Review | Need for Speed: Shift
Format: Xbox360/PS3/PC | Genre: Racing | Publisher: EA | Developer: Slightly Mad Studios | Release date: 18/09/09 | RRP: £29.99-£49.99
By Lewis Denby
Take one portion of high-speed chaos, another of gritty simulation, and smother it all in a glossy, next-gen sauce.
That’s your recipe for Need for Speed: Shift, the latest in EA’s long-running racing franchise. Need for Speed’s been suffering from a bit of an identity crisis of late, rejecting its no-holds-barred traditions and gallavanting off in all sorts of different directions since the series’ early days. It’s slalomed around various gimmicks, veering wildly between super-cool story modes and a more standard racing formula.
Now, of course, EA has decided to branch the series in three directions. Need for Speed: Nitro will target the casual audience, featuring arcade mayhem in abundance, while Need for Speed: World Online steers the franchise into the world of online social gaming. Shift purports to be Need for Speed’s more realistic side, but that’s an odd claim. Indeed, the game often seems so set in its ways that it can’t help but remind you of how classy and crazy all this driving malarkey is. Shift is a solid racing game, and a hell of a lot of fun, but it does epitomise the franchise’s worrying schizophrenia.
//On the fence
Not that it matters when you’re circling a track at goodness knows what speed, clipping the side of a rival vehicle before power-sliding your way past it to victory. If there’s one thing Shift gets very, very right, it’s a sheer admiration for kinetic energy. From the default, in-car view, the sense of speed is utterly astounding, with plenty of camera shakes, a hefty amount of controller feedback and subtle visual effects as you slam down on the accelerator. Spinning out of control and smashing into a wall sends your view flailing wildly, before settling down into a disorientating, concussed blur. There’s a staggering authenticity to Shift’s motion. It’s one of the most powerful portrayals of risky driving on the market.
That’s just about where its simulation ends, though. While you certainly have to apply the breaks once in a while, it’s still a great distance away from some of the more hardened driving sims on the market. Throughout the career mode, you’ll level up by earning points for various actions in races. There are points to be earned for precise driving, such as clean overtakes and sticking to the (patronising, and thankfully removable) glowing race line, but this is a game that encourages aggressive tactics. Shift throws points at you for ramming other cars, causing them to spin off the track, cutting up other drivers, and all sorts of dirty strategies that would likely get you disqualified from a real racing event. It’s difficult to avoid behaving like this, as well, since the AI drivers are absolutely filthy. Try completing a mere three-lap race without getting smashed to pieces. Even if you’re being the most careful driver in the world, it’s pretty much an impossible task.
So the series continues to be primarily about driving like a dangerous lunatic. Once you snap into this mindset, Shift delivers wave upon wave of adrenaline-packed fun. Vehicles all handle nicely, and the opponent AI – while certainly aggressive – remains convincing. The danger is that EA may have missed the mark for both sides of its potential audience. It’s never in-depth and precise enough to deliver an outstanding simulation, yet never quite insane enough to eschew the tag completely. Instead, it sits firmly in the middle – which could be disastrous or welcoming, depending on your mindset.
//Eyes on the road
Either way, the glossy sheen you’d expect of an EA release makes Shift impossible to dislike. It’s almost a shame that the restrictive in-car viewpoint provides by far the best experience, such is the meticulous detail with which these courses are portrayed. Whether you’re speeding through the streets of London or the dust of Willow Springs, each environment is delivered with unbelievable clarity, with distant views that wow in the replay mode. From the car, all you’ll really see is the road, and it’s a shame there’s little opportunity to soak up more of the atmosphere.
Elsewhere it’s predictably finessed, from the carefully crafted vehicles based on real-world models, right down to the soundtrack and menu systems. The career mode’s narration and sense of progression maintain the style, putting the finishing touches on a perfectly solid racing title, one that frequently excites despite its refusal to head down either the simulatory or arcade roads. If its middle-ground suits, then strap yourself in. You might find yourself behind the wheel for hours on end.