As a long time Need For Speed fan, I had my concerns when I heard the newest iteration of Need For Speed was going sim, rather than sticking with the familiar arcade racing I had come to know and love from the series. To date my favorite NFS is Most Wanted; the thrill of the police chases and the memories I have of working my way through the Black List are still fond today. There are no police chases in SHIFT, but what you do get is a great racer in the vein of Forza and Gran Turismo. No, it doesn't have hundreds of licensed cars and it's not as hardcore of a sim as those, but can SHIFT, in its first year, compete with these two juggernauts? Well, I'm no expert on the other two nor in technical sim racing, but I can tell you that SHIFT is a hell of a lot of fun and very addictive.
SHIFTing Into Sim
I've tried my hand at Forza, Gran Turismo, PGR, and a handful of other sim racers over the years, but I've never been able to quite find one that was fun and rewarding enough to stick with. I've always been more of an arcade racer, enjoying every Need For Speed since Hot Pursuit and the Burnout games, too. Making the shift to simulation games was always tough for me for a lot of reasons. I didn't want to learn the intricate details of tuning a car, the tracks weren't as exciting, and of course, the gameplay was a lot more challenging and simply not as fun. For some one who leans on the physics and gameplay of arcade racing, enjoying and succeeding in a sim is not a smooth transition.
Before laying on some initial praise for SHIFT, let me also say that while I've played a lot of sim racers, I haven't spend a tremendous amount of time with any of them, until now. For whatever reason, until SHIFT, I couldn't find a sim racer that I really wanted to stick with. I thought Simply Mad and EA did a great job right off the starting lines with SHIFT in getting players into this game. After the opening movie, players have just two options: start your career, or edit some options. When you start your career, another video sets up the premise of your career: to work your way through the racing tiers to earn a spot in (and hopefully win) the Need For Speed World Tour, where only the best cars and drivers make the cut. A voiced over coach or manager is in your ear to help guide you through your career and the menus, and as odd as it may sound, I love his decisive, no BS manner of talking. At the same time, you don't get berated for falling short of the podium, and that's nice too.
Your first driving experience in SHIFT is a simple test lap on a typical oval track. You are provided with a BMW and tasked with racing as you would prefer to race, with no other cars around you. At this point, no difficulty or AI settings are set -- the game will analyze your performance on this test lap and recommend settings for AI difficulty, brake and steer assist, and several realism toggles. Of course, you can re-run the test lap as many times as you want before starting your career for real, and you can alter the difficulty and other settings as you go through your career, too.
A feature that has really helped me in my SHIFT career is the the race line. I recall the F1 game that launched with the PS3 having a race line, but I can't think of any other racing sim off hand that has this. The race line is a continuous series of small arrows laid out on the track -- think of it like the yellow 'first down marker' line that NFL TV broadcasts use. The markers aren't really there on the track and don't show up in Photos or Replays. However, during a race, these markers instantly change color to indicate whether or not you need to speed up, slow down, or brake immediately to avoid a wreck or otherwise completely botching a turn. This has been a great crutch for me, as I often misjudge the speed of a turn. Of course, you don't have to stay on the race line and it's not the most optimal path to take either. Still, it's a superb way to help keep the player informed about how to handle the turns.
The race line is nice, but it alone won't do much in helping you win a race. For that, you'll need to master the controls and learn to take turns smoothly, in addition to drafting and all that other great stuff. The controls in SHIFT are customizable, but the default layout has been working great for me. The Triggers act as your brake and throttle while the Bumpers control shifting up and down. Not quite as cool as NFS: Most Wanted's right stick flick control for shifting, but that's because SHIFT uses the right stick to control the driver's head in the default cockpit cam. The left stick is used for turning while X toggles between the different cameras. Handbraking is done with A, and B is your NOS boost.
Elements of SHIFT
The fundamental controls feel and behave differently depending on which of the sixty-plus licensed cars you are currently using, and how you have it tuned. Cars are unlocked as you move through the ranks, and can be bought with money earned in the game, or with Microsoft Points (i.e., real cash). Licensed cars include a variety of manufacturers, some I have never heard, including BMW, McClaren, Nissan, Porsche, and many others. You won't find the hundreds and hundreds of cars here as you would with GT, but for most racing gamers, there are plenty of cars here to go around.
The different cars are rated in terms of top speed, handling, braking, and acceleration, and each car is given an overall score making it pretty easy to cycle through the list of available cars and make your decision. As you work your way through the four tiers of racing, you'll purchase and sell cars from your garage to keep up with the competition. Tuning options for cars vary depending on what car they are, but icons indicate whether or not a car can be outfitted with NOS or other options. Just like with other NFS titles, a ton of customization options ranging from paint changes to loads of decals and hood scoops and all matter of other custom third party accessories, are available as you unlock them by increasing your Driver Level.
The Driver Level is one of several features in SHIFT that you can really spend a lot of time on to improve and max out. The ranking goes up to level 50, and is increased by earning Skill Points. Skill Points are constantly earned throughout a race by performing a variety of different tasks. After a race, regardless of how well you finish, a summary screen totals up your points. Drivers get points by performing any of several Aggressive or Precision driving maneuvers, and also by following the race line. At the top of the HUD, a vertical meter is split in half and shows the balance between Aggressive and Precision Skill Points earned. This meter can fill up, and often does once, maybe twice during a race. When the meter is full, it changes color and any points earned during this timed sequence are doubled.
So what moves constitute Aggressive driving and Precision driving? Aggressive driving, which I found to be my style of racing at the start of my career, includes things like drafting, dirty passes, blocks, trading paint, and bumping other cars off the track without going off yourself. Dirty passes are any kind of pass that involves contact with another car, while blocking is as it sounds, keeping another car from passing you. These and a few other maneuvers are considered Aggressive and whenever you perform such a manuever its subtly listed and tallied at the top of the HUD. Precision driving, which I personally find much more satisfying although harder to do, involves skills like making clean passes, taking a lap without going off the track, and drifting through corners. To me, the most satisfying part of NFS SHIFT is being in a pack of other cars, and being able to weave through them without making contact. It's the most thrilling part of the game. How you drive from race to race, both in Career and Online, is tracked in your Driver Profile. Seeing your historical performance and style of play over time is cool.
Building up your Driver Level unlocks new goodies for purchase, but earning Stars is what gets you through the ranks and into the ultimate goal, the NFS World Tour. Each tier has a required number of Stars that must be earned before you can move on. Tiers are made up of 'a bunch' of races on different real tracks from around the world. Stars are awarded based on finishing in the top three and by earning varying amounts of Skill Points during racing. There are enough races per tier that you don't have to earn every star in every race. That said, I found myself replaying races over and over to try to earn a better score and more importantly, because it was just so much fun. The experience has a learning curve to it, especially for an arcade racer like me, but it isn't unforgiving. I liked the fact that one mistake didn't mean I was suddenly doomed to be last place and that the AI never seemed flawless, either. Design like this kept me playing far longer than I intended to every time I sat down with SHIFT.
With Driver Level and several Tiers and dozens of races to go through, there is a lot to do in SHIFT. Invitational Events are also unlocked at different times while working through a tier that offer players additional racing opportunities including Eliminator competitions and races against cars that are a tier above your class. Players can also work on earning Badges, which are given for performing a variety of feats, like getting so many dirty passes, driving x number of kilometers or miles in a Japanese car, and so forth. Minor Badges eventually add up to Epic Badges which give some bragging rights and I believe additional Skill Points -- I've yet to actually earn one, so I couldn't say. On that note, Achievements are granted at good intervals. They aren't given for just winning a race, but they also aren't so hard to get that they are for elitists only. Leaderboards and online play are also included, although I've spent the majority of my time in Career mode, and have honestly been having a hell of a time doing so.
SHIFT has done a great job in its presentation as well. The default cockpit cam has been a treat to race in, and where I might normally switch out to a hood cam, I've found myself really enjoying the cockpit cam for that extra sense of immersion. The graphics and graphical effects, like the 'stun' that instantly overcomes you during a blunt force wreck, are cool and fitting, while the sounds are solid as well.
I haven't had a lot bad to say about SHIFT, and that isn't by coincidence or mistake. I've been having a great time with SHIFT and that to me is the most important part of a game. No, it's not as completely packed and hardcore of a sim as GT, Forza, or a SimBin racer, but that really doesn't matter to me. For me, it's the best sim racer I've played. It's got all of the tuning and customization options I could want, with sixty-plus real cars and plenty of real tracks. Most importantly, the design of the game has kept me coming back, and this is the first sim racing game I've been able to stick to without getting too bored or frustrated.
Let's get to the summary...