Need for Speed Shift is the first game in the reborn Need for Speed franchise, gone are the days of playing cops ‘n robbers and street racing, this time with developers Slightly Mad Studios (of GTR2 and GT Legends fame) the series is entering the same territory as Codemasters’ highly impressive GRID. While Shift is a very strong entry into the racing game genre, it falls short of what it could have achieved.
The main failing of the game lies in the career mode and the confusing array of ways in which your progress through the game is tracked. You have driver points which progress your character level, stars to unlock new races and plain old cash for all the car related purchasing you could ever dream of.
The ultimate goal of the game is to progress to the World Tour, to get there you will need to compete in several other tiers of events, if you win an event you earn stars and you are able to earn bonus stars by completing tasks such as earning 600 driver profile points or causing five cars to spin out. Your in-race actions, such as barging people off the road or following the racing line around a corner with some speed earn you driver profile points.
As you accumulate points in either aggressive or precision categories you will rise through the ranks of the game, each rank rewards you with something, be it more room in your garage or invitational events which give you the chance to earn some more stars. Of course you also earn money from each race in you finish in a good position and you can even earn badges once you have performed x amount of perfect starts or dirty overtakes.
All of this just comes across as clutter that is designed to appeal to those gamers who spend all day trying to get every last achievement in a game. It is just too much here though, the game would be much better and more streamlined if Slightly Mad Studios just did away with the badges totally and use either profile points or stars to track career progressions, not both.
One of the big features of the game is the driver profile points, and yes they are a novel feature, but for the large part they just get in the way. In a race you have a bar at the top of the screen constantly telling you where you are earning points, this clogs up a race interface which isn’t the best even without this. One of the easiest ways to accumulate points is through following the racing line, the trouble is that if, like me, you aren’t one to use pre-defined racing lines you will find yourself missing out on loads of points simply by taking the line that you think is best through the corners.
I have been critical yes, but that is just because these are the features which drag the game down, well them and drifting, but that is more personal dislike than a poor feature. The heart of the game, the racing is immense and really gives GRID a run for its money. There are plenty of ways in which you can tune the realism to your preference, turning the settings to Pro present a real challenge, especially compared to Normal. Simulation enthusiasts will find room to complain, but for most people the different levels provide a good learning curve.
The racing itself is physical, rival drivers are just that rivals, they will jostle with you and others for position and are certainly susceptible to sliding off the track without any interference from your fender and they are certainly willing to give you a nudge here and there. You will find that highlighted drivers in different series’ will seemingly run away with the lead, but you come to expect that from racing games, however annoying it can be. Another positive part of the racing is that you don’t have an annoying mechanic constantly shouting down the radio to you, you may get a short pre-race message talking about those aforementioned drivers, but once in the race you are free to put the pedal to the metal and let your engine roar.
Shift shines when it comes to its’ excellent drivers eye view. While you are stuck behind the steering wheel, you are able to turn your view in the cockpit to look out of the side windows, though that isn’t something you will want to do when you are driving at top speed when your view of the outside world and your dashboard blurs as you concentrate on the road. This effect can take a while to get used to, but it certainly adds something extra to the game and makes the speed feel more real, something which you lose when driving with the third-person camera.
A racing game wouldn’t be complete without some great racing tracks, and following the current trend of racing games you can drive the Green Hell of the original Nurburgring circuit along with several variations on the track. This is one of the most spectacular tracks in the racing world and it is an awesome experience to drive around it in Shift. There are a host of other great real world tracks such as Spa, Silverstone and Laguna Seca, these monuments of racing stand out from the crowd which is rather poor. Yes you can race around the streets of London, but sadly it feels a hollow experience, a problem you will find with other tracks built for the game.
Shift is visually impressive and the cars are extremely well modelled and when you use a pre-set sponsorship pain scheme they come to life as real racing machines. It is a shame then that they don’t suffer the impressive kind of visual damage you find in GRID, smashing into a wall at 150mph should do more than just disorientate you, your car should look like it has received some punishment with wheels hanging off and missing windows. However you have to really beat up your car in order for it to really look like it has been in battle.
Shift has problems, the driver points and stars system are too much for one, but one a whole the issues don’t ruin the game, but they do detract from the amazing driving experience that lies at the heart of Shift. This is a fine racer let down by other elements, a sign that mixing arcade and simulation styles doesn’t always pay off.