Hands-on: Need for Speed: Shift

icon_preview1Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing quite a few racing games. Grid, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, GTR2, rFactor, Initial D – they’re all very different from one another and together they cover pretty much every kind of car racing game there is. So when I played Need for Speed: Shift and found that it was unlike any other racing game I’ve ever played, I knew that it was the game at fault, and not me.

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When I first saw the game in action, I was 20 feet away from the screen watching someone else play, and even from a distance there seemed to be something very wrong with the way the cars moved. When I got my hands on it, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that cars understeer as well as oversteer excessively. At times, you’ll be driving flat out around the gentlest of bends and suddenly lose the back end, while at others, you’ll push the analog stick all the way to one side and the car just won’t turn.

Now you probably think I’m overreacting, and that the videos you’ve seen so far don’t look that bad. You’re right, they don’t. But all the videos you’ve probably watched show the game being played from the cockpit view. So you don’t really see how your car moves around the track until you switch to the chase cam. The car just seems to float from side to side and it seems like there’s no contact between the wheels and the track surface, giving you this very unsettled feeling of having very little control over proceedings.

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It isn’t the cars either. I tried the slow and nimble Nissan 240SX and, if I remember correctly, the quicker and edgier BMW 320i. But in Shift, both handled like elephants. In any racing game, be it Burnout or Forza, even the slightest push on the analog stick would reflect in the car’s steering, but not in Shift. So you push it a little more, and it still won’t budge, continuing on its straight path on a winding road. Then you nudge it a little further, and before you know it, you lose the back end and with it all control over the car as it drifts off the track.

In other games, you can see oversteer coming, but here its like a nasty surprise when you least expect it. It’s bizarre how you can go from traveling in a straight line to moving sideways in a split second; in a leisurely stock 240SX no less. What worried me is that even in games with poor controls, over time you can adjust to it. But after several races, I just couldn’t figure out what this game needed me to do to keep the car on track, and that was infuriating.

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I honestly don’t care whether they make Need for Speed an arcade racer or a simulation, as long as they make it right. Even if they found middle ground and dropped it in PGR and Grid territory, that would be just fine. But Shift doesn’t do that. It really does try to be an all out simulation like EA promised, and even without the control issues, this is a far cry from the Need for Speed games we’ve grown accustomed too. Even with all assists on, it’s no cakewalk. The build I played only allowed me to turn ABS, traction control, and stability control on and off, and the car handling I’ve described above is with all three turned on. With them off, it’s pretty much unmanageable.

Controls aside, Shift is quite a visual step up from past games in the series. It isn’t quite in the same league as Grid or Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, but it does look pretty sharp, even if the screen we were playing the game on didn’t do it any favours. The menus and presentation were nothing out of the ordinary, and we weren’t able to try out any other cars because everything besides the Nissan and the BMW were locked.

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The upside to not being able to keep my car on track though was that I could check out the new first person driver perspective. I quite liked the way the camera would bob and weave as the car moved from side to side or how it would zoom in and out as I braked and accelerated. The momentary disorientation you experience when you crash is also pretty cool, but I didn’t see the point of having it when you’re playing using the chase cam. Damage was there too, although it was only cosmetic and in that too it was pretty basic. There wasn’t too much indentation and parts didn’t come off; just scratches, cracked windshields and minor bumps.

But visual overhauls aside, the signs aren’t good for Need for Speed: Shift. With a team that is more than capable of delivering a great racing game, I was expecting something a lot better than this. There’s just a little over two weeks to go for release, and I don’t see how they can turn this around. My hope is that either (because I wasn’t able to spend too much time with it) I’ve completely misread the game or this is a really old and unpolished build. We were told we’ll have a demo in early September, so I guess that will answer a lot of questions. Don’t get your hopes up though; Shift doesn’t look like the shot in the arm this ailing franchise so desperately needs.

Title: Need for Speed: Shift
Developer/Publisher: Slightly Mad Studios/EA
Genre: Racing
Rating: 3+
Release date: September 17, 2009
Platforms: PS3,
Xbox 360, PSP, PC

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