EA has decided to reinvent their own wheels as the Need for Speed brand disowns its street racing vibe in a much cleaner break than 2007’s NFS: Pro. Shift is the full transition to track racing to try and compete with the likes of Gran Turismo and Race Driver: Grid. They’ve managed to successfully re-invent FIFA over the last couple of years, so maybe they’ve got a shot.
It’s clear that a lot of time, effort and money have been thrown at the game with a Top Gear style dream collection of ludicrously expensive, top name cars such as the Zonda and Bugatti Veyron all fighting for dominance on dozens of familiar tracks from the USA, Europe and Japan.
So how does it handle on the track? Well how brave do you feel? The first task is a lap to find out what driving aids and difficulty setting suit you best at that time. Thankfully you can alter these at any point depending on whether your skills get better or you spend most of your time spinning out into sand traps. There’s even an optional racing line with braking zones highlighted (like in GT5: Prologue).
Now while Grid was certainly no arcade runabout, the whole experience felt so much more relaxed than any other sim-style racer because of the fantastic ‘rewind’ option to fix mistakes. Well, you better learn to drive properly kiddo because even with the hand-holding assists turned on, the handling can be quite savage. It’s more noticeable when you get to the later vehicles. It’s quite a shock to the system for driving fans, and fans of the series’ old casual attitude to handling will quite possibly lose their minds for a while.
There are two different styles of racer you can become. You can be given a label of either Precision or Aggressive. Points are warded during the race depending on what you get up to. It’s boiled down to a sort of Karma system for racers.
Precision points are awarded for reaching top speed, perfect RPM starts, good racing lines, clean sectors, clean overtaking and mastering corners. The Aggressive model is fuelled by dirty overtaking, drafting behind other cars, sliding around corners, trading paint and spinning, tapping out or blocking opponents. Overall Precision racers will unlock Time Trial events in the career mode whereas Aggressive ones will get the more fun Eliminator events (last racer on each lap is kicked out). These points are also used to level up and provided cash, vehicles and so on.
This Karma system is a brilliant idea, that I hope will return in future games, but for now it’s flawed as most events will give you Precision points as they’re pretty much standard points for winning races. Even if I won by being an absolute bastard and shunted everyone I passed and slid around corners, three quarters of the time my Precision points would outweigh my Aggressive ones. If the balance could be addressed this would be a key feature.
In order to keep you coming back, EA have cleverly stuffed the game with collectable Badges and a Star collecting system to help you unlock other events and higher tiers in the career mode. The stars are awarded in-race for podium finishes and a mixture of clean laps, keeping a race line, point milestones and more. The badges are awarded for in-race events such as clean or dirty overtaking (the things points are awarded for) with 10, 20, 50, 100 etc milestones, clocking up the miles in a specific countries cars or perfectly nailing a corner (the game even keeps track of corners you’ve mastered before so you don’t have to get them all at once). At well over a hundred badges they’ll keep you plugging away till after Christmas.
Events themselves consist of standard racing, Time Trials, Series, Eliminator, best of three Duals, manufacturers races (everyone has the same car), and sadly the most poorly handling Drift events ever.
Customisation makes a more muted appearance than the brand is used to, and it all feels a bit too sluggish and poorly done, you wouldn’t believe the hassle it took to stick a few Viper / GT stripes down a Camaro. You’re better off picking a pre-made livery or just changing the colour.
Instead of street style, Shift has the works inside the cars as there is a rich wealth of tuning options and upgrades for the usual areas, which work well and show the game’s new found maturity.
Overall presentation is tidy and much more mature than the recent make-over seen in Dirt 2. The only issue here is the race position text on the HUD being white, which on the pale skies is pretty much invisible.
There are dubious handling moments, such as the car suddenly bouncing around like a milk carton blowing down the road. Or when you get stuck driving on the strip of gravel at the side of the track, it’s kind of like doing a bare-foot hot-coal walk and panicking half way through in no mans land and as you struggle to make it back to the tarmac agonisingly slowly.
When you can handle it the game does provide some thrilling racing and is a massive improvement over recent NFS games. One memorable experience seats you in a Bugatti Veyron race with 13 of the monsters on a track with lots of straights, the 20km Nordschleite. It was like a swarm of giant bullets blasting the sound barrier into shreds.
If you can hack the extra level of difficulty that this latest evolution offers you will find a deep experience as the series ditches neons and C-list babes for gear ratios and sand traps. Hats off to EA over the last few years as they’ve turned FIFA into an essential franchise again, got behind some great new IP’s such as Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge. And while Shift is not quite up there with Grid, there are encouraging signs that this new direction could lead to a future of a new ‘Big Three’ of professional style racers.