Review by BloodGod65

"If at First You Don't Succeed, Fire the Design Team and Try Again"

Four years. That's how long it's been since EA's landmark Need for Speed title, Most Wanted. Since then the franchise has been in an unmitigated freefall. Like a Hollywood celebrity meltdown, it didn't take long for the series to hit rock bottom – signaled by the release of Prostreet (only the second NFS release after Most Wanted). The following year EA tried to rein in the disaster with Undercover, an attempt at recreating the magic of Most Wanted that ended up falling flat on its face as well. It's no secret that EA isn't a company that accepts failure or lost profit, so Black Box, the studio in charge of Most Wanted and the subsequent parade of failures, was disbanded; a fitting end for those who sullied the reputation of such a storied franchise. And that leads us directly to the inception of Need for Speed Shift. After the disbanding of Black Box, EA hired Slightly Mad Studios, a developer that has gained recognition for several PC exclusive simulation racing games. Now that Shift has hit the shelves, the question of whether or not Slightly Mad was able to change the course of the series lingers. The answer? Sort of…

If there's one thing that immediately bodes well for Shift, it's the complete lack of any narrative. Since the first Underground, EA has always shoved some sort of story into the game, even in the case of Prostreet. Without exception these have always been forced in for no reason and never add anything to the game as a whole, so Slightly Mad deserves praise for cutting that trash out.

If you've followed the development of Shift to any degree, you'll know it's another attempt at breaking into the simulation market. However, it is becoming clear that EA doesn't understand the principles of the simulation genre, because this is not a sim racer. Rather than the strict adherence to the laws of physics found in franchises such as Forza or Gran Turismo, Shift is better compared to the likes of Grid and Project Gotham Racing. Personally, I don't see this as much of an issue because this still allows the game to retain a slight resemblance to its arcade forebears in that you can still drive like a madman on the track and end up winning. However those coming into the game expecting a true sim-racer should be aware that Shift does not fit the bill.

For those wanting a game-to-game comparison of the physics between Prostreet and Shift, much has changed. Cars no longer handle stiffly or refuse to turn. However, it is important to note that the physics are still quite wonky. In fact, with the default settings controlling a car is a nigh impossible task as they are extremely floaty and oversteer is overdone to the point that the slightest touch of the analog stick can send the whole car into a spin. To get the game to a playable state, players will have to go into the menu and fiddle with the many variables for car control until getting everything to work properly.

While getting the gonzo physics under control is pretty easy, provided you know where to look, it is unacceptable for players to have to work on the game before it's even playable. And even after getting everything to a comfortable level, the physics still aren't exactly predictable. Cars have a tendency to break traction at strange times, such as one instance where my car started sliding even when I was only doing around twenty miles an hour. The wildest instance of this was occurred on a straight stretch and the car spun out for no apparent reason.

As with most racing games, players will spend most of their time in the career mode. The career starts out with an interesting test that places drivers behind the wheel of a BMW. During the first event, players will have the track all to themselves and must do a hot lap. Once done, you'll be assigned a driver skill level that roughly approximates your driving skill. This skill level also comes with appropriate driver assists that determine if cars will have ABS, TCS, driving line, etc (if you're baffled by those acronyms you'll probably want to leave everything on). There are also some very strange driver assists, one of which includes a turning assist. Yes, that means the computer will actually help you drive through corners. Forgive my egotism, but if turning a car is beyond your grasp, I kindly suggest staying away from racing games. But I digress… If you disagree with this skill assessment you can do the whole test over, or simply change it all on your own. After deciding what kind of assistance you're comfortable with, the game will take players to the first race. The outcome of this race determines how much money players will get to spend on their first ride, with amounts from twenty-three to forty thousand dollars.

After receiving this first paycheck, players can then check out the car lot and buy one of fifty or so rides. The cars are structured on a four tier system, a bit like Carbon. As new tiers open, the cars become increasingly high-performance. Tier one includes the everyday rides with rides such as the Focus ST. Tier two includes mid-range performance sports cars such as the Nissan Z and Porsche Cayman. Tier three begins to open up the high end sports cars such as the Aston Martin DB9, Nissan GTR and Ford GT. Finally, tier four includes the top of the line cars such as the Bugatti Veyron and Pagani Zonda. The overall quality of the car list is exceptional and, like Grid, the fact that it's so small is overshadowed by the fact that all the cars are very cool.

Shift is also comparable to Grid in that deciding what to buy is difficult because the information on car statistics is vague and unhelpful. The game rates things like top speed, acceleration, handling and braking with a bar graph rather than actual numbers. Hmm… this car has an inch of top speed and three-quarters of an inch of acceleration. What the hell does that mean? Each car also has an overall performance rating, but this is as useless as the car stats. Why does a car with half the stats of another have a rating two points higher? The game doesn't actually provide real performance numbers until after buying a car, and then it's a moot point. What's likely to really piss of the hardcore set is that many times these statistics are wrong.

After finally choosing a car, players will get to dive into Shift's career mode. Whatever faults the rest of the game may have, I have to admit that the career mode is intriguing.. The career is broken up into five tiers, one for each set of cars and a final fifth tier which encompasses the Need for Speed World Championship. In each tier there are a number of race sets comprised of a number of different events. The cool thing about the setup is how it is tied to progression. In each race players can win a certain number of stars. Stars accumulate to unlock new tiers, parts and cars. Getting a podium finish results in stars (first place = three stars, second = two, third = one) and meeting other various race objectives such as hitting a certain top speed. Because of this players can progress even when not always coming in first place. However, it's only necessary to complete a very small percentage of races in each tier to accumulate enough stars to progress. Because of this, a person who only does the bare minimum will be done with the game far sooner than someone who tries to complete everything.

The actual events are nicely varied as well. In addition to typical standbys like circuits and hot laps, there are some interesting additions that keep things fresh. A variation of the hot lap puts players on a track with a full field of drivers, all of whom compete to get the fastest lap time. Suffice to say trying to beat times is much more interesting when there are other cars getting in the way. Manufacturer races have players driving an unmodified car against competitors in the same vehicle.

Driver battles are one of the most interesting event types. Players can choose one of two cars to drive in the event, and the opponent gets whatever isn't picked. The event unfolds across two heats; in the first the player leads and tries to cross the finish line first or get ahead by five seconds to win. In the second, the opponent leads with the player trying to get in front. If there is a tie, a third heat is used where both players start at the same time and vie for the lead. This event type is pleasantly reminiscent of Carbon's canyon races, albeit not as intense. It's also worth mentioned that the AI seems tweaked for these events because half the time the cars aren't even similar in performance. For instance one has the new Chevy Camaro aligned against the new Dodge Challenger. Any car enthusiast should know that this is akin to racing a donkey against a thoroughbred. In any real world battle, the much livelier Camaro would easily trump the overweight, unwieldy Challenger. And yet, even though I chose the Camaro for this matchup the Challenger did quite well, dashing through hairpins in ways the real car never could.

Drifting also makes a return for Shift. Unfortunately this is the worst representation of the sport ever presented in a Need for Speed game. Drifting has never been a highpoint, regardless of which entry you look at, but this is on another level entirely. The subtle unpredictability present in the rest of the racing is amplified here because the art of drifting (that's right, I said art) requires razor-sharp precision and lightning quick reflexes for success – things the controls just don't allow for. Additionally, drift cars have very little grip and behave as if they're sliding around on ice. Slides go haywire and result in full spins and feathering the throttle has no discernable effect on keeping the car stable. Thankfully, due to the abundance of events and small star requirements for progression drifting can be avoided entirely.

Opponent AI can be another touchy issue, especially in the third tier and beyond. In the first two tiers opponent drivers are fairly passive, letting the player pass freely and remaining level-headed even if you smash into them. But at a certain point it's like their rage just boils to the surface. They'll aggressively block you from passing and even resort to dirty tactics like smashing into the side of your car or ramming you from behind to screw up your racing line or just to get you off the road. It is supremely frustrating when the computer is actively trying to sabotage you.

While racing, players will also constantly rack up points that affect driver level. What's a driver level you ask? In a nutshell, it's sort of a measurement of progress and indicator of driving style. Players can either be precise or aggressive drivers, reflected in on-track tendencies. Following the racing line and clean passing are two indicators of a precise driver. On the other hand, aggressive drivers tend to slide around corners, smash into others and scrape sides while passing (which is a stupid way to drive). During a race each action will be recorded, and after the race points will be totaled and added to an experience bar of the driver level. Level up and players are awarded with things like money and extra garage slots. Every few levels a new piece of the driver icon will get added (which is a useless graphic that displays how proficient players are at the game).

The whole driver level thing is pretty meaningless and the real reward for racing is, of course, the cash. Money, or the limited quantity of it, has been an issue in every Need for Speed thus far this generation. In previous games there were plenty of instances in which I didn't have enough money to buy new cars, parts or even a new paintjob because of the limited cash payouts. This is no longer the case, because races pay out respectable amounts, but not enough to break the flow of the game. It's also a plus that you can gain a little bit of money simply by doing non-career mode quick races.

Naturally cash is essential for buying new rides, but you'll also want to upgrade those you've got (especially considering you can upgrade a lower tier car to compete at higher levels). Shift has all the typical modification options for performance that affect power and driveability. Gear heads can also delve into the tuning aspects and tweak gear ratios, suspension and downforce. There's also a simplified tuning mode for those who aren't as mechanically proficient and allows for the adjustment of broad variables such as over/understeer. Parts are also unlocked through career progression, so players won't be able to max out everything even if they've got the cash. This keeps some semblance of balance in the game. One odd thing is that you can add nitrous to your car. Is nitrous even allowed in circuit racing?

Being Need for Speed, there are also some customization options. These grow fewer and fewer with each passing year and this time around you can add one of three body kits to your car (each of which makes the car look progressively more like a true race car), paint and rims. However, this year paint and rims are entirely free. Vinyls are also free this year and players can use an editor akin to Forza's to put them on. However, it's nowhere as easy or intuitive to use as the one in Forza and I seriously doubt many will get much use out of it. Not only that, but the vast majority of vinyl types must be unlocked through career progression. Perhaps the nail in the coffin for the vinyl editor is the lack of a basic user-friendly option in the form of a “mirror” option to apply the vinyls on one side of the car to the other. However, each car comes with a handful of pre-made race liveries so it's not required to fool with the editor to get that tacky “race-car” look.

In terms of graphics, Shift is the best looking Need for Speed in years, perhaps even the best looking iteration we've seen on the console to date. Unlike Prostreet, the environments look great and range from deserts, forests and the docks of Japan (and there are plenty of tracks as well). They all have a great amount of detail and the dock levels were probably my favorites with their towering walls of shipping containers and looming cranes. The car models are also exceptional and I haven't been this in awe of a game's cars since Project Gotham Racing 3.

While the graphics are undeniably sexy, the driver camera is where this game truly shines. Like many games before it, players can use the driver's perspective for racing. However this has never been done as well as it has here. Simply put, the driver cam in Shift is phenomenal. Car interiors are immaculately detailed down to the dashboard stitching and vents. The viewpoint is also perfect as you can almost always see the left hand mirror without adjustment. However some people may not like the fact that approximately half the rear view mirror falls outside the driver's field of vision. Even so, you can move the driver's head to look to the side, and this responds quickly enough that it shouldn't cause too many problems.

The real innovation comes with the visual effects of the driver cam. As the car accelerates, tunnel vision will begin to set in, slowly blurring the edges of the screen to simulate the driver focusing on the track. While this is a touch more noticeable than it would be in real life, it still does an excellent job of simulating speed and isn't too distracting. Crashing is also unique in the game. When the car hits a wall or another car at speed the driver's vision will go to black and white for a moment. In a big crash the whole view will even distort and go hazy to simulate the disorientation of a crash. The driver will even gasp, grunt and breathe heavily.

It should be said that Shift is really meant to be played in the first person viewpoint. And, if you don't you'll have to watch the strange car animations. In a behind-the-car camera, you'll witness how the cars move in a thoroughly unrealistic manner. It doesn't even look as if they're touching the ground, just rotating on a pivot in the middle of the car.

While the visuals are generally excellent, there are numerous issues with the whole presentation. As with Prostreet, cars can be damaged and this is still inconsistent. It takes a truly cataclysmic event (or two) to cause any real damage, such as a slightly crumpled hood or cracked windshield. There were times when I plowed head-on into a wall in excess of one hundred miles an hour and didn't cause any discernable damage. If these things happen enough times, it can affect the performance of the car but it takes so much abuse to accomplish this many players might never even notice. Crashing into another car will also produce some strange results. One of the wilder instances of this occurred when I rear-ended another car, which promptly popped into the air as I drove underneath it.

There's also an irritating issue in regards to the interior view, at least for us Americans. All the measurements are in metric units, so your speed is represented as kilometers per hour. Even if you change the options to imperial measurements, this only changes the HUD and not the actual in car speedometer. Speaking of the HUD, it's a real stinker. The track map is entirely useless as only a small portion of it is displayed at a time and it's nigh invisible because it's translucent. There are several other issues as well, such as the fact that your position can be hard to decipher amidst the large info bar on the top left of the screen (I seriously don't care what lap times everyone else is posting, just tell me what position I'm in!). And finally, the load times between races can often seem to drag on forever.

Shift's audio isn't all that impressive, but there are a few nice touches here and there. As always the music is downright terrible, but this should come as no surprise to anyone who's played a NFS game in the past four years or so. However, music is muted by default and unless you fool with it you'll never have to suffer. By and large, engine noise and other sound effects are fitting, but there was one oddity in several cars I never could figure out; while braking I often heard some sort of beeping sound. I'm not sure if this was actually a feature of the car I was driving at the time, but it was consistent and very strange. One nice touch is that your narrator/tour guide who explains event types and other things will give you a succinct explanation about what performance upgrades do (and he's a cultured English gentleman, which is a classy touch).

There is one final issue that needs to be addressed. Need for Speed Shift is relentlessly buggy. Some of the glitches I encountered included the left and right triggers not responding in the vinyl editor and a really weird car physics bug that caused my car to bounce uncontrollably. I also noticed a few odd visual bugs that included vinyls disappearing and reappearing. And if the claims are to be believed, I was lucky. There have been widespread reports of many other visual glitches and perhaps the biggest problem has the potential to break the game altogether. A certain upgrade called the “Works conversion” can permanently break the car it is applied to. This entails a limit on the car's top speed (as low as 120mph) and stopping the player from shifting past a certain gear. Obviously these things have the potential to pretty much stop any career progress altogether. While I was lucky enough not to encounter these serious glitches (primarily because I'd been forewarned about them), the reports are widespread enough to believe. Not only that, but EA has taken notice of the problem on their official forums.

During my time with Shift my feelings toward the game, appropriately enough, shifted every few races. At times I went from intense loathing to jittery excitement and then on to disinterested detachment. Even though there are a lot of cool elements in play in NFS Shift, they are outweighed by some serious problems. Driving physics, which are the backbone of any racing game, are just too inconsistent to satisfy serious players. Compounding that issue is the unforgiveable prevalence of bugs strewn throughout the game. Though the game is not the unfettered crap-fest that Prostreet was, Shift will certainly not make anyone forget the genre heavyweights. Ultimately Shift just feels like a lazy, buggy drive through well-worn territory.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 11/17/09, Updated 07/07/10

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

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