Need for Speed: SHIFT

Making the most of the street racing boom set in motion by _The Fast and the Furious_ films, the _Need for Speed_ franchise really hit the mainstream with the release of _Underground_ in 2003. Critically and commercially successful, _Underground_ led to a number of sequels, all sharing some common aspects with the first but with slight iterations on story and gameplay mechanics. With effectively the same game being released year-after-year sales began to drop as well as the quality of the games themselves; last year’s _Undercover_ was nothing short of a disaster. Rather than being the shiny, red Ferrari the _Need for Speed_ franchise had once been, it was now a battered Citroën 2CV heading for the scrap pile. Something had to be done.

EA’s solution was to split the franchise into a number of yearly games which would each accommodate the different types of racing experience. The first to hit store shelves is _Shift_, a game that throws away all of the over-the-top street racing, cop car chases and open-world environments for a realistic simulation around real-world tracks.

_Shift_ definitely improves on many aspects of the mediocre arcade experience found in the franchise’s previous titles. For starters, the game’s presentation is far more sophisticated; with stylish menus throughout and an impressively voiced English guy telling you what to do, the game is undoubtedly more serious. The car models are accurate and very shiny, although the texture work can be a little fuzzy at times, while the tracks generally look fantastic.
A heavily advertised feature of _Shift_ was the game’s cockpit view, the new must-have of the driving genre. Unlike other games, this view also comes supplied with a number of additions that make it feel like you’re actually the driver, not just a camera positioned where the driver’s head should be. For example, if you crash, the view goes blurry and loses colour while if travelling at high speed, all but the road ahead loses focus. This all combines to give the driving experience in _Shift_ a distinct sense of speed throughout; at 140mph, you feel moments away from losing control, just like you should.

As with previous games of the franchise the car selection in _Shift_ is comprehensive; ranging from BMWs to Nissans via more exotic cars like the Bugatti Veyron, Shift has them all. All the cars are customisable both in terms of performance as well as visuals, although the decal system is rather clunky when compared to that found in _Forza Motorsport 2_. Overall, _Shift_ ticks all the major boxes for what a racing sim should have; all the cars handle differently and upgrading them has an instant effect on the way they drive.

Progression through the game is separated into two parts; for completing events (such as races, time attacks and drifts) you acquire stars that unlock even more events and by driving precisely or aggressively, you earn points which go toward your driver level. Once you’ve got enough points you effectively level-up, rewarding you with special cars, new paint types and a host of other, nonessential, extras. The points system is reminiscent of the “Kudos” of the _Project Gotham_ franchise with precision points earned by following the race line and overtaking cleanly, while aggression points are earned by spinning out your opponents, among other things.

It’s also possible to acquire precision points by mastering each corner of a track, a feature unique to _Shift_. By following the race line, accelerating quickly and without hitting anything, you master a corner; although this might sound easy, it can be rather difficult and adds a fun metagame to each event you participate in. The game remembers which corners you’ve mastered and represents this with a tick so you instantly know which ones you need to concentrate on.

With all of this in mind, _Shift’s_ core mechanics are close to perfect; the driving’s realistic but still enjoyable, the presentation immerses you in the experience and there’s a relatively large amount of content to get through. Getting to the final Driver Level takes a considerable amount of time and there’s also competitive online racing available.

Unfortunately, _Shift_ has a number of issues that cause the game to be downright frustrating. Firstly, the AI is either very poor or simply over aggressive; off the start line, they swerve all over the place, making them impossible to pass, and on the corners they have no problem with ramming you straight off the road. For a game based on professional track racing, surely your opponents should abide to some of the rules?

The above would be partially acceptable if the game had some form of flashback mechanic that allowed you rewind time to correct any mishaps you may have. It doesn’t. With _Dirt 2_ and the upcoming _Forza Motorsport 3_ both featuring something along these lines, without it _Shift_ feels archaic in comparison. I haven’t rage quitted as much as I did in _Shift_ for a long time; getting to the final corner of a race and being rammed off the track by a permanently out of control AI opponent is never alright no matter how many times it happens!

As mentioned before, the game is split up into a number of different categories, some being more enjoyable than others. While the standard races appear fine at first, because of the AI, these events can get a little annoying after a while; the drift events I could never get the hang of, so I never enjoyed those; and the “car battles” resulted in numerous restarts and were instantly frustrating. The only events that kept me entertained throughout were the time attacks, which make up less than a third of the game.

Even if _Shift_ didn’t have these problems, is this really what we wanted from the _Need for Speed_ franchise in the first place? Although a great improvement over the previous instalments, in terms of its physics model and its presentation, _Shift_ has lost most of the charm found in the _Underground_ and _Most Wanted_ games. The overly aggressive AI and a lack of innovation makes for a rather frustrating and unoriginal game that can, occasionally, have extremely enjoyable moments. _Shift_ is a competent racing sim but with _Forza Motorsport 3_ just around the corner and _Gran Turismo 5_ not far off, it’s a bit of a hard sell. Don’t get me wrong, _Shift_ isn’t a bad game; it’s actually got a lot going for it but it just isn’t as fun as it should be.


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