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Need for Speed SHIFT (PlayStation 3) artwork

Need for Speed SHIFT (PlayStation 3) review

"Those who have been listening to the hype should be well aware of EA’s intent to push the series deeper into simulation gaming. But this doesn’t mean that SHIFT is going to compete with Forza and Gran Turismo – far from it. In fact, the game is somewhat of an arcade/simulation mix that could appeal to gamers who were never quite satisfied with the work of Turn 10 Studios and Polyphony Digital."

It’s no secret that the Need for Speed series has been driving all over the place. NFS Underground, NFS Hot Pursuit, NFS Carbon and NFS ProStreet were drastically different from each other, encompassing gameplay types as varied as police chases and dragster street races. Now, with yet another adjustment, one more variation can be added to that list with the release of Need for Speed SHIFT.

Those who have been listening to the hype should be well aware of EA’s intent to push the series deeper into simulation gaming. But this doesn’t mean that SHIFT is going to compete with Forza and Gran Turismo – far from it. In fact, the game is somewhat of an arcade/simulation mix that could appeal to gamers who were never quite satisfied with the work of Turn 10 Studios and Polyphony Digital.

Like most simulators, SHIFT is most memorable for its integration of many different features, cars and race types. Unlike most racing games, you won’t be accessing each element individually – instead, the developers wisely combined them for a career mode that is as lengthy as it is exhilarating.

Most strikingly, SHIFT all but begs the player to choose the first-person (in-the-car) view. It is wholly possible to select and enjoy another, more common perspective. The behind-the-car view is certainly a nice way to keep an eye on your surroundings while drooling over the intricately designed car models. Whether taken straight from the factory with a predetermined, ultra-shiny coat of red, black or blue, or pulled into the garage for a homemade color scheme, SHIFT’s cars look amazing. But that’s not an excuse to play using the third-person view – not to the developers, at least. Doing so means you’ll have to sacrifice the gorgeous, Forza 3-rivaling interiors of each automobile. More importantly, it means you will sacrifice the racing element that matters most – speed.

SHIFT is a very fast racing game, but you won’t know it unless you play from inside the car. Once inside, it’s hard not to get lost in the skid-producing, rubber-burning sensations. Every car – from the semi-luxurious Audi S3 and the fairly basic Chevy Cobalt SS to the high-end Bugatti Veyron and the highly anticipated Camaro SS – looks extremely realistic. From the first-person view, each vehicle’s movements are enhanced by subtle jostling that occurs with every start, stop and turn. It’s an amazing effect that is entirely unique to the Need for Speed series, and is only rivaled by the latest Forza and DiRT iterations.

Although SHIFT’s vehicle lineup cannot compare to the hundreds featured in past Forza and Gran Turismo games, its implementation is quite clever – and, in some ways, superior. SHIFT introduces new cars, tracks and events via five different racing tiers. Each tier is progressively more challenging than the one that preceded it, requiring that the player obtains a better class of automobile. Thus, the beginning tier consists of basic (but fairly cool) vehicles like the Honda Civic Si and the Mazda MX-5. At first, only three racing series are available – Race Coalition (standard racing), Manufacturer Competition (everyone gets the same ride from the same manufacturer) and Time Attack – but each series contains events, and each event consists of one or more actual races.

This format is not exactly brand-new, but by having events that are layered with gameplay content, the developers were able to bake the game in depth. As you progress, so will the quality and variety of the events, which include one-on-one car battles and competitions that force two nations’ worth of manufacturers to face off (ex: Japan vs. USA).

New tiers – and as a result, new events – are unlocked by earning stars, which are obtained by driving well and by achieving first (three stars), second (two stars) or third place (one star). The former requirement – driving well – is fair but challenging: you may have to achieve a certain speed limit, drive within the Perfect Line (an optional feature that visualizes the optimum path for achieving the maximum speed in any given course), score a certain number of Profile Points, or perform a similar task.

Profile Points are SHIFT’s answer to EXP; every time you level up, something new is unlocked – new mods, new parts, and/or new challenges. But unlike an RPG, which typically rewards players for defeating enemies, Profile Points are obtained by performing everyday driving maneuvers. These maneuvers include (but are not limited to) passing opponents, drifting, and driving within the Perfect Line.

Both the star system and the Profile Points system were risky additions to a racing franchise that has been a bit rocky as of late. But the developers knew what they were doing – aside from rewarding us for oue extra effort, these features are a fun diversion that’ll keep players amused race after race.

Though you aren’t required to use it, SHIFT offers a deep tweaking and upgrades system that lets you create the car you want to drive. There are dozens of options here – far more than most gamers will ever fully understand – ranging from your vehicle’s alignment and differential to its tire/brake pressure and its springs and dampers. Even the paint feature is impressive, thanks to the creatively designed Color Wheel, which lets you carefully and intuitively adjust the hues of dozens of different colors. The upgrades themselves are pretty easy to implement: simply purchase the ones you want and the game will automatically attach them. There are dozens of options here as well, but you don’t need to be a car expert to get the most out of them since the game indicates which features (such as speed, handling or acceleration) will be enhanced if an upgrade is equipped.

All of this amounts to an impressive racing package. But unfortunately, not all is perfect in the land of SHIFT. It clearly wants to be a simulator, so it employs a few control styles that let you use or remove things like brake assist and physical (not visual) body damage. These options are certainly helpful, especially for those who want SHIFT to be a pick-up-and-play experience. But whether they’re turned on or off, these features do nothing for the oddball racing physics, which turn every skid into a potential nightmare and every accident into a blurry mess. When crashing into a wall, the screen blurs and turns grey. Though it might sound like an artistic way to demonstrate the intensity of a collision, it looks hideous. After the blurry effect fades away, the car is frequently left in a state of near-immobility; it takes forever to back up or turn away from a wall (or any object you’ve crashed into).

When crashing into other drivers, the results are either cushioned (like hitting a wall with airbags) or akin to a pinball machine (one or more of the cars involved bounces back unrealistically). Despite having the option to accept the physical damage of a crash, there is no option to make the cars crumple or react more realistically. Visually, the damage is old-school – hoods are removed, windshields are cracked, etc.

So while the vehicles may drive like clunkers, they always look like they are somewhat impervious. They are not, of course – even with the brake assist turned on, it isn’t hard to screw up a turn and go flying off the track. To get back on, players can either hold the select button and warp back (which is not a fast process) or drive back over terrain that heavily reduces your speed. Either way, your opponents are bound to use this opportunity to get a few seconds ahead.

But why, in this day and age, should they be allowed to? Yes, that’s what the genre is about: you take and retain the lead for the first two laps and lose it just before the third lap ends. One year ago, however, GRID showed us a better way to race by introducing a rewind feature that let players take back a limited number of mistakes. That feature was so well received that GRID’s off-road sibling, DiRT, picked it up for its sequel. Arguing that every racing game should have it, Forza 3’s developers borrowed it as well. It would be unfair to fault SHIFT too severely for not including a feature that they were likely unaware of until the game’s development had begun. But it would be naďve to think that gamers won’t think of that feature – and wish they had it – every time they crash in this game.

If you can get past these issues (those who love racing games definitely should), Need for Speed SHIFT is a fast and highly entertaining racing game. Its options drive much deeper than most arcade racers, and its simulation features aren’t so crazy that it will turn off the arcade-only crowd.


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Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (November 10, 2009)

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