[13 October 2009]
The Need for Speed series has been the home to great games, good games, and absolutely awful games. It’s also the first title (that I ever played) that introduced the aggressive AI driver, in the form of a police car, designed to take you down at all costs. Since the arrival of Hot Pursuit on the scene, Need for Speed has struggled to reattain its brilliance. Porsche Unleashed was a fun racer, but the hemmed in tracks and mostly arcade-centric racing were humdrum when compared to new racing titles.
So things have carried on in this fashion, NFS flirting ungracefully with street racing, returning (maladroitly) to Hot Pursuit II, and finally arriving in the present day. Today’s racing scene is both more crowded and more accomplished than it was years ago. Dirt, Burnout, Project Gotham Racing, and the more sim-like Gran Turismo games are all carefully ensconced in their separate niches. Where is Need for Speed: Shift to fit in among these heavy and established hitters?
The answer is: uncertainly, which is the same way that the game goes about defining itself. This is a super-serious mock-up of professional racing, a fiddly fine tuning car sim, an arcade racer complete with bonuses and demerits based on drift, aggression, and precision, and much more (or less, depending on how you look at it).
Shift introduces you to its campaign mode rather convincingly. After your first race, you have to buy your first crappy car. This is where you encounter one of the more amusing but annoying bits of Shift: the EA microtransactions that you’ve all been waiting for. If you don’t have the money to buy a fast Audi, for instance, you can always go to the EA store and pay real money for the car. It’s almost beside the point these days, but EA’s offer to “let” paying customers ($60 in already, mind you) “unlock” better cars for a little fee is both ludicrous and mildly insulting. Of course, it isn’t that hard to earn the money needed to buy relatively nice cars. It’s a feature you can (gleefully) ignore, but it reminds you that for all of EA’s focus on being a nice company with interesting new IPs, they’re still the same cutthroat villains they were years ago.
In-game, you come up against the good and the bad of Shift fairly quickly. As a racing game, it’s less focused on vehicular damage than Burnout, less sim-like than the GT titles, and quite similar to the PGR games. Mostly, you’ll be carefully drifting around corners, precisely decelerating into and accelerating out of turns. The controls are pretty good, although they’re a bit twitchy for my taste. It’s hard to ease into and out of turns unless you turn the sensitivity way up and drive very carefully. Otherwise there’s a lot of overturning and correction.
What’s welcome is the game’s meta-game system, which revolves around cash rewards and an extremely detailed, moment-to-moment judge system. Whenever you do anything in Shift, the game pointedly, carefully records your progress and grades you on your prowess. For instance, when accelerating to pass a car, it records your speed, any contact made with the opposing car, how closely you follow the recommended path, and the smoothness of your acceleration and deceleration. It records similar information when you round any turn. That’s right, every time you slide into or out of a turn, you receive a separate grade for each turn.
All of this record-keeping helps the game determine whether you played the course aggressively or precisely. You get points in each category depending on how you won each race. Sliding off the road, bumping other cars, and avoiding the recommended path all earn you aggressive points. Following the recommended path (which traces the ideal route through each course), avoiding crashes, and accelerating perfectly into and out of turns all earn your precision points. In all honesty, there isn’t a difference between how well you do in either area. If you get 1st place and earn enough achievement points (earned by following the perfect route for a long time, taking another car out, or other minor achievements), you’ll always have enough money to by cool new cars and upgrade them.
What feels great about this point/reward system is that it doesn’t punish you for one kind of driving or the other, as long as you don’t count losing. You can drive as messily or cautiously as you want, and the game will reward you. It goes a long way toward making the game feel like your racing experience even if it isn’t that freeing or responsive.
The car and race selection also follow in this vaguely open, skill-based direction. Certain races can only be completed using certain classes of cars, meaning that you’ll end up with at least four different cars. Even better, every single car can be upgraded and tuned in myriad ways. This is by far my favorite part of Need for Speed: Shift after the grading scale. The game rewards you for picking your favorite cars and upgrading them. Sure, you could buy all of the best cars, but then you would never have enough money to upgrade any of them, or add silly extras like rims, spoilers, and specialized undercarriages.
If you want, you can even turn the game into a fin-tuned street racing version of itself, messing with every minute detail of your vehicle. Although this isn’t my thing, from a cursory glance, it’s obvious there’s a deep system of tweaks and adjustments available to those looking for such things.
This is the feeling that Shift will leave you with when you take a break from the game: it’s happy to provide you with a racing experience tailored to your likes and dislikes. Even better, it’s happy to let you do as much of that tailoring as is reasonably possible (without you destroying the balance of the game, of course). It’s a pleasant kind of racing, one that’s been left behind in recent years—what with the hyper-realistic tracks and cars on one hand, and the over-the-top weapons and hijinks of other racers.
Hopefully, this friendly flexibility will help you to forgive Shift its faults. The graphics are at best workmanlike, and the game’s cool menu music makes you wish they’d dropped the “authentic racing” (read: no music) approach to in-game music and included more racing music tracks.
Luckily, the multiplayer delivers in the same way the single player does: the player in each match with the best-recorded time on a map “owns” that map. Thus, other players must beat her to earn the “ownership” of the map. It’s one more way that Shift makes you feel like the center of every match regardless of how well you do. Shift may not have created a strong new identity for itself as a franchise-restorer, but it definitely outshines most other racers when it comes to its combination of semi-rigorous racing mechanics, a plethora of options, and addictive reward mechanics. It may not be terribly distinctive, but it lets you pick how you enjoy the game, a tactic few games pursue.