The Need for Speed series has worn a number of faces, especially in the last decade or so. Initially a simple arcade racer, we've seen Need for Speed games that place you in the shoes of the police and in the significantly-more-expensive-shoes of the undergwith round street racers. Now, with Need for Speed Shift, the series is tackling previously unknown territory, that of realistic simulation racers. Until now, Need for Speed isn't a name you'd associate with genre-leaders such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, but does Shift have what it takes to change all that?
Did we say simulation racers? That's not entirely accurate. Sure, at first the selection of closed-circuit tracks and professional racing cars give the impression that this is as straight-laced as a strict-simulation game, but there's a little more to it than that. The game sits between this appearance and the arcade racers of the series' past, meaning that while the realistic driving mechanics and look of the game may indicate a Gran Turismo clone, it sure doesn't feel like one. Instead of harmlessly bouncing off walls or gaining penalties for crashing into opponents, its possible to rear-end someone, flip their car over and be rewarded for it, something you wouldn't normally expect to see.
The driving mechanics of the game are very solid. Many racing fans may be furious that they may not be entirely accurate, although the cars do feel like they have the appropriate weight. However, everything is adjustable to suit your needs, and overall we walked away very happy with the feel of the cars. This is important, because it provides a great foundation for the main premise of the game, which gives players the freedom to choose the style of driving most suited to them. It's mentioned very early in the game that there are two main areas in which the player will be rewarded - 'Aggression' and 'Precision'. If you're an aggressive driver, you'll be rewarded for tapping other cars out of the race, sending them spinning out of control, and drifting around corners at breakneck speed. Precision drivers will find themselves gaining points for perfect corners and following the perfect racing line. The best part is that the player doesn't have to assign himself completely to either of these sides, as you gain points in both 'Aggression' and 'Precision' as you race, which you can keep track of thanks to a handy meter at the top of the screen.
In the game's career mode, you can earn points in either of these categories as well as badges. You can also level up your driver profile to earn entry into higher tiers of races, by collecting points and stars, which are awarded based on how well you drove and how highly youre placed. As you start the game, you'll only have access to three events, each with about five races, but as you progress you'll find yourself racing in many, many more events, with your eye on the grand Need for Speed tournament. In addition to simple races, you'll occasionally be invited to special events, where you'll participate in elimination races, time trials, special sponsorship races and other variations on the formula which spice up the pace of the game. Perhaps its not quite as meaty as more 'proper' simulation games, but we doubt anyone will be left unhappy.
Thankfully, this is the first Need for Speed game in a while that doesn't have a story. You'll simply hear your objectives being stated to you over the crackly intercom of some manager or co-driver or formless racing-buddy, who teaches you the ropes of the gameplay and the progression system. It's a remarkable step up, although his low-quality static-y voice can begin to grate after a while. There is a simple menu system that helps you sort out which events have been unlocked and which cars are in your garage. Stylistically, the game takes a few cues from GRID but this is not a bad thing at all.
As we mentioned before, the game has a steady stream of rewards for the player, not just in the form of trophies and achievements, but also in content you can use in the game. You'll constantly be unlocking new decals, or paint finishes, or just plain simple money you can use to buy one of the seventy-two cars on offer, most of which are very appropriately chosen and display a good variety. The never ending stream of rewards both enhances and shifts the game a little bit away from simply being a 'collection' game as the Gran Turismo series has become known, as a casual player could boot up the game, play as aggressively as they want, and unlock some cool paint jobs for their cars. Tuning and customisation is also present in the game, although due to the title's more-arcadey focus it is optional, but very functional for those who want to dig into that sort of thing. A strange addition is the ability to purchase cars using Microsoft Points on the Xbox 360 version of the game, instead of in-game currency, although we don't see this feature being used by anyone when they could simply enjoy the game and unlock cars that way. Finally, the online multiplayer present in the game isn't anything exceptionally different, although there is a lot of fun to be had with the Driver Duels and standard Quick Race mode on offer.
Hey Forza, I'm real happy for ya and I'mma let you finish, but my music in Shift is the greatest racing game music of all time!
One area in which Need for Speed Shift does shine is in its presentation. While the cars may not be the highest quality models we've ever seen, with some low resolution textures and bodies, they nonetheless look quite dazzling under the superb lighting and realistic locations in the game. You'll race from standard motorways to cities like London, and while these locations may not always be accurate, they'll get the atmosphere down pat pretty well. The cockpit view of these cars is also outstanding, and this is one of the few games we've played where we haven't wanted to switch views (which, rest assured, you can), as the cockpits for every car are marvelously detailed as are the driver's animations. The cockpit view moves as the car turns corners and hits bumps, and blurs as you hit high speeds. When you crash, your vision blurs and fades as your driver presumably regains consciousness, which is a great effect and an appropriate punishment for careless driving. The sound effects all have a lot of punch, and the music (when you turn it up, as its off by default) is great as well, with tracks from artists like Kanye West.
Overall, while Need for Speed Shift appears to be aiming at providing a simulation-racing experience, it obviously hasn't forgotten about the series' core fan-base, making a game that can be enjoyed by just about any kind of racing game fan. The 'Aggression'/'Precision' system sees you constantly rewarded by playing the way you want to play, and the game's presentation, especially the cockpit view, will leave many eyeballs satisfied (if not totally violated, like others in the simulation genre). If you've been waiting for the new Forza or Gran Turismo sequels to hit, you might want to spare some time for Shift, as it proves to be a more than worthy contender that is absolutely worth a look for some thrills on wheels. Dare we say, this is the one time when it's good to be... shift-y? You're right, that's lame.