Need for Speed Shift Review
Friday, October 09, 2009 10:59 AM
Is the thirteenth Need for Speed instalment unlucky for EA?
Let's get one thing straight, the answer to the above question is no. Need for Speed: Shift is an excellent racing game and the best in the series so far.
It's important to note this, because EA's fan favourite has been tinkered with so many times that by the time this 13th instalment came along, many wondered whether the speed that made it fun in the first place was still there.
It is. In droves. EA has bravely dropped the arcadey feel that the Need for Speed games had adopted over the last couple of years and instead attempted to take on the sim kings at their own game.
Coming from Slightly Mad, the sim aspect of the game is no longer difficult to understand. Made up of much of the original SimBin Studios, famous for GT Legends and GTR, EA has snapped up the London studio and tasked their talent to take on their beloved Need for Speed franchise.
The result is something that doesn't entirely feel like the series, but one that's clearly better than its Need for Speed predecessors and may even prove serious competition for the upcoming Forza and Gran Turismo games.
With Burnout now the clear choice for arcade thrills, the Need for Speed team has put every effort into creating the best sim possible, while still retaining the feel to placate long-term fans. From the outset it's clear that this game is different from its predecessors.
My first foray into one of the 72 licensed vehicles that the game has to offer was almost like riding a bike for the first time, as the tinny engine noises that had become a staple of the series were replaced by a throaty roar from the engine which was almost deafening.
While we're on the topic, I have to recommend listening to the game with the volume turned all the way up. Although some of the punky music seen in previous iterations, such as Underground and Carbon, remains, it's mostly a scored soundtrack that gets the pulse racing as you zip past cars and feel truly immersed in the race.
The racing itself is easily the finest that Need for Speed has ever seen, improving significantly on the previous sim attempt, ProStreet, and finally delivering a worthy competitor to Forza, Gran Turismo and Xbox stalwart Project Gotham Racing.
G-force plays a significant part in the game, as it can be the difference between winning a race and being left for dust.
Cars are at first difficult to handle, but the player soon becomes adept at whipping the vehicle round corners, and the brilliant HUD makes this all the more tangible.
The cockpit view may well be the best I've ever seen, giving a heightened sense of realism as you attempt to stay in the best possible racing line in order to put off those in your wake and give yourself an increased chance of overtaking the cars in front.
In this regard, the game brilliantly rewards daring, and is sure to be a big hit with achievement hounds across the globe.
The idea of Shift is to track the player's progress through the game as they work their way up to the Holy Grail of level 50, and this is done by feats of spectacular driving.
Though a departure from the behaviour traditionally seen in sims, it works a treat, because fans of the series will not be alienated, whereas newcomers attracted by the lure of a more realistic experience will feel rewarded for their efforts.
Whether it be attempting to break lap records, hurtling round corners perfectly or even causing damage to another vehicle, the focus is always on the driver.
Progress is tracked in the HUD as the race and a driver's career continues, and it is immensely satisfying to see the numbers rack up as you accelerate around the beautifully-designed courses.
And how stunning they are. Rather than the bland streets seen in Most Wanted or generic roads in Carbon, Shift's stunning vistas and tight street corners offer an ideal balance.
The city circuits are dotted with landmarks that all feel like they add something to the experience, rather than simply making up the backgrounds, and the textures are crisp and clear.
Equally, recreations of British classics such as Silverstone and Brands Hatch and fellow Formula One track Spa-Francorchamps are accurate to a tee.
Graphically the game excels, and the framerate seldom slows despite a screen full of jostling cars.
On close inspection, the polygon count can sometimes suffer slightly, particularly in the top-of-the-bonnet view, but as the cockpit perspective is far superior, this is unlikely to be an issue.
The cars themselves are also spot-on, offering just enough differentiation between each model to warrant giving all 72 models a test drive.
Although 72 cars is substantially lower than what could be classed as sim-level, especially considering the two-year-old Forza Motorsport 2 had over 300, the quality of vehicles on display shows promise for the series' next instalment.
Some people will go for the Nissan Skyline or Bugatti Veyron and never look at another vehicle, but I advise testing out models such as the game's cover star, the BMW M3 GT2, if anything just to experience the sensation of crumpling into another car.
The crash mode on Need for Speed: Shift is thrilling and almost frighteningly realistic.
Unlike the exaggerated japes in the Burnout series, crashes in the game are accompanied by a violent jarring sensation and blurred screen, along with the heavy breathing of the driver which demonstrates the power of the sound effects perfectly, whether the player is on their own or doing battle with another person.
Though local multiplayer is a no-go and may be an initial frustration, this is unlikely to last, as it soon becomes clear that Slightly Mad Studios want the game to be played out on the whole screen.
Over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, players remain incentivised by the lure of more career points, as in-game rankings are affected by races against real people as well as AI opponents.
It's important to note that shared content and social elements are slightly lacking at the moment, and this is where the series will need to sharpen up if it is to provide long-term competition for Forza and Gran Turismo.
However, once the race begins and eight players are jostling for the lead, all that matters is immersing yourself in the experience and attempting to win the race by any means necessary.
Interestingly enough, there are parallels between Need for Speed: Shift and the current Formula One season.
At the start of the year, nobody would have predicted that Jenson Button would fly off the start line and become the one to beat, and Shift experienced the same scepticism when EA claimed it would become a pretender to the sim racing throne.
Now, however, Button seems destined for glory and the adulation of the public, and Need for Speed has certainly laid down a marker for the best that Polyphony Digital and Turn 10 have to offer.
Regardless of how good it is, Need for Speed: Shift will sell by the shedload, as the previous 12 games in the main series have. At least now, however, it will deserve to do so.