Need for Speed is one of EA's longer running franchises and, with the recent exception of the Burnout series, the only racing game series it has left. Most gamers of this generation who have had at least a mild interest in racing games have played at least one of the many games in the series. Interestingly, the game has had to re-invent itself over the course of its lifetime. It started as a racing simulation title before transforming itself into an arcade racer where it had brief flirtations with both rally racing and police car chases. The series then shifted toward illegal street racing to legal street racing before going back to the illegal version once more. For this entry to the series, EA has changed developers and gone back full circle to make the game a racing simulator once more. For current-generation fans of the game series, Need for Speed: Shift represents a radical change over what was previously offered, and it is definitely for the better.
The game starts off differently compared to the recent entries in the game series. There's no story to speak of, no open world city to drive in, and no cast of characters to get to know and defeat in the process. You start things off with a road test around a track that will determine your settings, depending on your driving skills. Once this is accomplished, you get to the race with that same car and, depending on your winnings, start looking for your first car to own. Your job is to make it through all of the given races all the way to the Need for Speed World Championships.
Game progression is handled by two independent systems. Tracks are grouped in tiers, and each tier is unlocked based on the number of stars you have. Stars are earned by your placement on the podium as well as how well you drive. Bonus stars are also awarded for doing things such as mastering corners but aren't necessary in terms of having to complete them to unlock other tiers. Your driving style also affects your driving rank, the second progression system in the game. Your driving style can focus on precision, where you stay within the driving line and take clean passes, or be aggressive, where trading paint with cars and power-sliding on all corners is the order of the day. Your driving style will determine what types of bonus courses open up for you, but your overall rank will open up new optimization and livery parts for your vehicles.
Car selection and customization is similar to what was offered before as far as aesthetics are concerned. Car colors, shape and decals all return here, and while the livery feels a bit more expanded over the previous games in the series, it still doesn't provide the depth seen in games like Forza Motorsport 2. The tweaking for the car is fairly new and a bit of an improvement over Need for Speed: ProStreet, the series' last simulation-style game. The improvement comes from your narrator, who always tells you the changes that will occur if you tweak a certain part, and the graphs give you nice visual references of what improvements you will and won't get. Rookie car modifiers will appreciate the help since few other simulators try to do the same.
As good as all of this sounds, the game suffers from a few items that stop it from being an almost perfect replacement to some of the top simulation racing games out there. While the main racing is good, the game tries to pull off more modes that don't go over so well. The one-on-one racing duels aren't that bad, but the drift races prove to be less than fun. Compared to the other driving modes, this one controls rather poorly, with cars sliding around more than expected; winning seems to happen by accident more often than not. The driver ranking system is good, but there doesn't seem to be much of a penalty if you stray from one path to the other. You can, for example, go through one tier driving as precisely as possible but drive the next race aggressively and still be able to progress as if nothing had happened. Aside from a few courses opening up, there's no real incentive for sticking with one driving style over another. Finally, since the game lacks any semblance of a story line, it doesn't differentiate itself from the rest of the serious racers in the pack. It's not too bad of a thing to complain about, but with Forza Motorsport 3 coming soon, even a basic plot would have made this feel just a bit different, especially with the number of cars being a fraction of that found in the bigger simulation racing titles.
The multiplayer in Need for Speed: Shift is restricted to online play, but it is customizable in almost every way. All of the race types are represented here, and you can limit each race based on manufacturer and rating. The highest that most races pretty go up to is eight participants, but the online play is pretty similar to offline gameplay. In several online matches of different types, no lag was ever present in regards to both player positioning and controller responsiveness. With an online community that is active as of this writing, you'll have an easy time finding matches. While it is unfortunate that there is no local multiplayer, you still have friends' leaderboards for every track in single-player mode. This has been a welcome feature in other games, and the same can be said here since it gives you the motivation to keep racing tracks over and over again.
Controls have always been a strong point to the racing franchise, and this year's version is no different. Both the acceleration and braking systems are very responsive, as is the steering. Unlike other games, you never feel like you have to fight the controls depending on the type of car you're driving. Again, this doesn't seem to occur with drift races, where just a simple tap of either the handbrake or regular brake can make you face the wrong way rather quickly. As long as you avoid this mode, though, you should feel fine with the default control scheme.
The graphics this time around up the ante when compared to what was delivered before. The car models haven't changed much, but they are still some of the more detailed ones in the business. Each decal and logo on each vehicle is easy to read and make out no matter what the camera distance is. Car damage is also represented nicely, and while you won't see cars get completely wrecked like in the Burnout series, you will see some pretty bad scratches and broken glass if you race roughly.
The real highlight of the graphics is the driver camera, and after just one lap, you'll begin to see why it's been featured in just about every promo video for this game. There's a pretty impressive amount of detail from this viewpoint, with every detail of the interior rendered nicely and very active once the vehicle is in motion. Damage plays a factor as well, with windshields cracking badly enough that they become unviewable if you crash a lot. The crashes from this viewpoint are pretty brutal and give you a good sense of what the driver would see if that same thing occurred in real life. Blackouts, blurred vision, and loss of color really give you some good visual impact; few games have done this before. The effect is so good that you wish other racers would adopt this as well.
The environments don't falter because of all of the attention paid to the driver and vehicles. Each track looks excellent at top speeds, and details such as flags waving from the crowd and the moving crowd itself make tracks come alive. The frame rate holds at a steady 30fps for both driving and replay portions and does a good job of maintaining the visual standard that the game series has had for some time.
Despite all of this praise, the graphics aren't perfect, and it shows up in the replays. Certain camera angles show off just how flat the textures are on the courses, especially the roads and grass, where the players feel it could stand to have some more detail added in. Transitions from replay to menu aren't as smooth as they could be, with instances of objects jumping forward and skipping several frames being a common occurrence. Again, the graphical package is good, but it certainly can't be called the best in the field just yet.
The sound isn't too much of a departure from what the series has provided before, but longtime players will still find that it does sound a bit different this time around. This difference in the sound comes from the music: The predominately hip-hop and rock soundtrack is completely missing and replaced with music that is designed to get you in the mindset of a serious racing film. That's the way it's presented in the menus, at least. Instant replays produce a different vibe as rock and dance music with a European slant take center stage. It fits well, considering that the developer is European and none of the featured tunes seem out of place, though it must be stated that there didn't seem to be many songs in the soundtrack.
During actual races, however, the mood turns serious once more, as the music is completely absent here. Much like Forza Motorsport 2, the game abandons music in favor of the sound effects, which are responsible for creating the game atmosphere. To that end, the sound effects are strong, with solid audio quality behind them. This is further exemplified during races by the excellent use of Dolby Digital in the driver cam, where you'll really feel immersed by the sound. As for voices, there's only one, and it's that of your mysterious English tour guide. His delivery matches the serious vibe brought out by most of the game, and it never feels forced or out of place.
The focus may now be on more simulation over arcade racing, but Need for Speed: Shift shows that the game series can still thrive in just about any setting. Excellent graphics and sound, especially for the driver camera, offer something awesome to the genre, while the controls are as tight as ever. Add this to a mostly solid campaign mode and opponent AI that does more than stick to pre-determined racing lines, and you have a racing game that can stand up well with the best of them. Simulation fans looking for a game to tide them over until Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 hit will find that this fits the bill rather nicely.