Review: Need for Speed: SHIFT (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Need for Speed: Shift
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Genre: Realistic Driving Simulator
Release Date: 9/15/2009

I went and previwed Need for Speed: Shift back in August when they had it for display at a pre-release event that showcased a lot of glitz and glamour, sometimes overshadowing the game they were trying to show off. However, as a true gaming journalist, and with the help of my beautiful, intelligent and borderline domestically abusive girlfriend Aileen, I was able to avoid the boobs around me and focus on the game, which I liked a lot. However, finances are finances, and the economy does stink, so when it came time for September 15th to roll around, I decided to pick up only one game – NHL ’10 – and considering the fact that I called it the “greatest sports game ever”, one would be safe in assuming that it was enough to sate my desire for a new game.

Then, lo and behold, Electronic Arts sent me a gift: a message from Alex, saying “you’re getting Need for Speed: Shift to review”. Oh boy! It’s like Christmas in October! Who cares if the game came in a couple weeks after it came out? I liked the little bit I was able to play and looked forward to giving it a full once-over.

However, there’s one bad part about reviewing video games for a job: deadlines. It’s not all rainbows and teddy-bears; we have a deadline to keep when we take games from companies to review, and unfortunately, I’ll be turning this one in massively, almost embarrassingly late. This is not because I lorded over the game, deciding not to play it, or because I disliked it to the point where I didn’t want to do it; in fact, I’ll make the rest of this review anti-climatic and state I do like the game a lot. The problem is that there’s a lot to do, a lot to unlock, and a lot of things that have to be done before someone with any bit of journalistic integrity can put a score on a game. Furthermore, it requires a lot of driving skill – something I have more of than Aileen, but not in abundance – to get far in this game, which took even longer. Have faith that I was able to play long enough to determine that NFS: Shift is the best Need for Speed game I’ve ever seen, and can at least compete with the likes of Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo in the realistic driving simulation genre, and determine it accurately with hours of play time. Even if Alex is annoyed at my atrocious deadline management.

The first thing you’re asked to do when you initially boot up is to try a test lap in a stock car (not to be confused with a Stock Car like you’d see in NASCAR). This determines what the game feels is the best difficulty level for you with various sliders having different settings; you can do it again if you wish, or go with your own settings should you desire it, making this somewhat similar to a similar mode that was in Madden ’09. After this, you are made to race in a full race to determine how much money you get for your first car; again, you can do this as often as you desire. After you purchase your car, you’re brought full-bore into the game, which gives you three options: Quick Race, Career Mode and XBox Live. Quick Race is exactly that, and it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen in previous racing games, so therefore, I’m going to spend the bulk of my time talking about the other two modes. Career Mode takes you through five tiers, the first four being a preliminary for the NFS World Tour, which is the ultimate goal of the game. Advancement is possible by acquiring stars, which can be gained with podium finishes, picking up driver points during the race, or with a bonus modifier, such as performing a “clean” lap or leading for an entire lap; gain enough stars, and you’ll advance to the next tier. Star collection is cumulative, so by gaining all of the available stars in Tier 1, you’ll have a head up on Tier 2 and won’t have to do much to open up Tier 3, etc. What’s great about this is that it lets players more or less advance at their own pace. If you don’t like Drift events – which I’ll get into more in a bit – then you can more or less avoid them unless you’re having trouble with other race types. Gameplay in career mode is balanced out well; tier 1 can be finished off with little problem, but I had legitimate problems with tier 4, mainly owing to the fact that the AI of opposing drivers had gotten much better, and the fact that most of the cars were exceptionally fast; one mistake can literally cost you a tier 4 or 5 race, and it’s easy to make a mistake when you’re careening through a narrow lane at 170mph. With that said, the game never feels TOO tough, and there’s a fair amount of balance in the whole endeavour.

Speaking of race types, there are quite a few of them to partake in. There are the general mixed races, but they don’t play as large a part in career mode as one would think because there’s just as much focus on things such as manufacturer races (where you’re given a car), time attacks (basically time trials, only you’re on the track at the same time as other drivers), endurance races, rival matches and drift races. There’s also international events that you unlock as you go up in level that have things like eliminator races, hot laps (time trials), and the privilege of checking out higher level tier events as a preview to get into some better cars. There’s a LOT to do, and the only negative is the drift event, mainly because drifting is so vastly different than what you’d expect from a normal race. Instead of being timed on getting across the finish line, you’re graded for style on how well you drift around corners based on angle, speed, and time spent drifting. The main problem is that drift enabled cars handle much differently than they do when they’re not being used in a drift event; it’s like handling a schizophrenic Asperger’s patient who’s high on pocky. They could have gotten rid of drifting and not had any negative impact on the overall game, because after two weeks of consistent play, I still have no idea on how to drift properly.

One of the things I mentioned in terms of picking up said stars was the driver points. Need for Speed has a system that gives you points towards levels depending on what you do on the race track, be it holding the racing line or handling a corner well enough to “master” it. The big issue in play here is that it scores points in two categories: precision and aggressive moves. Precision moves are things like cleanly overtaking an opponent, holding a proper racing line, handling a corner well and other things you would expect to see professional racers do, whereas aggressive moves include drafting an opponent, hitting them (“Trading Paint” is worth 25 aggressive points), or even tapping them off the course or spinning them out. What this means is that this is the first realistic racing game that not only acknowledges dirty play with more than a penalty, it actually encourages it, and while this is making the Forza Motorsport fans wrinkle their noses, it’s nice to have that flexibility in gameplay, where all’s fair instead of having a beef to complain about when you’re spun off the track. Regardless of how you score your points, they all add up for a singular score, which all serve as experience towards levelling up – from one to fifty – which unlocks things such as paint schemes, rim styles, international events and most importantly, cash for cars and upgrades. It’s a great system that adds replayability long after most people will have beaten the World Tour, and provides a nice cash infusion as you move along, as the later cash prizes are enough by themselves to buy the best cars in the game. The only problem I really have with the level up system is that one of the upgrades you get is garage spaces; if you focus on purchasing cars instead of upgrading your current ones, you can find that you run out of garage spaces very quickly, potentially leading to a case where you have to sell a car in order to race in a restrictive series.

In terms of car selection, there’s a lot of nice cars to purchase, though the selection comparatively pales to Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport due to the fact that there are not only much less cars to choose from, but they are also almost always new cars; people that like driving older muscle cars really need not apply here. There’s also a heavy slant towards European car makers such as BMW and Porsche. There are four tiers of cars, and while you can race in higher tier events with a lower tier car, you cannot go lower with a better car. However, since all cars are upgradeable through three tiers (with the higher tier cars already having the lower tier upgrades applied), it’s possible to purchase a really crappy Tier 1 car and upgrade it to the point where it tears up the rest of Tier 1, and can hold it’s own in higher tiers. Most cars are rated statistically in four categories – top speed, acceleration, handling and braking – and these are all brought together to provide a “car rating” that is supposed to definitively tell the quality of the car you’re driving; for people that want actual car stats, those are provided as well. The car rating and bar ratings are nice for bridging a gap between casual racers and hardcore tuning freaks, but I found them to be a bit disingenuous; I have a Ford Escort RS Cosworth that’s upgraded all the way up through the Works package that rates at 8.29, but I get better performance out of it in all aspects of driving than I do my 11.02 rated BMW M3 E92 or my 11.36 rated Mitsubishi Lancer EVOLUTION. If you are one of those people that like to tune your cars to exacting specifications, there are some nice tuning options that again, aren’t as intricate as those found in other racing games, but again in a way to bridge the causal/hardcore divide, there are quick tuning options that basically limit everything to bar graphs depending on whether you want under-steer or over-steer, or a focus on speed or grip. Finally, in addition to regular upgrades such as for the engine, transmission and other upgrades, there are three types of upgrades that are separate. There are cars that are available to be used in drift races – these are always rear wheel drives, usually European cars – as well as cars that can add Nitrous, in true Need for Speed fashion. There are also cars that support something called the Works package, which is available once all upgrades have been purchased; this is an expensive, yet full-ranging upgrade that makes the car’s performance jump, sometimes dramatically so. Since there are racing series in the latter stages that concentrate on putting Works styled cars against Tier 4 Supercars, it’s worth the while to take a car and upgrade it the whole way, even if upgrading a Tier 3 car for Works costs $350,000. The one thing I do NOT like about purchasing cars in this game is the fact that they can be purchased – like just about everything in EA games nowadays – with Microsoft Points. The cost for cars is ridiculously low; for gamers that don’t want to play the game for hours and save up $1.1m for the best purchasable car in the game – the Pagani Zonda R – they can purchase the car as DLC for $3. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if these cars weren’t able to be brought into online races; as it is, some mouth-breather just starting the game can be racing with a Pagani if he wants to be. I can’t understate how much I hate this, but it must be working as EA is bringing this business model into their other games, and while I would hope that gamers that do this would become pariahs, the abundance of cheaters in PS2 and DS online games tells me that this is becoming the norm, so I don’t see it going away.

When it comes to driving in itself, as mentioned, the mechanics of driving in races is already different from the start just due to the fact that the game encourages rough play, but in terms of driving the cars themselves, they all handle the way you would expect a real car to handle (drift cars excepted). What’s most notable is that if you end up off the track and into dirt, it’s exceptionally hard to get back to the road; some of the better cars go so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep them on the road, especially if you don’t see a curve or corner coming. There’s a driving line that gives brake points and gives speed help, and it’s usually very accurate, but good drivers are going to find places when going with the driving line is not the best way to go about racing. One aspect where the driving line is important is “mastering” corners; every corner on every track (save the tri-oval, which is a NASCAR style, left-turn-only track) grades you on how you take it in terms of speed, how close you are to the driving line, and if you hit anything while taking it. If you master the corner, you get credit for it (and 50 Precision points). Overall, driving in NFS: Shift is different from the rest of the game because while the rest of the game focuses on balancing casual and hardcore gameplay, driving, unless you’re on the easiest settings, is a rather hardcore affair due to how the cars handle, and how hard it can be to reassert yourself if you run off the course. The game also punishes players who cut the track; do it enough times and you’ll be DQ’d from a race, and any lap you cut the track on doesn’t count in terms of timing, making that a large penalty in time attack races. In online mode, it’s even worse; your speed is reduced for three seconds – almost like having to black flag in a NASCAR race for going through the pits too fast – which is almost always costly. The problem with this is that the game seems to be inconsistent on what is cutting the track and what isn’t; I’ve had times where I just got back onto a straightaway and was dinged for cutting the track, but there are also times when I’ve blatantly cut the track and not been caught. One thing I absolutely love is the driver AI of computer opponents, in the sense that it’s not perfect; in Forza, most other drivers are extremely good, and in Gran Turismo, drivers stick to the driving line like their lives depend on it, but in Shift, other drivers will make mistakes. You’ll see them lose control on hard corners, spin themselves out, spin each other out, and sometimes ignore the racing line. I cannot believe that other racing games have not tried this; even the irreverent Forza Motorsport hasn’t pulled it off truly realistic artificial intelligence yet.

Gameplay for this game segues smoothly into the graphical prowess of the engine, which is notable because I cannot understate how gorgeous NFS: Shift really is. The car models and such all look good, but that’s not where the game really shines; all of the tracks look outstanding, cars kick up dust if they run off the track, and the game gives a tremendous sense of speed in the better cars. It should be noted that every picture is either something I took personally, or something taken by others; they’re all direct, in-game screenshots. Two things jump out at me the most: the first is the in-car view of each car, which is easily the best I’ve ever seen, with each car having an accurate and completely different cockpit, and a visual representation of your driver turning the wheel and shifting gears; using the right analogue stick moves your head around as if you were looking around the car, which is not only great, but disorienting when in a European car that has the wheel on the right side (meaning I have to adjust how I look at my mirrors). Some of the concept cars look great – I drove one car that had the speedometer on the windshield, which was awesome – and there are a couple of older cars that you can drive in special races that have a nice, classic look inside the car. The other notable part of the game’s graphics is what happens when you crash. Light crashes aren’t too noteworthy, but if you really get jacked up, the screen goes grey, goes darker, the driver representing you groans and emits an audible heartbeat, and your vision goes blurry and stays that way for a few seconds, to the point where on some crashes I instinctively shook my head to clear the cobwebs. Yes, I literally shook my head to shake virtual cobwebs because I momentarily and instinctively thought I got hit hard enough to blur my vision, and with ten recorded concussions in my medical history due to years of contact sports I know a thing or two about getting smacked. With apologies for coarse language, this is the best way I’ve seen any game communicate just what it’s like to get absolutely fucked up, and kudos to Slightly Mad for that.

The rest of the game’s presentation is very good as well; there are a lot of glitzy cut-scenes when you upgrade in tiers or even when you do nothing more than go into a new series of races. There’s a British voiceover that acts as your coach in terms of getting to the World Tour, and while he doesn’t really say anything helpful outside of the tips section when tuning or buying upgrades, he has a lot of lines recorded, and does a great job of adding to the game’s atmosphere. That in itself would be great, but all those lines were also recorded in French and Spanish, which is a huge plus for bilingual users that usually isn’t even see on EU games outside of FIFA. There’s also a replay mode that allows you to view your race in multiple angles and take pictures that let you upload to the internet for use at the main Need for Speed website, which is nice and copies what EA’s doing in their other games. Sound-wise, the game sounds great during races – tires squealing, the way different engines rev up, and all the other sounds you would expect in a street race – but not so great outside of races; leaving the game idling in a menu only brings a few random sounds of engines and voices; no soundtrack plays, which is somewhat disappointing, but not as disappointing as it normally would be because the soundtrack isn’t very good. Most of what I heard playing in replays (and during Drift races, ironically) was either not very good or completely nondescript, and I only recognised one song, a retread from NHL ’10 (and not a good one).

I’ve been mostly positive in this review, but there are a few big issues with this game. The first is with some of the bugs I found. There are simply too many bugs in this product that, even a month after release haven’t been addressed. There’s a glitch in drift races where, if you restart the race from the top, it doesn’t let you do the first attempt, making your score going into the second attempt a zero going in; it’s easy to get around by just going to the main menu after every race, but it’s annoying because loading times going into races are long. More troubling is that some of the cars are given incorrect region information. I tried taking my Works-converted Ford Escort into a race limited to Tier 1-2 cars made in America, and the game ended up telling me that I didn’t have a car that qualified for the event because my other American car was Tier 3. I KNOW Ford is an American company – they don’t get more American than Ford – but for some reason, my Escort was listed as European. I have mostly European cars in my garage, but don’t like American cars; I had to buy another car to race this series, which is a waste of money when upgrades are taken into account. Finally, the biggest glitch I found was that I was run into the wall so hard that I got stuck in it; I had to restart the race to get going. This also happened to me when I played the beta at the Shift preview in NYC, so the fact that this shipped in the final version is baffling to me.

Finally, online mode was something I couldn’t go into in my preview piece – as I mentioned, we weren’t allowed to ask about it – and I can see why now; online mode had so much promise but ultimately comes up short, mainly thanks to how dry it is. You can either race, do time attack or drift races, but good luck finding players for the other two; you’re going to race if you want to play, though it’s nice that the game supports up to eight players at a time. There are also driver duels, which is where I had the most fun. There are leaderboards, but they just measure wins and losses; it would have been nice to have tournaments or something else to play for other than quick races. Just know that if you’re not one that likes the rough aspects of the main game, don’t even bother with online races as they’re ten times worse, as racers are usually so concerned with smashing you up and spinning you out that they forget that they’re racing and not playing Demolition Derby. I don’t mind physical racing, but most players in this game do nothing but run people off the track or, if they’re losing, turn around and try to jack you up. Furthermore, I had problems getting races on any tracks other than the ovals; most hosted games were little more than chances for the hosts to put their purchased cars out there and get easy wins. I typically don’t like playing games online, and NFS: Shift didn’t give me an epiphany, partly for reasons that weren’t it’s fault (other people), but mostly for reasons that are (a lack of compelling reasons to put up with said people).

With all that said, I like what EA did with Need for Speed. I’ve never been fond of the street racing and shoddy gameplay over the years, but I also quickly grow tired of massive simulations, and never see games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport to completion. Shift is a game after my heart, in that it melds together the two sides very well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Shift is for everyone; people that like one extreme or another will probably go back to their respective games. If you will allow me to use a Three Bears analogy, arcade gamers will take a look and go “my arcade game is too simmy!”, whereas simulator gamers will go “my simulation has too much of an arcade taste!”. I look at Shift and go “this is juuuuuuust right!”. And then xboxfan13490123 hits me from behind with a car he bought on day of release for $3 and sends me careening off of the tri-oval track.

The Scores
Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Amazing
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

I love what EA’s done here; anyone that likes the old-school NFS games should wait for Nitro, but I can fully recommend Need for Speed: Shift on any console (avoid the PC version, it uses SecuROM DRM). It looks great, drives well, and has a great balance between the early going and the later tiers. It might not be the “best” simulation of all time – Forza Motorsport 3 is the best game for hardcore gear heads – but I’m only an intermediate gear head, so Shift is my favourite racing sim ever, something that balances simulation and approachability beautifully.

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