The speed climbs from 100 km/h to 120, then 130. Snatching another gear it increases even further – well beyond 150 km/h, into 4th and up to 200 km/h and still no let up in acceleration. The BMW developed V12 screams as it hits 7500 rpm, time for another gear. The car starts to squirm all over the track; I have to make small corrections to the steering to keep it straight. My sight goes all blurry as I hit 300 km/h – I take a deep breath and stamp my foot (left index finger) on the brake (L2). Again, the car starts to fidget on its Michelin tires as I wrestle it to a lower speed. I turn in to the corner, clip the apex and exit out of the other side on full opposite lock in a torrent of smoke, sweat and adrenaline. This is Need for Speed: Shift at its very brilliant best.
If EA wanted to (and let’s be honest, it needed to) reinvigorate interest in its ailing Need for Speed franchise, then this is the way to do it. In its 15 years of existence, the series has constantly evolved from simple point-to-point racing in Lamborghinis to street racing in pimped up Mitsubishi Evos. It’s an amazing feat that EA have managed to pull it off for so long, keeping the series fresh and firmly at the top of the Christmas sales charts. However, over the past two incarnations, the Need for Speed franchise has been flagging, with last year’s Need for Speed: Undercover being a low point for me: the game was buggy, didn’t handle very well and the very concept of big rims, a pumping soundtrack and a poor Fast and Furious aping story had grown very tired. But now, on the back of several new IPs and the re-incarnation of Madden and FIFA, EA has turned its attention to its premier racing title, with Need for Speed: Shift.
With a new development team at the wheel, London’s Slightly Mad Studios, a group with vast experience with the PC racing games GTR 2 and GT Legends, the idea was simple. Start afresh and reboot the series. In principle, Shift does just that – the feel of the game is completely different to previous NFS titles – Shift is hard edged, streamlined, more focused and all the better for it.
The game follows you, a rookie racer, progressing through the ranks and a variety of different racing events with the ultimate aim of becoming the Need for Speed World Tour Champion. There are 4 Tiers of racing to go through before you enter the big NFS World Tour challenge and within each tier there are a series of events to partake in ranging from traditional racing, to time trials, drifting and head to head battles. The way the game is structured certainly isn’t revolutionary, but to help you through the game offers you a few invitational events as your make progress. If say, for example, you are in the very first Tier (driving cars like the Chevy Cobalt) to ease the pain there will be a couple of invitational events where you can do a single race in a Tier 3 car. It is a nice way of breaking up the progression and giving you real incentive to continue through the ranks.
As you work your way through the various races, the game constantly analyses your actions – it may be the way you overtake, the number of crashes or how many corners you drive on the correct racing line. You will then be given points accordingly and given either a Precision or an Aggression rating. The more points you accumulate, the more your driving level increases and the more rewards you get. There are also Stars to collect, which are awarded for finishing within the top 3 and for completing a set task (for example, master every corner or lead the race for an entire lap). Achieving more Stars unlocks later tiers and events. It may sound a little convoluted, but in action the XP system works very well and means that you actually have to drive well and not just win the race alone in order to succeed.
So, that’s the basics covered, but how does it drive? At first, the handling feels a little odd: the back end of the car seems to be very light and saps away any confidence and you find yourself unsure as to whether the car is going to slide or not. While there are driving aids to help novice drivers, the cars behave in a much more polite and forgiving way without them. Of course, you can lose it completely without the safety net, but the handling is predictable and ultimately more rewarding with everything set to “off”. Once you’ve got your head around the way the cars drive, it’s very satisfying to win a race and nail every bonus objective. The cars sound great as well and added to the brilliant in-car view (which is extremely detailed in every car), you get a real sense of immersion that other racing games strive to achieve, but ultimately never reach.
But even better than the way the cars drive is the game’s sense of speed, with even my basic Volkswagen Scirocco feeling fast. In real life terms this is a quick car, but in pretty much every racing game the beginner cars always feel pedestrian. Not in Shift. The first time you drive a Lotus Elise (around the original Nurburgring no less) the speed really does blow you away, and ditto the McLaren F1. All in all, the cars feel, drive and sound brilliant and you become at one with the car and the track, but if this all sounds very positive, sadly it’s not all good news. To put it bluntly, aside from the in car view the game isn’t particularly pretty and it’s certainly no Gran Turismo in the looks department with rough edges and some nasty framerate issues in the faster cars. So, with the game running at 30fps you’d expect damage modeling to rival DiRT 2, right? All the preview videos showed exciting crashes and cars flipping end over end, but in reality the maximum damage you will get is a stray bumper or losing your bonnet – most of the time, no matter how big a crash, all that will happen is a cracked windscreen.
To compensate, when you do crash, the colour drains to just black and white and the camera shakes violently. It’s a brilliant effect, but the noise a car makes when an impact happens is more of a snap than a thud. As for cars rolling over, it happens all too often – sometimes, a moderate nudge in the right place will send a car, quite literally, flying through the sky which takes away any real weight from the vehicles and makes it seem like they are full of helium. But, these are just little niggles. What is much worse is the incessant bouncing bug that seems to have escaped testing – be in a quick car (in my case a Porsche 991 GT3) on a tight track and the car literally bunny hops around. It’s not realistic and at its very worse can make a car completely undrivable. It tends not happen on a nice open and wide track like Donington, but sometimes it is extremely infuriating.
It’s a shame really that there are these issues because Need for Speed Shift is a definite improvement over recent titles in the series and is absolutely a solid racer in its own right – a real surprise and a very good racing game that finally leaves the underground tuner mentality and aims straight for the racetrack. There’s a huge range of vehicles and tracks, a solid career mode, online play that complements the single player very well, a great racing engine and some nice little touches like your PSN friends being able to see if you are in 1st or last on their friends list. But ultimately, it’s let down a little on the last lap by a series of minor problems that can sometimes get in the way of the racing. That said, EA should be proud of what they have achieved and they have a very strong platform to build upon. Bring on Need for Speed: Shift 2.
Graphics: In car view is stunning, but outside the car is less impressive. A few background items pop-up, the cars themselves lack a little detail and there are frame rate issues: 7/10
Sound: Wonderful noises from the more exotic vehicles. Typical EA soundtrack only in replays though, leaving the menus a little characterless: 8/10
Gameplay: Apart from the odd bouncing abnormality, the weight, feel and accuracy of the cars is spot on with a real sense of drama: 9/10
Overall: Need for Speed: Shift is far from perfect, however it has real soul and you can tell the developers have a real passion for racing. A little more EA polishing would make this the best racing game around.