The Need for Speed series has gone through many incarnations over the years. The one thing that has felt missing from a lot of these attempts to create a solid racing game is ironic due to the fact that it is part of the name. Speed is something that developers struggle with time and time again when making racing games. How do you create a sense of speed that tricks the player into feeling like they are actually travelling 200 mph down a circuit? EA went back to the drawing board with NFS: Shift. They brought in a new developer and shifted the focus from cheesy story-driven scenarios, to flat out racing. The end result is one of the most polished and well constructed racing games this generation.
Need for Speed: Shift is a departure from the norm when it comes to the past few games. EA has wisely decided to separate the series into three categories. The 360 and PlayStation 3 get the simulation game, and have sanctioned developer Simply Mad Studios, who have worked on the extremely popular GTR series, to craft this latest entry. For better or worse this makes Shift more like the original games as opposed to the more recent open-world types of the last few years. If you are looking for a straightforward racing game that focuses on you, the cars and the tracks; this could definitely be your best choice for the year.
When you begin the game you are given a car and a track to do a test run on. Upon completion the game grades your skills and sets the various difficulties based on your test lap. Think of it as a warm-up to see how the game handles, plus if you feel it is not accurate you can adjust the sliders yourself manually at any point during the game. From here you are presented with your menu system that allows you to navigate around the game, and this is where things really begin to shine. All the races are broken down into four tiers, and each tier has a series of races that earn you stars depending on how well you place and how you drive. Earning more stars opens up more tiers, and so on and so forth. I much prefer the straight ahead setup like this as opposed to the open-world structure of the past few games.
This allowed the developer to focus on the most important aspect in the game: racing. Bridging the gap between hardcore simulation and fast-paced arcade action is a tough sell, but the team has done an admirable job merging the two. Races deliver a sense of speed that is unrivaled, especially in the new cockpit view. If you can manage to get accustomed to the view, it really delivers the most realistic experience of speed I have seen to date. The balance between arcade and sim are apparent from the outset. The game offers a ton of sliders and adjustments to your car, but also allows you to simplify the tweaking based on obvious enhancements, i.e. this slider makes your brakes more effective in turns. Personally I have always been a fan of arcade racers, and Shift offers the perfect balance for someone like me to be able to jump in and just have fun.
Like I mentioned before the game rewards players for how they play the game with stars in each event. You also earn experience points that level up your driver level, and these can be earned in a variety of ways. You can earn either precision or aggressive points depending on how you drive. For instance if you cleanly overtake another car you are awarded precision points, but if you use an opponent to take a corner too fast, you will also reap the benefits. I like this because it encourages players to play the way they feel comfortable without punishment. Combine it with the fact that the game tailors itself to the way you play and you have one of the most user-friendly, and customizable racing games ever created.
Racing any of the tracks you will quickly realize that the development team has gone above and beyond the call to create the ultimate experience. Car handling is excellent, and the only real gripe I had is braking takes some getting used to, then again I am all for powersliding around every corner. The small details such as the blur in your peripheral vision during intense speed really create a sense of danger when heading into tight turns with a pack of racers. The crashes are truly epic, when a pile-up occurs it really tests your nerve and reaction time, not to mention be a pure rush. Other nuances such as camera movement and minor shifts in perspective really deliver a sense of immersion that few other racing games can match.
Outside of the career mode you can also venture online to test your skills against the world. Unlike the rest of the game online mode feels a bit bare when it comes to features. There are two modes available, one being the typical race mode against up to seven other players, and the more interesting Driver Duel. This one-on-one race plays out by giving each player the same random car as they battle for supremacy. The catch is if you lose one race you fall all the way back to the bottom of the current tier. To advance to upper tiers you have to win consecutive races, which makes failing all that more disheartening. This is by far the most entertaining mode, but with only two available online may grow stale quickly.
In the presentation department NFS: Shift is probably one of the most impressive racing games this generation. Ranking right up there with the recently released DiRT 2, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Car models have been painstakingly recreated down to the tiniest details, and the dashboard camera delivers such a sense of speed thanks to subtle visual cues such as blurring and camera movement. This is one of the best looking racers to come along in some time. Audio is equally impressive as engine sounds roar through your setup. Everything screams authentic and sounds great coming through a decent sound system. The music only appears during menus and navigation, but it sound good and does a good job of creating the atmosphere.
Need for Speed: Shift is a large step forward for the genre. The balance between arcade and simulation is nearly flawless, not to mention the graphics are jaw-dropping. If you have been scared off from the series there has never been a better time to jump back in. Slightly Mad has done a fantastic job of breathing life back into a series that was quickly becoming stale. Shift is exactly what the series needed to get it back on its feet. If you like racing games I highly recommend giving this one a spin.