Review by MariaBalthasar

"NFS's Forray into Simulation Racing is Sure to Disappoint"

NEED FOR SPEED: SHIFT
REVIEW

***OVERVIEW***
The newest installment of the once-venerable Need for Speed franchise is NFS: Shift. In this game, EA has decided to shift (no pun intended) the Need for Speed series towards more of a simulation experience instead of the arcade style that has been the hallmark of the series up to this point. EA has included many adjustable features to customize the difficulty in order to make the game accessible to all driving fans, from novice to hard-core simulation-lover.

The game has many modes of play that should be familiar to any long-time NFS fan (or any fan of the genre, for that matter). There are the standard circuit races and point-to-point sprint races, and a drift mode is included (of course). There are also time attack challenges (the driver with the lowest lap time when the timer counts down wins) and an eliminator race where the last-place driver is eliminated at the end of every lap until there's only one left.

NFS: Shift introduces a “Driver Level” system. As you do certain things while driving, such as drafting, passing an opponent, or knocking an opponent off the track, you are awarded “Profile Points” (experience points for you RPG fans). There are two types of Profile Points—Precision and Aggression. Precision Points are awarded for driving precisely (see what I did there?), by doing things such as taking the “correct” line through a corner, cleanly passing an opponent without collision, or staying on the track. Aggression Points, on the other hand, are earned for knocking other cars off the track, drafting, and sliding around corners. Having more Precision Points than Aggression ones marks you as a Precision Driver, while having more Aggression Points marks you as an Aggressive one. The aggregate sum of these Points determines your Driver Level. As you level up by earning more points, you earn extra money, unlock more wheels for your cars, expand the size of your garage, and get invited to special “Invitational” events. At certain level milestones, your “driver symbol” is modified to reflect how precise or aggressive you are.

You advance through the game by earning stars. Stars are awarded for placing in the top three (“the podium”), for earning a specific number of Profile Points in a given race, or for fulfilling other specific objectives in the race, such as running a clean lap or hitting a certain speed. The setup of the game means that you don't have to place first in every race to advance and allows you to skip races that you either don't like or aren't good at. After earning a certain number of stars, the next tier of races (and vehicles) opens up. You can either buy a higher-tier vehicle to compete in the new races or upgrade a lower-tier vehicle.

NFS: Shift features popular cars of the day in 4 “tiers.” Tier 1 cars include cars such as the Scion tC, the BMW 135i, and the Chevrolet Cobalt SS. Tier 4 cars include such monsters as the Pagini Zonda, the McLaren F1, and the almighty Bugatti Veyron. When you first start the game, you'll only have access to the first tier, but as you earn stars, higher tiers become available. The ultimate goal of the game is to make it into the NFS Live World Tour.

There are several real tracks included, such as Laguna Seca, and lot of other tracks, too, some featured in earlier games in the franchise, such as NFS: Prostreet.

***THE GOOD STUFF***
NFS: Shift was created by a new team of developers at EA; these folks are all die-hard “car guys” at heart. This new team's philosophy of a “car game for car guys” shines through in many of the features of NFS: Shift, from the detail in the car models (especially the cockpit) to the sounds of the race (squealing brakes, external wastegates, blow-off valves, and the growl of powerful motors at high RPM), to the more-practically styled body modifications (body kits no longer look like rejects from the set of The Fast and the Furious).

The graphics are incredible. In some shots, it's actually hard to tell that you're playing a video game. (In fact, when I first saw screen shots of NFS: Shift, I thought I was looking at a real race.) The detail is astounding--you can read the letters on the sides of the tires and on the brake calipers; you can see the stitching of the leather interior in the cockpit view. The frame rate is also quite good; I have yet to notice a slowdown, even with a ton of cars on the screen.

The sound is pretty cool, too. Not only do you hear the car's engine, but you can also hear the squeal of brakes, the pshh of blow-off-valves, and the whine of superchargers.

The cockpit view deserves a special mention. It is simply the most immersive way to play the game. Gone are the days of a static camera. Now, when you hit the brakes hard, the camera actually moves forward some, making you feel like you're undergoing heavy braking G-forces. When you slam into a wall, the screen bounces around and goes blurry and/or black-and-white, simulating the dazing effects of a collision. All of the mirrors actually work; you can see opponents coming up on you in the rear-view AND side-view mirrors. You can use the right analog to look around, too, keeping an eye on opponents next to you. As you turn the wheel (or move the joystick), the driver's hands turn the wheel on-screen. You can see him depressing the pedals and banging through the gears, too. Simply AWESOME. Even when you're not in the cockpit view, the gauges displayed on the HUD are the actual gauges from that car, which is a nice touch.

The customization of the vehicles is fun. You can add functional body kits (that actually LOOK realistic and functional), and as a new feature, you can upgrade the interior by adding racing seats and steering wheels, gauges, and roll cages. (And, yes, the gauges and such show up in cockpit view.) There is also a decent selection of wheels (actual models from actual manufacturers), most of which require unlocking by leveling up. There are the standard engine, transmission, and suspension upgrades, as well.

***THE BAD STUFF***
Where can I begin? This game has so many little things wrong with it. By themselves, they wouldn't matter, but when they all add up, they simply destroy the fun of this game.

I'll start with the physics engine. This is supposed to be a simulation game, right? So explain to me why rear-ending a vehicle sometimes sends it flying up in the air, allowing me to drive UNDERNEATH it. That simply doesn't make sense. The cars also handle very inconsistently; the same vehicle in the same race will sometimes understeer and sometimes oversteer. This is inexcusable in ANY racing game, let alone one that professes to be a top-quality simulation!

While we're on the topics of physics, I should tell you that the game handles beautifully with lower-power, Tier-1 vehicles. But as soon as you get to higher tiers, the vehicles are almost impossible to control. It's almost as if EA only tested the physics engine on low-speed vehicles and pronounced it good. It's not. I can't count the number of times my car suddenly veered into a wall even though I wasn't touching the joystick.

Let's talk about Drifting too. The drift mode is essentially BROKEN. Gone are the silky-smooth drifting controls found in previous games such as NFS: Underground 2 and NFS: Prostreet. Instead, all of the cars handle like they are on a 3-inch-thick sheet of ice while drifting. It is unbelievably difficult to control the cars during drift matches and nigh impossible to actually win a drift event.

The heads-up display during races is so cluttered that it distracts the player from driving. There are so many blinking lights, scrolling letters, and flashing numbers that it feels more like I'm playing a video slot machine in Vegas instead of a racing simulation. To make matters even worse, the game, for some completely stupid reason, can't come out and tell you what position you're in during a race. No, you have to look at a list on the top left of the screen to see the current places of ALL of the drivers in the race and attempt to discern which one you are in that block of text. Of course, the text is ridiculously tiny and hard to see against most backgrounds. And the mini-map can't show you the entire track. No, it only shows you the upcoming corner. Yeah, that really helps in trying to learn the track.

Speaking of learning the track, how can you learn whenever there is no free-run or practice mode? Sure, there's quick race mode, where you can run a race or a time-attack challenge, but there is no simple practice mode. Most racing simulations require the player to have an intimate knowledge of the various tracks, and this game is no exception. But I shouldn't have to try to learn the track when there are 10 other vehicles on it; I should be able to do as many laps as I want to by myself. Honestly, would it really have been that difficult to include a free-run mode that just lets you drive around a track for as long as you want?

Next up is the AI. In short, it is terrible. At least the rubber-band “catch up” mode found in some previous games (I'm looking at you, NFS: Most Wanted) doesn't exist in this game. Instead, the AI simply cheats. This is the only explanation I can think of whenever a piece-of-crap Scion tC is able to out-accelerate my highly-modified twin-turbo BMW M3. And then there's the time attack challenges. In the time attack mode, all of the other competitors are on the track with you. So, if you are lapping all of them, it stands to reason that you will have the quickest time, right? Well, you will, until the computer decides to arbitrarily say that another competitor just beat your time by two tenths of a second, usually during the last lap of the time attack. This happens ALL THE TIME, and it is VERY frustrating.

There are way to many cars on the track at one time, too. It becomes very, VERY difficult to pass whenever you're on a small, tight course and there are 7 (or more!) other vehicles in the same space. Quite often, you'll end up getting knocked off the track by some other driver (through no fault of your own) and have to restart the race because you're so far behind.

Remember those Profile Points I talked about? Why are these ridiculous things even in a simulation game? Couldn't you simply award me the driver-level prizes for achieving certain numbers of stars? And the difference between Precision and Renegade is just weird. Why is drafting, a move used by just about every professional racer in the WORLD, considered a Renegade move? Basically, you'll get a ton of Renegade points early in the race while you're drafting and passing and slamming into other cars, but once you get in the lead, you'll pretty much only earn Precision points, and lots of them at that. This leads to it being nearly impossible to become a “Renegade” driver, not that it really matters anyway.

Some stars (usually two per race) require you to reach certain point thresholds. These thresholds seem to be quite arbitrary; in some races, you'll hit those thresholds in the first lap. In other races, it will be a struggle. Apparently, the best way to earn these points is to stay on the correct “racing line” through the entire track. The only way to figure out the correct line, however, is to turn on the racing line feature under options. Then, the line is displayed while you're driving. You have to keep at least some part of your vehicle on that dotted line at all times to rack the Profile Points up. Never mind the fact that the line is outright wrong in half the cases; it's often quicker to not follow the lines. This often forces the player to beat a race twice--once to earn the three stars for a first-place finish and another to stay on that stupid line the whole time, earning enough points for the other stars while losing the race in the process.

As I said before, the detail and realism are great, for the most part, but there are a few problems there, as well. Whenever I install additional gauges in my car, why don't the gauges move? The in-dash boost gauge points at “0” the whole time, even though the HUD boost gauge is moving around!

Another problem that I have deals with the customization of vehicles. You cannot preview any changes you make to your car, whether it be body kits, wheels, or interior. Let's say you want to put some new wheels on your car. You have to select the wheel and size, confirm it, and only then you can see the wheels, but only on a small part of your car. Now, if you don't like the new wheels, you have to go back and find the previous ones you had, select the size, and confirm it. The same goes for body kits and other modifications. In all of these cases, you don't get to see the entire vehicle, nor can you move the right analog stick to change the view. This is a serious oversight.

I thought the sound was great, too. I was excited when I saved up enough in-game money to install racing exhaust on my Toyota Supra. I went to the next race only to be sorely disappointed by the fact that my car SOUNDED THE EXACT SAME. Come on, here, all previous NFS games had different sounds for different exhaust packages, why can't this one? While we're on the topic of sound, explain to me why the SIXTEEN-cylinder Bugatti Veyron sounds the EXACT SAME as a SIX-cylinder Nissan Skyline!

***SUMMARY***

Highs: Awesome graphics and customization

Lows: Terrible Physics Engine (including a completely broken drift mode), bad AI, too much on-screen information

In Short: A decent game plagued by so many little annoying things, it ceases to be fun.

4 out of 10 stars.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 01/04/10

Game Release: Need for Speed: Shift (US, 09/15/09)


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