Need For Speed: ShiftESRB:
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Local single player
8 players online plus leaderboards
65+ cars, 18 real world locations (over 50 different track layouts)
Force feedback wheel support
Despite strong sales from year to year the Need For Speed series has not been immune to criticism, especially in recent years. Each new release seems to bring a different experience (some good, some awful) to the series, so in this sense Need For Speed suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. From police pursuits, the underground race culture, undercover cops, to a take on simulation racing, the varied offerings from year to year have left consumers wondering what Need For Speed really is about.
Enter Slightly Mad Studios as the developer for Need For Speed: Shift, the most recent release in the series. The focus this year being an enhanced driver’s experience intended to capture the raw feeling of driving a performance tuned car to the edge of control. Does it deliver as intended? Does Shift revive a lagging franchise? Read on!
My biggest criticism of past Need For Speed games hasn’t been the graphics, but rather the framerate. Most of the previous release’s have not been as smooth looking in this area, last years Undercover was just plain laughable, and race fans alike know that a smooth framerate really helps how a racing game plays and controls. Happily, Shift plays very smoothly in all viewpoints that you can race from. I found that there is a slight increase in speed and smoothness if you switch to the bumper view. Racing purists will appreciate this. More casual gamers need not worry though as the new cockpit view is very detailed and extremely playable.
With this new found silky smooth goodness you might wonder if the game makes some sacrifices in terms of details, well it does not. Car models are accurate and extremely detailed both inside and out. Even the GPS screen of a BMW is faithfully reproduced. As for the environments, they varied as well as rich in detail, texture, and even activity (e.g. stuff moving in background), giving them a sense of life. The latter is a little touch considering your attention is often directed to the racing, but it helps.
I am not sure the graphical touches around the driver’s perspective will be for everyone, but I thought they added a nice sense of immersion to the gameplay. These effects are muted in all the other viewpoints other then the cockpit, something that I wonder was done on purpose in an effort to get you to experience this new view. As I played I found that the hood viewpoint seems a bit high for my liking, almost as if it were a top-of-the-windshield and you could see over the roofs of your opponents. It is not a deal breaker, just something that I noticed and something I am sure the die-hard racing fan may notice too.
The developers were seemingly were intent to re-create the visceral experience of driving a performance tuned race car and this extends to Shift’s sound. Cars are loud and throaty and there are plenty of environmental sounds to enhance the experience. Tires scrub and squeal, wind rushes with ferocity at high speeds, and cars grind and crunch satisfyingly.
There is no soundtrack during race events. As a fan of race games that skew to the more realistic side of things this is something that I prefer. Drift events do feature a loud music soundtrack however. I am sure this is to try and capture the drift culture, but I found it distracting and wanted it off. All of this is wrapped up nicely in a 5.1 surround sound bow. People should find a lot to enjoy in the audio of this game.
A couple of years ago, the Need For Speed series made an attempt at bringing a sim-like racing feel in NFS: Pro Street. The game really wasn’t that great though. NFS: Shift feels like a successor to Pro Street in some ways. Street racing is out again in favour of track based racing. This time however the experience is far more refined and centers largely around the driver experience in both how the game is played and the goals you must achieve.
Shift has a very noticeable lack of any sort of story in the career mode. There is no live action cut scenes or cheesy acting, which I actually enjoyed, just straight out racing this time around. Cut scenes serve only to highlight new events and tiers in Shift. While many might applaud this I have always felt the story elements were one of the points of differentiation of Need For Speed from other racing series. I can’t say I’m entirely happy to see it gone; especially after a game like Race Driver was able to blend accessible sim-like physics with at least a bit of a story. That being said, it comes to personally choice rather you enjoy a story or just want a straight out racing game.
I found that the most evident addition to the gameplay is the cockpit view. Developer Slightly Mad has done a very good job of capturing an exceedingly nice viewpoint from in the car. The interiors are nicely detailed and there is a good field of peripheral vision as well. Kudos also for functioning rear and side mirrors in this view as well. While there is your standard third person, bumper, and hood views, clearly Shift is intended to be played from the cockpit view. This perspective mimics the movement of the driver’s head in reaction to the different g-forces encountered when racing. Go over some bumps and the camera bounces up and down. Take a hard bump or crash and your vision blurs for a moment or two depending on how severe the impact. When you reach high speeds your immediate surroundings blur while the track ahead stays crystal clear in a sort of ‘narrowing of focus’ at high speeds. All of this makes for a very immersive gameplay experience.
Progression through Shift stays true to the Need For Speed formula. You progress through different tiers of cars and races in an effort to get to the NFS World Tour. Each race has a value of a certain number of stars and progression through the career mode is based on each race having a certain number of stars as well. New events and car tiers are unlocked by earning certain star levels. All these stars are awarded for podium finishes (one for third, two for second, three for first), different race objectives, and driver profile point levels.
This year Need For Speed rewards you with driver profile points based on how you drive. You will be rated as either a Precision or Aggressive driver based on your race actions. For example, drive clean, hit your lines and avoid contact and you win Precision points. Bump and grind, draft and drift and you will earn you Aggressive points. These points combine in your driver profile to level up your driver through the career, quick event, and online modes. There are 50 driver levels in total. Each new level rewards you with sponsorships, new cars, new invitational events, and extra parts. During events, stars are awarded for hitting certain point levels. Usually two stars are available per event for this.
Each event usually features a race objective that will reward the player with a star as well. These objectives might be to run a clean lap on a tighter course, hold a drift for a certain length of time, or spin a specific number of cars off the track. These objectives offer an added element to each race and a reason to go back and replay races to earn all the stars there are to get. I did find it odd that some objectives force you to do things that may not be continuous with the type of driver profile that you want to develop. Having to spin four cars during a race does not do anything for a player trying to develop a Precision profile. Granted the player does not have to achieve that specific star, but I found this just a bit odd.
All of the customization that you have come to expect with the Need For Speed series remains intact. Players can upgrade cars as they see fit. This year several cars offer an additional Works level of upgrading once they have been fully upgraded the traditional way. Players will need a Works car for certain events as the game progresses. Something that I found to be a nice touch in Shift is that cars do not seem to lose value if you choose to sell them. This allowed me to get my money back from a Tier 1 car that I was able to at the beginning when acquiring and upgrading a higher level car later on in the game.
There are several event types to be found in Shift including the typical time attack, series, and manufacturer races that you find in other racing games. Drifting makes it return to Need For Speed as well, but I found it to be very tough to control and largely unenjoyable. In comparison, I loved the drifting in GRID. Also somewhat new this year is driver duels. These are similar to the canyon races found in NFS: Carbon and are best-of-three round head to head races with just one opponent. I found these races abnormally tough, almost non-continuous with the difficulty of the rest of the game.
So I am sure that you racing fans want one question answered: “How does this game drive?” Considering Need For Speed’s arcadey roots, Shift performs surprisingly well as a more realistic racer. Those looking for a true simulation feel won’t find it here though. Shift offers a rather accessible physics model that can be customized to any player’s skill level or anywhere in between. I would slot Shift in between GRID and Forza for those looking for just how “sim” the game feels. Shift’s AI is pretty tough too. Thankfully there isn’t a ton of rubber band AI as opponents won’t magically catch you if you are racing well. They are tough though and they will fight for their line and take chances. You will see the AI falter all well. Their back ends get loose, they will lock tires under braking, spin, crash and overshoot corners. The AI definitely does not follow a predetermined sterile race line and this makes for a great racing experience..
Shift offers a full suite of online options including support for up to eight players. A couple of nice features are a friends’ leaderboard and something called the Driver Duel Championship. The friends’ leaderboard shows if you currently have the best time in a specific event and allows the you to check your friend’s times for each track with just one button push. The Driver Duel Championship essentially recreates the Driver Duel from the career mode online in a sort of ladder matchup.
One last point of note is how different I found the game plays depending on whether you use a controller or a race wheel. With the Xbox 360 controller the cockpit view is the way to go. Gameplay is a bit slower and the experience perhaps a bit more immersive, with the extra visual touches based around the driver’s perspective and g-forces. Wheel owners and hardcore racers fear not though as the experience with the wheel, while different, is equally immersive but just for different reasons. First of all, the wheel seems most effective using the bumper cam versus the cockpit view. I found the controls with the wheel lagged ever so slightly in the cockpit view. In the bumper view the wheel control is far more precise. There is also a greater sense of speed found in this view which I feel helps the race wheel’s control precision. Force feedback seems a touch muted but using a wheel definitely showcases the game’s physics more so than using a controller. Either way you can’t go wrong as the game seems to offer something for both the casual and more serious race fan as well as a controller or wheel fan.
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