Need for Speed Shift Review
Torn between two worlds
Need for Speed Shift is the latest instalment of the long-running racing video game franchise. Shift was developed by Slightly Mad Studios — who previously helped develop much more simulation-based titles such as GT Legends and GTR 2 together with SimBin Studios. In the new franchising model for the series adopted by EA, Shift takes its place focusing on simulation racing and realistic drifting rather than the arcade racing of previous titles in the series. It abandons the street racing formula of previous games and focuses on simulating the "true" driver experience, in the process risking the loss of it’s dedicated fan base. In all honesty, Shift comes across as yet another game from the sim based lineup of GTR2 and Race07, and there are many similarities to those games. I feel that Shift is simply taking a modified GTR2, simplifying the controls and physics to a more arcade driving style, and slapping the Need for Speed logo on the cover. While this doesn’t mean that the game is anywhere below average, it just seems like a mismatch of title and content. Fans of racing sims may dismiss the game outright because Need for Speed was never known for being anything other than arcade, whereas fans of the series will find themselves struggling through the career mode due to Shift’s much increased difficulty.
The first thing you will notice when you start on your career is that there isn’t much of a story. In fact, you are a nameless driver who starts out low and wishes to make his way to the top with Shift World Series competition. There are no characters or personalities, other drivers are nothing more than names on the scoreboard. So right off the bat, this may cause some fans of the latest NFS series games to struggle being interested in career mode. However, if you were a NFS fan during the 90’s when the game also lacked any kind of story or personalities, you’ll be alright. Things start off with a practice lap, where fans of NFS will get their first taste of the brutal difficulty of the game (compared to the series usual arcade). You must use the break a lot, turns must be precise and smooth, because sharp turns of the wheel will send you sliding out of control at higher speeds. Due to this, I wouldn’t be surprised if most fans of NFS will set the sliders to “Easy” so they can actually enjoy Shift’s driving model. In the other camp we have the Sim driving fans, who will appreciate the driving mechanics, but at the same time find glaring inconsistencies and overcompensation in components such as turning, accelerating and drifting. You see, the issue with NFS Shift is that it tries a little too hard to appeal to both camps – and ends up not being very good for either. Arcade fans will find the game too challenging, and a lack of a story will provide little motivation to keep going. Sim fans will find that the engine overcompensates in driving mechanics such as sensitivity in order to be a more difficult, rather than being realistic, simulator.
Shift also suffers from robotic, rubber band AI – during group races, a huge gap always forms between the top 3 cars and the rest of the pack. So if you are unlucky enough to be 4th, you can forget about catching a podium place if you are more than a second behind. On the other hand, if you are able to make it to first, you can pretty much keep the rest of the drivers behind you the whole time – but if someone passes you, they are suddenly granted some kind of super boost and speed away in a much less upgraded car. The one on one races provide similar frustrations, as you will easily win the race if you can keep your opponent from overtaking you. But if you let them slip past, you have no chance of catching them again (Even on easiest difficulty). Sure, as the game advertises, the AI drivers make mistakes and allow the rest to pass them, however I’ve only had this happen early in the race when there were no clear winners yet. Once the pack forms into the “3-gap-the rest” formation, the top 3 never made a mistake in the 50+ group races I’ve played through.
There are 4 car tiers in the game, each with a sizable collection of vehicles to choose from. Each car has an overall numerical rating, as well as detailed properties sliders. Unfortunately, there is no menu to compare the detailed properties of two vehicles, other than memorizing their overall values. The career events are also based on vehicle tier, so you can only race in tier 3 events if you have unlocked and purchased a tier 3 car. The events include Mixed Race, Car/Manufacturer battle, National events, drift, endurance, Invitational World Tour events, and variations. Interestingly, a lot of events such as Car battle and Invitational, provide you a vehicle to drive. This is great in the early going, as you get a chance to drive top-tier cars while you save up to actually buy one later in your career. However, it takes some time to adjust from driving your tier 1 Honda to racing at 200km/h+ with your Ferrrari on an Invitational event. As mentioned earlier, the ultimate goal of your career is to race in the World Tour event – which is basically a really long Endurance event. To get there, you must unlock all car/event tiers and have a certain driver profile level. To unlock tiers, you must earn stars – 20 stars for tier 1 80 stars for tier 2, etc. You earn stars by participating in races and getting a podium finish, as well as special objectives, such as earning a certain amount of driver points or performing a clean lap. These stars are displayed on every race icon, so you can see how many stars you have already earned, and how many you can still earn by trying the race again. The stars add up quick – it only took me a few hours to unlock tier 4. This ultimately makes for a bit of a short career if you aren’t interested in building up your car collection and simply want to finish the game. You certainly don’t have to complete all available races at each tier – and you are free to go back to previous tiers and complete your star collection at any time.
One of the ways to earn extra stars, as mentioned, is to get a certain amount of profile points – this brings me to the Profile feature. There are 50 “driver” levels to unlock by earning points during every race. Points contribute to either Precision or Aggression, self-explanatory items and they depend on your driving style. The system doesn’t really work though – I am not exactly a very clean driver, and I always grind and bump opponents out of the way, cut them off, try to make them spin out – yet my profile was always leaning towards Precision because the most points in any race are gained by following the Race line (a line that shows where on the road you should drive for best results). The Race line precision points always outweigh any harsh driving you perform, so I find the feature isn’t very well balanced. These points then are added to your profile, and contribute to raising your driver level. With each driver level unlock, you are given various bonuses such as garage slots, cash, and visual accessories. Depending on what level you are at, the biggest reason to progress your driver level is the cash rewards – you are given as much as $100,000 at a measly level 14, which makes the game’s progression a bit uneven. You should really have no trouble getting enough cash to buy one car for each tier and fully upgrade it by the time you’ve earned enough stars to finish Tier 4. And even for race wins, in my opinion you are given quite a lot of cash so I’ve never had money problems in the game. Your driver profile also features Badges – these are just little achievements that help keep track of your in-game accomplishments. You earn badges for things like mastering every corner on a track, overtaking your opponents cleanly a certain number of times, getting a podium finish 5 races in a row, and so on. They don’t affect the gameplay in any way, and do not help your driver level progress. Badges also come in 3 levels: bronze, silver and gold, but again they simply depend on how well or how many times you accomplished the task.
A big part of Shift gameplay is, of course, the cars. There is a huge selection of vehicles across all tiers for you, each with a different initial rating and upgrade options. When you buy a vehicle, it is added to your garage and you are free to customize it. Visual customization is limited to vehicle and rims coloring, and adding vinyls to your car. It’s the usual options that fans of the NFS series have come to expect. However, visual customization is rather limited – you can’t choose specific parts of your body kit, install a new spoiler, mirrors or headlights. More importantly though, you are also able to customize the performance parts of your vehicle. There are 3 categories of performance upgrades for all cars: common parts (3 tiers of them), aerodynamics (visual upgrades such as body kits) and Race parts (such as custom exhaust, suspension). The biggest boost to your car will obviously be the common parts, which significantly increase your stats in various attributes. These are linked to your car tier unlocks, so you cannot apply level 2 parts to your tier 1 car until you’ve unlocked tier 2 in career mode. Cars are also limited in what they can do – not all cars can participate in drift, be Works converted, or use Nitrous. The Works convert is difficult to obtain, it requires that you purchase all possible upgrades for your car, at which point your car can be converted by a heavy price to receive a huge stat boost and be able to take on cars from much higher tiers. In addition to visual and performance customization, you can also tune your car to your preference. There are two options here – basic and advanced tuning. In basic, you have options similar to previous NFS titles, such as a slider for soft/stiff suspension, steering weight adjustments, etc. However, if you are more into the sim side of things, you can go into advanced settings where each category from basic tuning has tons more options and no “overall” slider. Some advanced tuning is even locked until you purchase a required part upgrade. This is more in line with the sim titles like GTR2, and will appeal to those fans. However, it’s arguable exactly how much difference, if any at all, this contributes to the gameplay since.
The game also comes with a solid online experience. There are tons of leaderboards for each track, and even a corner for each track – you can instantly see if you hold the record for mastering a corner or if your friend has taken it better. Duel mode offers quick one-on-one races with three stages, similarly to career mode. Versus mode allows for the usual lobby setup and race with up to 16 drivers. Here, the game touts that it will use the player’s career mode results and place them with either Precision or Aggression drivers, so that one does not annoy the other. However, as I said before, I don’t think this feature is very well balanced, so during my playthrough I saw very few Aggression drivers, and those guys were simply playing bumper cars with no intent of crossing the finish line. Also the online play is the first time I encountered the “Rivals” feature, which calculates what drivers you are enemies with and awards additional points for finishing ahead of them. I really did not see this feature appear anywhere during single player, and there was honestly no interaction at all with other AI drivers – just names on the scoreboard. At least online, you can chat with others and really get some competition going.
Technically, the game is very polished. The cars look extremely detailed, and you can even watch your car change as you install new performance parts. The tracks you find in the game are very detailed and life-like as well, since the developer focused on real tracks and brought them into the game. This means that if you’ve played NFS ProStreet, Race07 or even Grid, you will see some tracks here that you already know. Non the less, they are detailed and true to real life counterparts. There are also some people on the track before the race, but it’s the same models every time. The sideline viewers are largely forgettable and poorly detailed, but you won’t be seeing them very often due to the speeds you’re driving at. One glaring graphical problem is your rear view mirror – no matter the graphical settings (I ran the game maxed), you will watch all textures in the rear view mirror blatantly disappear, leaving only the road, sky, and nearby opponents. It’s ugly to see and takes you right out of the game realism. There is also some screen tearing that will sometimes make you feel as though the game drops below 30FPS, but in reality it is not. Otherwise, there are no major graphical issues.
In the sound department, the game does alright. The cars sound satisfying and loud, but after a while it all seems the same, so the game is definitely behind something like GTR2 or Grid in the car sound production. The majority of your time spent in menus will be accompanied by quiet, techno-esque music that is completely forgettable. During the races, you are by default not accompanied by tunes, so you can take in the realistic setting. However, there is an odd thing about post-race review. After the race is finished, and should you decide to see a replay, you are suddenly met with modern rock and pop, which is confusing after listing to smooth techno the whole time. There seems to be quite a library of this modern music, but for some strange reason it only plays during post-race screens and replays. There is also your car manager – you never see him, but he speaks to you before every race (repeating the same “Good luck” lines), and otherwise says nothing worth noting.
Need for Speed Shift has seen a slump of sales and fans in recent years, especially after the excellent Most Wanted. Black Box, the company behind recent titles, seems to have taken a dive in quality in the recent years, so EA went to an acclaimed studio, and Shift is our result. Shift, by its own merits, is not at all a poor game. It’s simply torn between two worlds – the classic NFS world of arcade driving and fun storytelling, and the hardcore car simulation fans. Ultimately, it doesn’t succeed in pleasing either crowd. The technology is excellent, and I can tell that if given the space, Slightly Mad studious would have made an excellent simulator from the game, along the lines of Race07 or GTR2. Instead, EA wanted to match the success of recent half-arcade, half-sim games such as Dirt or Grid, but missed the mark. This left EA with a hybrid that, while very polished and technically excellent, doesn’t live up to potential because it doesn’t know what it wants to be.