Game Review: Need for Speed: Shift
Release: September 15, 2009
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Players: 1 (2-8 online multiplayer)
ESRB Rating: E
For years, the Need for Speed franchise has been synonymous with underground street racing a la The Fast and the Furious franchise. But as time passed and the memories of those awful Vin Diesel movies began to fade, EA found itself with a stagnant franchise that couldn’t quite sell like it used to. Enter Need for Speed: Shift, a brand new game that revamps the series from nitrous induced hooliganism to full-on professional race driving. Gone are the days of racing a gaudy Mitsubishi through downtown LA. Shift instead opts to establish the player as the star driver of an up-and-coming racing team.
Props to EA for making Shift such a versatile game. Your first order of business upon starting a career is to get your hands on a tuned BMW M3 and have a solo run around a track. When you finish, the game suggests what settings will work best for you. Gameplay is scalable thanks to the addition of various “assists” than can be turned on or off. On the one hand, you can make it a casual arcade racer; on the other, you can make it an extremely difficult pseudo-simulator. As your career progresses, you find yourself competing in 5 tiers of racing competition across 18 tracks. Tier 1 is comprised mostly of European hatchbacks and small cars. Tier 2 is filled with everyday sports cars like the BMW M3 and Nissan 350Z. These two classes go by quite quickly, allowing you to soon reach the upper levels of competition, where the real gems lay. Tier 3 begins to introduce monsters like the Lamborghini Murcielago and the Ford GT. Tier 4, meanwhile, is reserved for crown jewel hypercars: Paganis, Bugattis, McLarens and the like. Once you’re through all of these, you head off to the Need for Speed World Tour.
Progression through the tiers is determined by the number of stars you’ve earned. Stars are awarded for each race, and are based on finishing position as well as other objectives (mastering a corner or beating a target lap time, for example.) These stars serve as a great motivation for completing a race. You can restart any event at any time without it counting as a loss, but there’s no real reason to start over when you’re about to finish second with 4 stars already under your belt. Additionally, each event awards a certain amount of cold hard cash for top performers. Invitational events and racing series tend to be the highest paying; they can shell out over one hundred thousand dollars per event later in the game. Naturally, this cash is used to purchase and upgrade cars in order to be competitive.
Shift does a lot of things right in the gameplay and visuals department. Graphically, this title is extremely impressive; racing at sunset is a particularly visceral experience. Shift’s biggest claim to fame is its mind-blowing cockpit view. It may not always be the best way to play the game, but it’s certainly the most engrossing. Shift accurately mimics the movement of your head within the cockpit, making every bump and turn feel remarkably real. “Works” modified cars in particular are really cool to drive from a first-person perspective; roll bars, extra gauges, and stripped interiors make the progression from stock supercars to tuned racers feel extra legitimate. The scalability of the gameplay is another nice addition to Shift’s offering. Whether you’re a racing newcomer or a seasoned veteran, you can still derive some enjoyment from this game. Certain gametypes are better than others, and the developers seem to openly acknowledge it. If you don’t want to play a drift event, then you really honestly never have to. The Endurance and Racing Series events were my personal favorites, so I was able to focus on them. It’s a nice touch for those who just want to get out there and race. Another nice touch is the fact that money and progression points earned through online competition will actually count towards you career.
Despite all of this praise, Shift is by no means perfect. There are some definite improvements that can hopefully be made for future entries in the franchise. The overall handling of all the cars feels a little bit on the loose side; turning on traction control can mitigate this, but it still just doesn’t quite feel right. I feel like the pivot points for the cars is a little too far back, making it feel like you’re turning with an invisible set of wheels that’s positioned directly over the center of the vehicle. The cars also have no real weight to them; in the middle of a race, you can actually drive underneath a competitor and send them flying up in the air like a balloon. While the gameplay assists may sound like a brilliant idea on paper, their execution seems a little wonky. For example, the braking assist will automatically apply the brakes to slow down your car as you approach a turn. The problem is that the assist itself doesn’t seem to effectively take into account the modifications that you’ve made to your car. AI meanwhile is extremely competitive, even on easier difficulty settings. Each tier has one car that is clearly head and shoulders above the rest, and unless you save up your cash to buy this car at the beginning of the tier, you’ll never be able to compete. I suppose in this respect that Shift is actually a money management game… but the fact that EA gives you the option to buy cars with real cash negates the point.
Overall, Need for Speed: Shift is a solid racer that bridges the gap between arcade and simulator quite nicely. The impressive graphics and vast array of cars and modifications make for a lot of fun, but the loose controls and dominating cars within each class make for an unbalanced game that requires you to bide your time and stick to only a handful of the game’s vehicular offerings for a vast majority of the events. While Shift can’t quite compete with hardcore racing sims just yet, it’s certainly a step in the right direction for a franchise that desperately needed a reboot.