Review by madSomnambulist
"A racer designed for the masses that will truly please few"
Let's be honest about this up front. The Need for Speed series has been, well, pretty much dead the past 3 years. The happy-go-lucky 100% non-story-based tuner car customizing wacky police chasing magic was gone, and NFS: Undercover in 2008 did very little to revive that feeling. The series was in the midst of an identity crisis. There are only two places to go from a spot like that, as you can either go back to the tried-and-true formula, or work toward finding a new niche in the market. EA has opted for the later, aiming for a game toward the level of a simulator that completely takes street racing and horribly AI-clueless police out of the picture and puts you on real-world tracks. A bold move, to say the least. The only catch is giving the game as much mass appeal as possible.
There has always been two distinct camps in the GT/racing gaming market: sim versus arcade. The likes of Gran Tourismo, Forza and rForce versus Midnight Club, Burnout and the oldschool Need for Speed. Some companies (namely Codemasters) have tried to bridge that gap with titled like Drit' and Grid' by starting on one end and leaning in toward the center. The Japanese market has a few different solutions including touge racing and its (very real) underground racing world, which combine the heavy tuner aspect of arcade versus needing to know the mechanical ins and outs of a car to get true performance from it. To date, no one has truly been able to split the gap between simulation and arcade feel. Need for Speed: Shift is no different. It's the biggest effort yet to make a solid compromise both ends of the spectrum, but in the process it fails to entirely please fans of either style.
The game scenario is exceedingly simple, as it should be. Its lack of involvement in what you need to do is a refreshing change. You start out with nothing but a little cash, start with one car, and race your way to the top. Nice and easy and lets you pick which events you'd like to participate in at your own pace in whatever cars you happen to like. Your early races are on variations of famous tracks, but you'll soon be racing on some of the world's more popular Gran Prix tracks. All the real-world tracks are very faithful recreations of the originals, which is kind nod to the simulator crowd. Some absolute classic circuits are included, including Silverstone, Spa and Road America. If you have no idea what any of those are, you're probably already at a disadvantage toward understanding this game.
Car selection is impressive, if not a bit small. About 60 cars in total, options range from daily-driver basic sporty coupes such at the Scion tC and Honda Civic Si until you reach the top which is occupied by the world's most absurd hypercars, and everything in the middle. At the top end, you'll be zooming about in the infamous Bugatti Veyron, Zondas, Lamborghinis and the like. An exciting thought to throw down on some great tracks, to say the least. Each car (besides the end-game hypercars) is upgradable in a normal game style, allowing you to improve different aspects of the vehicle. Tuning options are ridiculously vast and include a massive range of settings, including variations to parts that 90% of players will never have heard of. How many people know what adjusting the position of a bump stop does? Again, a nod to the simulator crowd. There is a quick tune' option instead of digging into every detail, but the effects on the car are rather vague compared to digging into the details yourself. At no point, however, does victory completely hinge on being able to dial in a car to its limits. This can be seen as either a good or bad thing. Some of the vehicles, on top of their normal string of upgrades, have a special tuning option, which is the Works package conversion. The idea being to turn what was left of your street car and turn it into a track-carving beast, it completely eliminates whatever civility left in the drive in the name of speed. Kind of. It can certainly be fun to see something like a Nissan GT-R turn into a car that you'd see in the Japan Super GT series. Key here being that only some cars can be upgraded this way, and most of the luxury/exotic models must be left alone with just a body kit at most.
So far so good, right? Lots of bits to please the simulator fans and drag them in. What about the arcade-racer end of the line? Plenty of good additions here, as well. The sensitivity of all the controls and inputs are adjustable and levels of CPU assisted driving variable so that you can turn some cars into a flail-the-wheel-all-the-way-over-to-corner type you'd normally see. There is a Drifting game mode, which is little more than a matter of knowing when the mash the throttle and make the car get loose. You can turn on the racing line for each track so you know when to brake, there's a mini-map that varies in size with your speed to show you the track, etc. Some of the available assists to help you around the track include stability control and enhanced traction control. Some new and curious ideas include steering assist and braking assist.
Wait. Steering assist? Braking assist? This is where NFS: Shift dives into inner conflict and begins its failure to combine the two racing camps. I don't just mean anti-lock brake assist to help you stop (also an option) or it being harder to spin out in a corner, I mean LITERAL steering and braking assist, as in the game will slightly steer and slow the car for you when it deems it necessary. Though this might sound like a boon to the fan of the arcade racer since it dumbs down the complexity of GP circuits, it's actually a substantial curse. It's quite concerning to see an AI try to move you into a turn or tell you what speed to take it at. It's an insult to simulator fans and to arcade racers alike, as both of them just want to drive the car and be on with it. Mistakes and crashes only hut the car visually (except on the highest difficulty), so there's no real penalty for messing up besides losing some track time. There's even a button to reset your car on the track if you crash or spin out too far. What's most frightful about these assists is that most of the cars feel uncontrollable without them on, and the design of the gameplay and AI doesn't allow you to go "full-sim" without huge penalties. The only consolation is that you can change your assist settings at any time during any event from the pause menu.
Now that we've spoiled the game for Simulator fans, let's see how it looks the other way around. Your first event is racing a BMW M3 on a short circuit so the game can judge your skill and suggesting a starting difficulty. For someone used to an arcade style of racing, it'll take a good dozen tries to get around the 1-mile track without flying off repeatedly. The feel is, without massive adjustments to control settings and sensitivities, pretty much of terror for a more casual driving game player. You'll be accelerating on straight, slamming the brakes before each corner to a near-stop, turning very slowly, and repeating. This is not a very glorious or fun way to zip about some of the greatest racetracks in the world and it makes the experience of it being on real-world tracks completely meaningless. As the game events get harder and longer, the sense of helplessness while driving quickly around twisty tracks never entirely goes away and even when you think you're used to it you're forced to use faster cars which just start the process all over again. I say that as someone who has wasted hundreds of hours in every variety of racing game and as someone who has always laughed when they made a huge driving error that resulted in a crash. I've been through it all and even I've gotten annoyed. So, not this time. Crashes and runoffs are frustrating and feel like they're often no fault of your own. With a dozen or so different types of car assists available, it's quite possible it wasn't your fault.
Digging deeper into that helpless feeling, we run into one of the key selling points of the game. As has been hyped in advertising, the game has a robust and detailed cockpit view that gives the player the feeling of speed. At anything over 100mph (160kmh), the sides of the screen will start to blur out and only have complete focus straight ahead, which is meant to be a simulation of real race-speed driving. By the time you're up to 150mph you'll be terrified to go any faster and above that you might as well drive with your eyes closed. It's a novel idea, but inconsistent and feels far more like a gimmick to avoid framerate issues in a highly-detailed cockpit than a true game feature. In actuality, it forces you to leave the racing line option on at all times and keep the braking assist, since it's absolutely impossible to see your braking or turn-in points for sweeping corners with everything but the 2ft of pavement in front of you blurred out. Thankfully, the game keeps the option of bumper, hood and third-person views available for you. I'd suggest hood view for a good experience without the drawbacks that make ten-tenths racing impossible, as the blurring effects only exist in cockpit mode. This is certainly not a game for third-person view. One interesting thing I do like about this style, however, is what happens when you crash or hit objects. The entire screen will grey out and get fuzzy, akin to a driver having to regain focus when all sense of direction is lost and panic sets in. Sadly, this cannot be turned off.
The graphics are generally solid if you look past the deliberately-blurry speed effects. Cars are replicated down to the symbols on the rims and the size/color of the brake parts. The real-world track recreation is outstanding (though I question what they consider the racing line to be at times). Road America is my local' track and the sensation of driving it in-game versus real life is solid, so I'd figure others will feel the same way. Menus are neat and tidy, fonts crisp. It's far from the detail of a Forza or Gran Tourismo but it certainly gets the job done outside of a sizable number of technical glitches. It's worth noting that none of the graphical bugs actually affect gameplay.
Despite all this negativity, I can't deny there's fun to be had. It's hard to argue against a lot of the cars here and some of the tracks. It will just take a whole lot of tolerance and patience to find this small window of zen. Might I suggest spinning a Porsche Cayman around Donington for awhile?
Sound is both amazing and disappointing. The sound effects of the cars (namely engines in heavy race tune) boils the blood and will leave you continuously wanting to turn up the volume. Though surround sound features don't seem terribly impressive, having a subwoofer really helps. On the other hand, the game soundtrack is absolutely horrible, just like with most EA games. Luckily, the music setting for in-race is set to off' by default, which is where you'll want to leave it. The soundtrack will really only come up during replays, autosave time and drift events. It's tolerable, if not a tad obnoxious.
The awards system is a strongpoint I think a lot of players might overlook in the middle of either being annoyed that their car is behaving too blandly on a twisty circuit or that their car is impossible to control at high speeds. As you play you earn badges which are essentially just marks of progress. They count how many passes you've made, how much you draft, how much contact you make, your wins on different difficulties, etc. It's well thought-out, and the game is kind enough to offer its top trophies/etc without having to complete extreme online racing requirements. You overall progress is marked in drivers levels from 1 to 50, and the game will keep track of whether you are a Precision driver (smooth, clean driving) or an Aggression one (constantly bashing other cars and skidding around everywhere). Just based on how racing games work, however, you will inevitably end up at Precision. In order to add up Aggression points means you have to remain in the main field and bash up with your opponents, with is both dangerous and not very good way to drive to victory. The AI is very aggressive and has no problem shoving you off-track, though I'm not sure if it's deliberate or accidental programming. In any case, you want to be in front and stay in front.
Multiplayer is slick, if not somewhat limited. Games come up quickly and lag control is tidy. In most games, contact with your opponents will feel like it actually should have happened and wasn't just a fluke of the server being confused about where the cars were. One thing the multiplayer does make you stare in the fact of a lot, however, is load times. They're absolutely awful in all game modes, with over 30 seconds from menu to race start.
A variety of other issues/complaints include, but are not limited to: an inability to use a custom controller button configuration (absolutely inexcusable), highly-tuned cars on default settings being created such that they will literally bounce down the track on long straights from the car bottoming out, an inability to customize the exterior pieces of your car, an awful livery editor, an incredibly confusing HUD while racing, the anti-gravity physics of Drift mode, no races longer than 20 minutes or so even in endurance events, highest tier of cars have no sense of interaction between the driver and track, lower-tier modified cars are substantially faster than the endgame 750hp+ cars, huge numbers of loopholes that allow you to bypass ever having to play at a normal difficulty, and the lack of a free race mode that just lets you practice.
I won't deny that I've gotten my kicks from the game and I'm had fun, but it's only come after a whole lot of trial and error or settings and configuration to find out the few things that won't continuously annoy you. With any luck, some of the frustrating default suspension settings and AI will be patched and FAQs will get out there that will help on car setup on different tracks.
All in all, Need for Speed: Shift is proof that you can't please the masses by compromising between different sub-genres of games. The game gets close(r) to a balance of simulation and arcade at times, but mashes the edges together far too much. Honestly, the game is more likely to appeal to racing purists that want to drive F1 and DTM circuits for fun than it will the average person who wants to hurl a fast car around the pavement. Such a focus won't revitalize the series and won't turn much of a profit.
Can we have this exact same game engine, except with more customization and police chasing us next year? I could deal with that. I think cops chasing my GT1-class Le Mans style modified Corvette Z06 down and through Eau Rouge at Spa would be pretty awesome... and would the real Need for Speed step forward, please? Every year it seems we see more of a discord and rift in the genre instead of games that are dialed-in.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 09/24/09
Game Release: Need for Speed: Shift (US, 09/15/09)
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