Need For Speed SHIFT was a game that had quite a bit of pressure put onto it. For the past three years, gamers have been complaining that the series had gone downhill and that there would be no light at the end of the tunnel for one of the longest running franchises in racing. To make matters worse, it would also be released within the same month as Colin McRae DiRT 2 and not much earlier than Forza Motorsport 3, two racing games which had been built on a solid foundation by some of the best developers in the industry. So it goes without saying that Slightly Mad Studios had a challenge ahead of them. But with a new direction in mind and with experienced developers at the helm, did this game SHIFT the franchise back to the top?
Before I continue with the review, let me say that Need For Speed SHIFT is without a doubt one of the best developed games I’ve seen in a long time, and in my opinion, sits up there with the best of them. Slightly Mad Studios has done an exceptional job here with this game, and I’m almost at liberty to say that this might be one of the best games we have seen from the franchise since it first began sixteen years ago. Let me explain.
The premise behind this SHIFT is simple, you take the role of an up and coming racer, on his way to the premiere racing event – the World Tour. The game starts off like the rest of the past Need For Speed titles where you are put into a decent car as you win a race to set a foundation except, in SHIFT, you are given the keys to a beautiful BMW M3 to set a fast-lap around the track. Based on your performance in this lap, the game judges your skill and custom-selects racing assists to compliment your driving style – from braking and steering assists to A.I. difficulty and the degree of realism in the physics model. You see from just this brief introduction that the game has some serious effort behind it – and this is just the beginning.
As I said, the premise behind this game is simple, and for a track-racer it isn’t a surprise, nor is it a negative aspect to the game. Again we see cars broken up into Tiers, ranging from Tier 1 being the slower cars like the Audi TT up to Tier 4 with hypercars like the Bugatti Veyron, and this is carried on further in Career Mode with the races. Initially you have access to just a few Tier 1 races, ranging from simple time trials to races with other drivers on the grid.
Progress in the game is made by unlocking stars through the completion of races and sub-missions therein. For example, all races will offer at least three stars for podium finishes, but then you can also unlock stars for earning driver points or making a certain amount of passes. All this varies from race to race and adds to the variety, as you might gun for those podium finish stars first and then return later for the additional stars which would otherwise be unattainable the first time around. All in all, it adds a nice dimension to what casual gamers would consider just another track-racer.
Now, being based on close-course racing, it is expected that the number of race modes would be quite minimal, but SHIFT does manage to make-do with just circuit and sprint tracks. Race modes include the traditional circuit race, point-to-point races and even time trials where you are given either a set-amount of time or a given number of laps to post the best time around the track. Furthermore, drift makes its return and at quite steep difficult curve but I considered this a challenge to master rather than an annoyance. There is also the inclusion of a ‘Car Battle’ mode where the game pits two cars against each other which are fairly close in performance in a bout to determine which is best – like the Mitsubishi Evolution X against the Evolution IX, and this is a fantastic feature in my opinion and kudos must definitely be given to Slightly Mad Studios for coming up with it.
The A.I. has also been done well here. Depending on what your driving style is like – either aggressive or precise, the other racers react accordingly and will either bump you around or take caution, respectively. I noticed that in some of the tighter courses where the tracks weren’t as wide, there can be that element of friction with the A.I., but persistence and careful driving will pay off.
I know it might seem like a cliché, but Need For Speed SHIFT really does give gamers that true ‘race car driver’ experience. Physics aside for a moment, it’s all the additional and small aspects of the game which achieve this. One thing I liked was the pre-race screens where you see team members surrounding your car, talking to you, taking photos and writing down details on a clip-board, and this is what you see in real races and a nice addition I found. Furthermore, this is the only game in a long time to provide a system that addresses gamers who cut corners. In each race you get four warnings, the first three for cutting corners will make your lap times void, the fourth offense disqualifies you from the race. When online, corner cutting is punished when a five second speed limit. I’m going to say, it does better than Forza Motorsport 2 and GRID in this respect.
In the past instalments I’ve noticed that graphics, while still quite good, have never been a strong-point of the game, but once again, in SHIFT, that has changed. Overall, graphics are just superb. The detail on the various tracks are great – from both the racecourse itself to its surroundings and this is carried on further to the cars – where both the exterior and interior are brilliant. One thing I’ve noticed while racing using the cock-pit view is just how true-to-life and realistic the interiors look. For those gamers who are racing enthusiasts who own some of the cars in the game, you will definitely notice the similarities.
With all that praise though there are some negatives which I feel should be pointed out. The biggest problem I found with the graphics was that the liveries on the cars when viewed up close where a little pixelated and not truly defined. Furthermore I noticed that at the beginning of some races, just before the action began, the textures on some cars weren’t instantly visible. These two points though are quite fickle to complain about and in essence I don’t find them anything major. Overall, the graphics in this game have taken a massive leap forward when compared to past titles.
Physics next, and this is an important aspect of the game. With track racers, there needs to be that balance – either you can have a physics model which is too realistic and you run the risk of narrowing the consumer base you can sell the game to, or you make it too arcade-ish and run the risk of gamers not giving the game enough credit.
In SHIFT, once again, I’m glad to say that the physics have been done nicely, but that does depend on your camera angle. I noticed that while scrolling through the camera settings, if you use the third-person view the car can slide significantly on corners if you go at them at speed. Alternatively, if you use the bumper view or the cockpit view, you get that great balance between realism and arcade – so I’ll focus on the physics when using those setting.
I liked how you get that feeling as if you are actually driving a car – it shudders on the ripple-strips and when turning into corners and you can’t just blitz around the track with your foot on the pedal the entire way though – there is a strong emphasis on proper racing and it is enforced through the physics.
Furthermore, you will get that feeling that you are pushing the car to its limits when you approach a corner a little too fast, turn in, slide a bit and just make it without running over the edge. When you can do this without going into the sides of the track, it’s a great feeling and once again I give the developers credit for getting this aspect of the game just right. If you do choose to race using outside views though, it will be quite different and I’m almost going as far to say that you will get frustrated and will not get the same experience out of SHIFT.
Much like games like MotoGP 08 and Forza Motorsport 2, you have multiple options to pick what level of simulation you wish to have your physics set at, along with multiple assists to tweak with to make your driving experience as realistic or helpful as you wish.
Typically, customisation has been one of the major elements of past Need For Speed games (well, since Underground that is) and it has carried over in SHIFT, although, just not as strong as we might have hoped. Before I continue and make it seem like customisation is lacklustre, that is definitely not the case, but rather, it is just that the focus in this game isn’t like how it was in previous titles.
Customisation and performance modification all makes their return, but in packages (almost). Performance modifications now come in three stages, and in most cases you’ll need to purchase all the upgrades from one stage before you can unlock and purchase the next. Here you have the option to buy each part individually, so you can spend your money on just what you think is important for the time being. Furthermore, all upgrades can be tuned to make the car drive and perform as you like for the race at hand.
Visual modifications are a little different in that while you can still buy the ones you like, but they are bundled together. For example, cars come with three body kit options, and each changes the look of the car both on the outside and the inside, and each with their own affect on performance. As you apply different modifications, you notice particularly how the car changes from looking stock, to looking like a full race-car. Weight reduction works much in the same way. Physical modifications are split into two grounds, ‘aerodynamics’ and ‘race parts’.
Paint jobs and liveries also make their return, and some. The paint-wheel has been brought over from Undercover so the number of colours at your disposal is staggering. You also have the option to create your own designs but the best feature in this game, and wait for it … (drum roll) … is the option to apply the liveries of the opponent cars to your own. This was a feature I’ve been looking forward to since Underground and it is fantastic that the developers have included it in SHIFT. What’s even better is that these liveries are unlocked from the get-go, so you don’t need to race against the cars first, you can simply apply them once you’ve purchased the respective vehicle.
Sound is another aspect of past Need For Speed games which have been good, but not great but yet again, it has been bumped up in SHIFT. First off, the engine sounds are fantastic – they sound fierce, loud and savage and is exactly what you would expect from a game based on racing track vehicles.
Furthermore, all the other sounds accompanying the racing are spot-on too. Tire squeal isn’t overdone and compliments the sound of the engines nicely. Damage also sounds brilliant whether it be a slight nudge or going into the wall at speed.. When in the menus background music plays but as soon as you get into the loading screens and the race it dies down and this is what you expect to hear – the sound of the cars and nothing else.
Moving on, when it comes to a track-based game, the cars included and the tracks featured need to be selected carefully, so that you still get those iconic cars and places that the fans like, while including the metal and tarmac which offers a mix of good driving and serious racing and once again, this has been achieved here.
While it must be noted that the number of cars and tracks included don’t come close to anything which Forza Motorsport 3 promises to offer, it’s hardly something to complain about. When it comes to cars, you have your lower class ones like the Audi TT and the Mazda RX-8, to some middle cars including the Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R and Porsche 911 all the way to the high-end vehicles like the Maserati MC12, so everyone is going to find a car they will like in this game.
The track listing is also quite solid too, featuring simple circuits like the Rustle Creek Circuit, to the legendary Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to the infamous Nurburgring, and a mix of technical and casual tracks in-between. What I found great was the balance achieved, where some courses included some easy curves that you could ease your car into, while others focused heavily on technical driving where patience and caution was paramount.
Continuing on with the tracks, SHIFT has also been able to achieve something which no game on the current generation consoles has been able to achieve – and that is accurately replicating how elevation changes on different tracks affects stability and handling. For those gamers who have seen some of the track guide videos for this game, when the presenter speaks about keeping to a certain side of a track to turning carefully, he wasn’t joking. A great example is at the well-known Corkscrew turn at Laguna Seca. Most games have claimed that this was a fierce aspect of the course, but a majority of the time you took it with relative ease. In SHIFT though, you need to be careful because over-steering or powering the car will send it into the sand. It really is just another unique and well-implemented aspect of this game.
Moving onto the online aspect of SHIFT now and this is probably the element of the game I was least looking forward to because for those gamers who have played some of the past few NFS titles, you’ll know that online is definitely not a strong-point. Regardless how fun the modes might be, traditionally we have been treated to poor experiences with immense lag no matter who you were racing against. Yet again though, I have the pleasure of saying that this is another aspect of SHIFT which has been done right.
The first thing I must mention is the absence of lag online. During my few races before I wrote this review, I didn’t see the usual problem of cars jumping to and from the sides of the track, and nor did I see cars driving on their roofs – a change I honestly wasn’t expecting. Online you have a host of options to edit, from changing the number of laps, the track and the performance limit on which cars can be selected which allows you to really tailor each match to your liking (when in Unranked that is). I didn’t have a problem finding matches, and when I did, I just created my own and people joined in quite quickly.
The Community also appears to be relatively well-behaved and given that we can now race in decent circumstances online, you’re going to want to do so. Furthermore, you still earn driver points, badges and cash whilst online, which go towards your Career progress, which is yet another motivator to jump online.
Need For Speed SHIFT is unlike any game we have seen before. It looks different, it plays different and can easily be crowned as one of the best developed games this year. Slightly Mad Studios have really done well in covering all the aspects of track-racing in this game without it being too realistic that it deters gamers from enjoying it. The game features a good difficulty curve as you are presented with quite the challenge towards the later stages of the Career. I’m not sure it can be called the best game of the franchise, but without a doubt, it is one which has been put together the best and is definitely the game that has finally brought a turnaround in the slump which this franchise has suffered in the past few years. I highly recommend it to all racing enthusiasts and casual gamers alike. Kudos Slightly Mad Studios.
9 Ninja Heads out of 10