing you're going to get to some sort of tale is the voiceover that you'll hear at the start of the game, telling you that you've been given a chance to prove yourself in a BMW M3 around Brands Hatch before winning some cash and choosing your own ride. After that, the voice only returns to explain new events and the like, but never to tell you that the cops are on your tail or that your love interest can introduce you to some jackass in a garage. Nope, this pretty much as pure of a racing game as you can find, and I for one am very thankful for that.
That's not to say that the experience is drab. On the contrary, there's fantastic and somewhat atmospheric music in the menus, a generally slick interface all around and some stylistically edited videos to introduce new events. It's the sort of stuff that will keep your blood pumping between events without getting in the way.
The cockpit view is stellar.
All of that is great, but pales in comparison to what happens when you get behind the wheel of a car. And let me just say that you should get behind the wheel and not race from a third-person camera because the cockpit view is what makes NFS Shift stand out from the extremely competitive racing genre and come into its own. Slightly Mad has created an extraordinarily good cockpit view for the game, one that makes you feel like you're actually in the seat of a horsepower-bleeding supercar.
Rather than remaining static, the view shifts and undulates slightly when the gas or brakes are applied. Sitting at the starting line and revving the engine can rock the vehicle back and forth, and slamming on the brakes to take a tight corner will throw your view forward towards the dashboard. It's a dynamic camera that moves to impart the inertia and g-forces that you'd feel while racing. Fortunately, it's not overdone to the point where it'll make you sick; it's subtle enough that you know that it's happening, but may forget about it after a while. But, go into the same view in most any other racer and you'll realize what you're missing.
Perhaps the coolest bits come when you crash as your view is tossed around, the colors fade out (and then back in as you recover) and your vision blurs. Again, it's not done to the point that it'll make you vomit all over your controller, but it does a very good job to let you know that you've just totaled a $200,000 automobile.
This exceptional cockpit view extends to the game's sense of speed. When you're doing 150mph, you know it. When you're doing 200+mph, you'll get scared. More than pretty much any other racing game I've ever played (and I've played a lot), NFS Shift makes you respect speed. When you get into the later races in the game and get behind the wheel of a Zonda R, Bugatti Veyron or Koenigseggisseggggnignigsegigisegggg CCX, you will actually consider taking your foot (or finger) off the gas in a slight bend because you can feel the car start to get loose. Slight undulations in the road that were previously unfelt will cause your car to lose traction for a split-second, which is enough to send it into the wall. It's a startling feeling, one that's rare in racing games and one of the biggest elements that separates real driving from its virtual counterpart. You still don't get the feeling of fearing for your life, but I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.
The game's sense of speed is very good.
The brilliant part here, and this goes back to what I had mentioned about Slightly Mad doing a fantastic job of deciding which elements of the game to make more realistic vs. arcadey, is that while you'll feel like you're out of control, you actually have a lot of control over your car at all times. The game's driving mechanics are at the same time very forgiving while also rewarding to those who respect speed and each car's limits. The line between being in or out of control is way closer to your car's limits than it would be in a more hardcore simulation racer, which allows you to push your rides further than you would otherwise be able to do without needing an excessive amount of skill. But, to get those last few horses to work for you, you'll still need to really dial in your abilities. So the end result is that it's easier for newcomers to be able to push their vehicles, but there's still that element of needing to practice and hone your skills to be very good. Fantastic stuff in this department, to be sure.
So the driving mechanics and sense of speed are fantastic, but let me now get into the sound because it is awesome. A lot of other racers have great engine samples, nice crashing effects and so forth, but very, very few actually get the mix of all of this correct. If you're driving around town in your day-to-day car and brake a little late into a turn or push your tachometer a little high before disengaging the clutch then you might get some nice tire squeals. Those squeals, however, are nothing like what you hear at a track, especially when you're inside of a supercar. Those squeals sound like the rubber is alive and being torn from the axel while also being burning alive. It's a raw sound that is not unlike what war in Hell would sound like were it taking place underneath your car, and pretty much no racing game on the market conveys this correctly.
Need for Speed Shift actually does, and it's music to the ears. Or, actually it's extremely grating, but that's the point. If you have your volume up to the appropriate level (past where the physical dial tries to you let you turn it) then you will get a deafening introduction to what these engines sound like when there are only inches of steel, cloth and/or leather between you and 600+ horsepower in the back seat. I'm sure there will be some people out there who buy this game and think that the sound isn't as good as their grandmother's racer, but they're dead wrong. This is how it should be done.
Oh, and as a nice "we want you to hear the cars" nod, the music is turned off by default in races. Thank you.
Fortunately, the AI holds up its end of the bargain and puts on a good show.
Now, as I previously mentioned, Need for Speed Shift isn't the most accurate racer around. I have driven a few of the cars in the game and the handling, feeling of weight and all that just isn't as accurate as what you'll find in the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo. It's not bad by any stretch of the meaning, but it isn't accurate. However, in this case, I don't care nearly as much as I would in other simulation-slanted racers. The driving experience is so close to the real thing that I can't bring myself to nit-picking over the finer details of how the Civic Si in the game does not feel like the same car I drive to work every day. The feeling of weight might be off, but if I were to take it up to 150mph at Laguna Seca, I'm pretty damn sure this is exactly what it would look and sound like, which is exactly what Slightly Mad was going after.
One area that I didn't like in terms of the driving mechanics, however, is with the drift events. Here, the physics simulation feels completely different, and punching the gas will cause your car to spin out even at the starting line. Vehicles are set up to be extremely slippery and it's your job to be careful and caress them through the corners. I found it to be extremely difficult to keep my car in check, often oversteering way, way too much even though I barely had my finger on the gas. I would have greatly preferred to have tackled this the other way around, where you need to work to get your car into a spin and over-rev in order to keep the tail out rather than having the game try to make you spin out and have you fight to keep the car in check. Fortunately, the career mode is set up in such a way that you can skip these without much of an issue.
The car models are generally fantastic.
The career mode is set up in a rather brilliant fashion in that it rewards you for doing pretty much anything. You'll earn stars for your finishing place in events, meeting point requirements while racing and completing a special per-event goal (like mastering all of the corners). These stars accumulate over your career and are what unlock the successive tiers in the game (i.e. harder events and better cars). You'll also earn profile points, which are sort of like the Kudos that you would earn in the PGR games, except that they're awarded for much more than just showboating. Stick to the racing line and you'll get points. Take a corner well and you get points. Drafting gets you points. Overtaking a car gets you points. Slamming into a car gets you points... You get the idea. Basically, you can just race and completely ignore the scoring system and you'll rack up a ton of profile points regardless of how you approach the game. While stars earn you more events to race in and new cars to buy, profile points net you things like additional parts for your cars, bonus cash and even free cars from time to time.
The result of this is that regardless of where you place in an event, you'll have earned something. This is a very good thing in that it keeps you going even when you know that you're going to lose. One cool extension of this is that it applies to both online and offline racing. You rack up the same bank account and points total regardless of what you're doing, so you can help advance your career while playing online, which is obviously nice.
Don't race from a third-person view - the in-car camera is what this game was designed for.
The career mode isn't perfect, though. One problem is that there are only 60-some-odd cars in the game, so it's not really a collector's dream. The selection here is great though, so you'll definitely find stuff you like. However, there's a fairly distinct "best" car in each class, and assuming you have the money when you unlock a new class, buying that car pretty much negates the need to ever buy the others. You can upgrade and tweak any car in the game to stay competitive, though why would you buy an Aston Martin V8 Vantage when a Corvette Z06 becomes available at the same time and absolutely trounces it?
Obviously there's a cost difference, though as I played through the career mode, I never had an issue with cash. It would sometimes be close, but I always had enough money to buy the best car in a new class that I never had to deal with second-best and upgrade later. Granted, I didn't spend a whole lot of money on upgrades (which can get costly) because I was doing well enough with the stock models, but still, I didn't exactly spend much time at the dealership.
Fortunately, the game does mix things up quite a bit for you in that there are specialized events where you're given a specific car (or a choice of only a couple) to drive, so while you might not ever purchase a 350Z, you'll drive one a few times in events that feature it. I do like this element quite a bit, though again, I wish that I had to spend more time managing my stable of vehicles, slowly upgrading them over time and then finally purchasing a better car and reaping the benefits. In this respect, Gran Turismo this is not.
This sort of leads me to my own subjective view of the career mode in that it feels more "checklist-y" than I would like. I'm sure a lot of people will be fine with the set up, but for me I found that I never really went back to complete earlier races and always just kept going forward - I was simply working through all of the available events until I had completed them all with a decent number of stars. There aren't really events that require that you own specific cars (since car-specific events give you the appropriate ride), so you won't really go back down a class to compete in an event that you finally bought or earned a qualifying car for.
The driving mechanics feel especially great around corners.
So again, the career mode feels more like I'm going through a "to do" list in a mostly linear order (though you always have a lot of events you can choose from) rather than hopping around, trying out different stuff and building up my stable of cars. Again though, I'm sure a lot of folks will find this perfectly acceptable, and maybe even preferable to a more open-ended setup, though it was certainly worth mentioning as I'm sure I won't be alone.
The last thing that I want to mention before wrapping this up is that while the online mode for the game doesn't offer a huge number of options, it's really fun. There's a basic Quick Race option (both ranked and unranked) which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect. But then you have a Driver Duel mode, which plays out sort of like a King of the Hill match. There are a handful of levels in the ladder that you're trying to climb, and you start at the bottom faced off against another racer at the same level. You'll both be in the same car (which is randomly chosen for you), and the car and track match the level that you're on. So on the first level, you'll be in pokey rides on easy tracks, while at the top you'll be in supercars on the most technical courses. The interesting thing here is that if you lose, you go all the way back down to the bottom. It's fun and fast-paced enough to keep you going for a good while.
Online play is fun, but limited.
Need for Speed Shift is a glorious return to greatness (and even excellence) for EA's seminal racing franchise. Slightly Mad Studios has delivered a driving experience that, while not completely accurate in terms of its simulation aspects, is practically dead-on in terms of what it's like to race around some of the world's best racing circuits. The career mode could (and should) have been a little better, but the act of driving is basically phenomenal.
IGN Ratings for Need for Speed Shift (PC)
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out of 10 click here for ratings guideGet Ratings Information
Minimal but still heart-pumping.
Stellar visuals all around that look sharpest on the PC version.
Brilliantly executed in pretty much every respect.
The driving experience is incredible, and the controls are practically perfect for this approach. But, the career mode is lacking.
7.5 Lasting Appeal
Lots of events to partake in, but the career mode won't keep you racing for hundreds of hours like some of the competition. The online is very fun, but minimal in options.
(out of 10 / not an average) See All Award Recipients