Mario Andretti famously said, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough”. Few racing games have managed to nail that sensation of being on the edge of control at top speed the way Need for Speed: Shift does. Sure, this has more to do with visual effects and camera animations than the way the cars themselves behave, but the first time you near a hairpin after a long straight at 250 kmph, you will genuinely fear the consequences of being even a fraction late getting on the brakes. And when you perfectly negotiate that corner despite this fear looming large, the feeling of accomplishment is brilliant. Need for Speed: Shift then, makes a great first impression. The question is, though, is it a lasting impression?
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Unfortunately, no. Shift is a massive improvement over the three games from the Need for Speed series that came before it (although that’s not exactly hard to accomplish). But while it does a lot of things right, it does an equal number of things wrong or inadequately.
Let’s get to the car handling first. The racing simulation club on consoles (especially this generation) is an exclusive one, and one where it is nearly impossible for a new entrant to gain acceptance, with Forza and Gran Turismo bullying away anyone else that tries; just ask SimBin or System 3. So the folks over at Slightly Mad Studios have been very clever in not using the S-word. Instead, they call Need for Speed: Shift a ‘realistic action racer’. But they’ve made their intentions and their target audience very clear over the last few months by calling out Forza and Gran Turismo for their apparent lack of realism.
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That didn’t seem like the smartest thing to do at the time, and it seems even more foolish now, because in terms of realism, it doesn’t come close to either one of them. Instead, it tries to toe the line between arcade and simulation, which the PGR games did brilliantly in the past. Shift offers various levels of driving assists that will either make driving very easy or quite challenging. But at the easiest setting, it won’t win over those who loved recent Need for Speed games, and at the hardest setting, it won’t impress the hardcore. It falls uncomfortably in between, where it’s too much of a grind for the Burnout lover, but not true enough to entice the purist. It isn’t bad by any means and most people who spend enough time with the game will really start to enjoy it. But it doesn’t play like the Need for Speed games we’re used to so it will alienate a few people.
In that sense, it is closer to a simulation than an arcade racer, and everything else in the game backs that up that façade. There are close to 20 locations to race in and they’re comprised of mostly real-world circuits like Spa and Laguna Seca, with a few fictional tracks and city circuits thrown in for good measure. There are about 60-70 cars to drive in the game, and barring the Ferraris, there’s pretty much everything you could want. You also have the options to fit your cars with performance upgrades and customise their look with vinyls, custom paint jobs, and rims. EA have come out of their The Fast and the Furious syndrome, so there’s no sign of a poor story with a wafer-thin plot and talentless cast. Shift is all about the racing. You buy cars, upgrade them and compete in races around the world. Performing well earns you money to buy more cars and upgrades, and advances your skill level to unlock more events.
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There’s also the driver profile, which starts out as a really cool feature, but a few races in, it exposes itself as nothing more than a superficial representation of your driving style. Essentially, it aims to, based on your driving style, identify you as either an aggressive or precise driver, and the AI supposedly, but not really, alters its behaviour depending on which side you fall. There’s also a levelling system, and as you level up, you gain perks like extra cash, bonus cars, and garage space to buy more. What makes the system ineffective is that whether you stick to one driving style or keep switching in every race, you will level up just as fast, because even if you’re billed as a precise driver, you’ll still get rewarded for driving dirty, which makes the driver profile feature largely useless.
Career progression is done through tiers. You start out in Tier 1, where the tracks are simple and the cars less powerful, and things get more complex as you progress through the tiers. You also unlock invitational events that let you experience cars and tracks that are higher than your current tier. It keeps you hooked for the first few races, but its ruined by the fact that you get rewarded way too much too early on, so before you even complete the Tier 1 events, you will have already unlocked Tier 3 cars and events. The career mode structure is a simple event list, so there’s no real incentive to play through a tier when you’ve already unlocked the next one, as well as enough dough to buy a car (or two) good enough to compete at the next level. You will soon start to miss the shallow storylines and hammy acting of NFS games past.
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Before getting to the event types, there’s something peculiar about the way cars handle that needs to be mentioned. They drift. A lot. Even when they shouldn’t. It’s clearly a game design decision taken by the developers to keep the player in the game, so to speak. While in most simulations, turning or braking too late will send you onto the grass and/or into a barrier, here, the cars drift at the slightest provocation, sacrificing speed to keep you on the track. In practice, however, it’s very disconcerting, because there are times when you could do everything right and the car will still oversteer, and doing away with assists doesn’t change matters either. What makes it worse is that the AI will drive flawlessly, making you feel quite helpless because the only way you can avoid the excessive oversteer is to go into a turn very slow, allowing the AI to easily overtake.
Next page: Race modes, online, and IVG verdict