Reviewed: September 14, 2009
Released: September 15, 2009
I’ve been a big fan of the Need for Speed series since the first game released in 1994. Over the past 15 years EA has delivered just as many sequels – some good (Hot Pursuit), some great (Porsche Unleashed), and some not so great (ProStreet). They even tried to take the franchise online with Motor City Online in 2001 – a grand concept, but a bit ahead of its time. One thing is for certain. The games that work best usually involve street racing and usually have some sort of police presence, which was probably why ProStreet in 2007 was a pretty miserable experience.
But EA bounced right back with Undercover, returning us to the streets and adding a fairly exciting story told through stylish FMV cutscenes. Nothing could beat tearing through the massive maps, complex cities, winding mountain roads, chasing or being chased by cops. So I was understandably concerned when I learned that the new Need for Speed: Shift was taking us back to the “legalized” world of circuit racing. No traffic, no cops, no helicopters, no roadblocks, no fun…or so I thought.
My biggest concern was that there are so many “serious” racing games already available and Shift appeared to look like yet another GriD, or Forza, or PGR, and in many ways it does resemble all those series, but like they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the guys who created NFS: Shift must be a huge fan of all things racing because this title destroys the competition for both serious and arcade racing games.
NFS: Shift offers something for race fans of all types. You can tweak the seriousness of the racing, not only with the initial difficulty setting but also configuring your damage model to none, visual only, or a realistic mode that will certain affect your performance the more damage you rack up. But perhaps the most unique new offering is the Driver Profile, a karma system (for lack of a better word) that tracks how well, or how dangerous you drive.
Throughout the course of the lengthy (perhaps “massive” is a better word) career mode you will slowly earn profile points for driving well (precision) or driving recklessly (aggressive). Both points feed into your sum score that will slowly rank you up through the 50 levels of professional driving, but individually, they will tip the scales of how you are perceived by the competition and just what race events you are invited too and who you'll be racing against.
Precise drivers are invited to speed and time trial events where you have to hold the racing line and avoid hitting other cars or the wall to win the event. Reckless drivers will likely find the Elimination or Knockout events more to their liking with like-minded computer opponents that will smack you around the track. You also have one-on-one driver events and manufacturer trials where certain automakers will pit two cars against each other in a best of three match where to win, you have to gap the other driver by five seconds or simply cross the finish line first.
There are four tiers leading up to the grand finale of racing. Each tier is broken down into several events of various types such as racing, drift, time trial, and the aforementioned manufacturer events. There are also regional events for USA, Japan and European cars with various combinations of the regions. With 70 cars to drive and more than 18 real-world locations to drive them in, you won’t be getting bored with NFS: Shift anytime soon. Many of the tracks have multiple configurations and there is even an event that chains these configurations into a series or races.
Along the way you will also be earning stars that mark your progress through the game and serve to unlock new events and tiers. You have three podium stars per race, so placing third or higher will get you anywhere from one to three stars, and then you have bonus stars. These usually involve earning a fixed amount of profile points and some random challenge like hitting a certain speed or driving a perfect lap or knocking four cars out of the race. Star earned are locked in and you can always return later to try for the ones you missed, giving the game some great replayability for perfectionists.
NFS: Shift is a collector’s paradise with all sorts of badges you can earn by performing all sorts of various actions from clean passing to perfect starts. Another clever concept is the ability to master each and every turn on a track. This requires you to maintain speed, not hit anything, and don’t slip coming out of the turn. Icons on the top-down map indicate which turns have been mastered and those you are attempting or have yet to pass. There are a million things to do in this game besides simply crossing the finish line in first place.
For those who doubt the seriousness of this game when it comes to simulation, one only need attempt to drive from the cockpit view – easily the most accurate and intense camera view to ever grace a racing game on any system. Yes – it puts the new Gran Turismo to shame. First off, the dashboard is incredibly detailed with functional instruments and mirrors, but your view is actually mounted to a virtual driver that is affected by G forces. Slam on the brakes and watch the wheel and dash come flying toward your face. Slam into a wall or hit car and its like you just got punched in the head. Things get black and white and out of focus and the sound garbles like you are going into shock. It’s actually quite terrifying the first time it happens.
Even better and more realistic, when you start to hit those top speeds your focus will realistic shift ahead of you, outside the car, causing the dash to subtly blur with your change of focus. It’s a variation of the trick they have been doing with reload animations in war games where the gun will snap into focus and the background blurs, only this is the opposite.
For those who find the cockpit a bit too challenging you can choose from many other views including the chase view, the instrument only view, and my personal favorite, the hood view, which puts the polished mirror-like hood of the car at the bottom of the screen giving you a visual indicator of the damage you are taking. You can also cycle through all these view as well as an exciting external track camera for the instant replays and photo shoot mode where you can snap pics and upload them to EA’s servers for others to enjoy.
NFS: Shift has an incredible physics engine that creates a perfect and playable blend of video game racing that works just as good with a controller as it does with a wheel and pedals, although serious racers will want a wheel and pedal combo for the most accurate input. It’s much easier to nail those perfect starts and manually shift when you aren’t using a gamepad. Plus, it just feels better.
Video game mechanics will find plenty to tinker with in the garage where you have full control over three stages of upgrades that will enhance everything from acceleration and top speed to braking and aerodynamics. You can also customize your car with rims, custom paint, and all sorts of vinyls and take it into the tune-up shop to customize the gearbox for speed vs. acceleration. The more you play the more you unlock, and unlike a lot of games that require you to purchase a new car at every stage, I was able to take my modified Tier 1 BMW all the way into Tier 3 before it was no longer competitive.
Words and certainly not any of these screenshots can begin to describe just how gorgeous this game is, especially in motion. The tracks are wonderfully detailed. I’ve driven many of these tracks countless times in other racing games but they have never looked as good as they do in this game. Laguna Seca, Willow Springs, and blocked off portions of London and Tokyo offer some fantastic racing venues and amazing scenery that make it hard to keep your eyes on the road.
The cars look equally as amazing, both in the setup menus, the pre-race cutscenes, the replays, and certainly the actual races. There is not a single jagged edge to be found. This is truly photorealistic racing at its finest. Tack on some wickedly cool presentation screens, menus, and animated result screens, and you have an ultra-cool racer for the MTV generation, but, if you don’t care for all the flash, you can skip all these slick screens and get right back into racing.
The audio is just as flawless as the visuals. At first I though there was a distinct lack of music. I didn’t see my EA Trax interface and wasn’t hearing any music during the races, and then I found that EA has set the music to OFF as the default for racing. A bold and wise decision given the fact that the car noises are some of the best I’ve ever heard. I was able to hear subtle differences in my engine after installing just one or two parts on my BMW, and by the time I was finished my car sounded like an F-15 preparing to launch. And when you factor in the tire screech so you know when you are about to loose traction and the Dolby Digital surround that perfectly tracks your opponents so you know where they are even without looking in your rearview mirror, this game is as authentic as it gets. And when you do wander into the menus the music is quite enjoyable with a refreshing lack of rap music.
NFS: Shift is massive with more than 200 events of various types. While your progress is kept in check by your ability to earn stars, you are free to tackle most events in each tier and revisit previous tiers provided you still have a car that qualifies. You will often get invited to events in tiers you haven’t unlocked in which case a car is provided for you. This is a great way to sample what’s in store later in the game. The only time I really felt forced into buying a car was when it came time to start the Drift challenges.
Along with the badges and stars you also have 29 Achievements that you should easily earn by simply completing the game with a bit of thoroughness. There is also a substantial multiplayer offering with ranked and unranked matches for big 8-player quick races as well as the more personal Driver Duel races. And if you have friends on Xbox Live who also have the game there is a clever Friends Competition that will indicate if you or one of your friends holds the best score/time for each of the career events. Leaderboards track these results creating some addictive friendly competition.
Need for Speed: Shift is named well, as it marks a monumental shift in game design for the franchise. While a part of me would have still preferred the glamorous and exciting life of illegal street racing and the thrill of a “hot pursuit” with the local law enforcement, there is no denying that this latest installment of Need for Speed has some serious thought and design behind it, and I am the first to admit that I am a convinced and loyal convert. Forza and PGR are still on the way but for now, Need for Speed: Shift has the pole position and is the current contender for Best Racing Game of 2009.