Need For… Simulation?
The Need for Speed franchise has been a staple in the automotive genre for almost a decade. However, the series seemed to peak during its PlayStation 2 era. While current generation offerings have certainly been competent, many fans wanted change from the series. After last year’s dismally received Need for Speed: Undercover, it was clear that the old formula was getting stale, and EA wisely went back to the drawing board. The result is Need for Speed: Shift, which appropriately enough, represents quite a shift for the series itself. While NFS has historically featured very speed-intensive arcade-style controls, Shift adds realistic sim-style controls to the mix, but it doesn’t quite go all the way with them, which is actually a good thing.
While series like Forza and Gran Turismo have a far-reaching reputation for appealing to the most hardcore of simulation enthusiasts, Need for Speed has always prided itself on being very accessible. Need for Speed’s challenge then would be to make simulation racing accessible to a wide audience by not abandoning its arcade heritage. But how do you reconcile the two? Well, in the case of Need for Speed: Shift, you start with an arcade base and then add scalable simulation elements.
When you first start the game, you’ll have to drive through a test lap. This test lap has plenty of sharp turns and obstacles, and the goal is for the game to see how you handle the new simulation-style controls. If you veer off the road a lot or experience some spinning out, the game will recommend an easy control setting, which features plenty of driving assists and some eased turn mechanics. However, if you are a master of the S-curve and don’t have any problems keeping your vehicle in control through drifts, swerves, and obstacles, then the game will recommend an advanced setting, which takes all the training wheels off. Though the advanced setting isn’t as hardcore as some of the other simulation franchises out there, it does a good job of lending a tinge of credibility to the game’s otherwise take-no-prisoners approach.
However, even on the most advanced setting, Need for Speed: Shift still stays true to its identity. There are still plenty of crazy acceleration elements, and you can certainly push most cars past normal mechanical limits. Most cars also have a nitro boost that can be added on if you so desire. However, if you are really digging the sim mechanics, the nitro boost doesn’t have to be activated. In addition to the acceleration and boost areas, NFS: Shift also takes an arcade approach to collisions, which can be set to various damage levels, but won’t take you out of the race completely.
Its not an exaggeration to say that NFS: Shift is the best hybridization of simulation and arcade styles I have ever seen. The game perfectly balances the two and actually enhances both genres. Though sim-style racing certainly encourages players to be precise, you don’t really get the thrill of acceleration and rapid position changes. Conversely, arcade style games provide plenty of thrills, but lack the dedication and precision you need for a sim-style race. However, in NFS: Shift you are able to experience all of these elements (to a varying degree, again depending on the difficulty, driving level, and driving assists enabled), and you can really customize the experience to tailor the game to your individual driving style.
Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the game’s level system. Much like an RPG, NFS: Shift awards experience points to you during a race based on how you drive during the race. If you stay on the race lines, turn corners with ease, and pass other vehicles without incident, you’ll get points for being a precision driver. However, if you take hard turns, slam other cars as you overtake them, and trade paint to get ahead, then you’ll get points for being an aggressive driver. After each race, you’ll be able to see how precise or aggressive your driving style is, and the game will award you a badge depending on your overall points for either precision or aggression. Though both types of points count toward your overall driving level (which unlocks extra cars and design features), whichever tally is in the lead will determine your badge design and what in-game awards you are eligible for.
While the game’s RPG-like leveling system certainly is interesting, it is unfortunately a little too easy to master. Once you reach driving level 50, you are considered to be “maxed out” and you won’t be able to progress any further. This level cap is fairly low, especially for hardcore automotive players who may put hundreds of hours into finishing their garage and fine-tuning their vehicles. While I am sure that this sect of automotive enthusiast will still enjoy the game’s 70+ cars, it would have been nice if there were was an advanced leveling system in place so they could get rewards for advanced driving accomplishments along the way.
Another facet of NFS: Shift that was somewhat disappointing was the career mode. Like the overall leveling system, it suffers from being much too short. The career mode is built around a semi-pro street racing world where the end-goal is to compete in an NFS World Championship. Along the way you’ll have to go through five different tiers of racing events and earn gold stars for pulling off advanced precision or aggression moves. Once you get a set number of stars, you can advance to the next level, as well as earn sponsorship deals that will bring in extra money and gain you notoriety.
However, getting these stars is fairly easy, and you only need to complete about 1/3 of the events in a given tier in order to gain enough stars to advance to the next tier. If you just run through the career mode, I can’t imagine it taking more than four hours to complete. If you go for 100%, you’ll probably get closer to the seven or eight hour mark (especially if you factor in elusive stars on advanced courses), but the experience still feels a little too short.
The online component is also competent, but it just doesn’t feel very immersive. There are two main ways to race online. The first is the standard versus match, which pits you against up to seven other players in the classic race to the finish. This race can be customized to include unlocked cars and tracks, but it doesn’t have many features that we haven’t seen before. However, the second online mode is much more interesting: Driver Duel. This mode is a one-on-one mode, and it allows you to compete in several tiered “best of” modes where the goal is to chase your opponent. You take turns being the chaser and the leader, and the specifics of each win are determined by a tiered ladder system. You have to rack up consecutive wins to advance up the ladder, but lose even one duel and you are bunked back down to the bottom. However, if you rack up enough wins in a row you’ll be able to compete in a Driver Duel championship.
As far as production values go, Need for Speed: Shift is certainly an improvement over its predecessors. Visuals, including cars and tracks, have plenty of detail, and the framerate issues that plagued past releases have all but disappeared. The game also includes several pre-rendered cutscenes that play during the game’s career mode. These cutscenes look great, and they have a high level of environmental detail not seen in prior NFS games. As far as the audio is concerned, NFS features a pretty generic soundtrack, with peppy rock and hip-hop themes playing during races. However, the automotive sounds are great, and I could tell whether there was a Ferrari or a Honda behind me simply by listening to the hum of the different engines.
Need for Speed: Shift is a great reboot for the NFS franchise. The new focus on simulation-style racing combined with the fast-paced arcade elements that we’ve come to expect from NFS form a perfect marriage that makes this a great title to play. However, my only complaint is that there just isn’t enough there. Nevertheless, tearing up the track and leveling up your driver is great fun, and the experience alone makes this title worth checking out. However, I sincerely hope that EA and the folks at Slightly Mad take this winning formula and expand it for the next NFS. If you have written off the NFS series and even missed the last few entries, now is a great time to come back. Shift is certainly a game-changer and is earning itself a place once more among the other heavyweights in the genre.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Cars and tracks are nicely detailed, and pre-rendered cinema scenes look amazing. 4.8 Control
The best on an NFS game to date. The sim controls are just complex enough to give simulation fans a challenge, but the scalable difficulty gives new players (and those more accustomed to the original NFS style) some room to grow into the control. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Canned dialogue is repetitive, background music is passable, but vehicle sounds are spot on. 3.6 Play Value
The career mode is too short, and while the driver duel online mode is interesting, if you aren’t into building your garage or maxing vehicle stats, there’s not much to do here past the seven or eight hour mark. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.