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Need For Speed returns to its roots in EA and Slightly Mad Studios' collaborative racing sim...
The Need For Speed brand has become synonymous with illegal street racing over the years, but it's worth remembering that the series originally broke ground as a much purer racing experience. Arcade elements have always been part and parcel of the NFS games - even the original had police chases and traffic on its tracks - but the first games were much more about unfettered supercars competing in closed circuit races than they were customised Subaru Imprezas cruising the roads of open world cities.
And so the series returns to its spawning grounds, although this time with its focus exclusively on the legal world of motor racing. Licensed circuits are plastered throughout this title, from Silverstone and Spa Francorchamps to Laguna Seca and Brands Hatch, while the cars are blended between a wish list of factory-line production cars (a la Gran Turismo) and stripped down, racing spec variants of these original models. Make no mistake, Need For Speed has gone legit, although not without retaining the staples of car modification and drift racing that gamers now expect from an NFS title.
Much like Codemasters' Race Driver: GRID, Need For Speed Shift is a much more enjoyable experience when played from the cockpit view rather than the above-and-behind camera angle that most racers lend themselves to. In fact, viewed outside of the cockpit, Shift becomes a much blander racing experience - not bad but decidedly run-of-the-mill. This isn't necessarily a criticism though, as the gameplay when viewed from inside the car is nothing short of a landmark in the production of racing games, where Slightly Mad Studios' inspired camera work has built the most adrenaline-fuelled racing sim we've ever played.
There are a number of nifty camera tricks that SMS uses to do this, such as employing motion blur at high speeds; shaking the camera up in accidents before disorienting the driver with a blurry, greyscale filter; lurching the camera angle forward under heavy breaking, and veering it to the right/left in the corners. The result is a thoroughly convincing depiction of G-forces and high impact crashes that the racing game genre has rarely seen before. It is by far and away the most impressive element of the game, without which the other standout features would fail to shine.
Of course, this all makes a lot of sense given SMS' heritage. Its involvement with the critically acclaimed GTR series of PC games and the experience drawn form this is evident throughout Shift, although EA's production values mean that it's not quite the fully authentic sim that GTR2 was - 24 hour endurance races are hardly a game selling feature here. At the same time, SMS has not forgotten its roots. Endurance race events do feature in Shift, it's just that they're denoted by 10 laps of Spa for example, while regular races are usually between 1 and 3 laps long.
Equally, the sense of progression throughout Shift is clearly where EA's associate producers have had a strong influence. Soon after starting a new career, gamers will come across the Driver Profile, which charts your performance on the track by dishing out points for either 'Aggression' or 'Precision' driving. The former includes trading paint with another driver or slip-streaming them down a straight for example, while the latter awards points for mastering the driving line through a turn or performing a clean overtaking manoeuvre. These points are then dished out via a combo meter during races, which then builds up your profile as a precise or aggressive driver accordingly and increases your Driver Level, while rewarding you with 'Badges' for certain achievements.
It's a lot like the sort of production sheen that was once added to a certain racing series by developer Criterion. EA's involvement with Burnout 3: Takedown was essentially what lifted an aspiring series of games into arguably the best arcade racer on previous-gen consoles and, as much as racing purists might scoff at how Shift's racing sim elements have been watered down in some areas, EA clearly knows what it's doing here. While the mesh between EA production and SMS development might not be quite as flush as it was with Criterion and Takedown, there's no denying the fact that this EA sheen does make Shift more accessible to a broader market of gamers, which is no bad thing (after all, this is a Need For Speed game).
Car customisation has been integrated into Shift in ways that aim to please both sim and arcade fans. Custom paint jobs can be applied to the cars you purchase, while a wide range of rims and body-kits for each model can spruce up their appearance and this will no doubt appeal to the typical Need For Speeder. Simulation fans will then enjoy the incredibly deep car setup options (which include downforce, gear ratios, tyre pressure, differential, and steering camber to name but a few), while racing liveries are available to doll factory-line cars up like GT racers, and everything from drivetrain to cockpit upgrades can be made to increase performance. The all important nitrous injections haven't been forgotten either, although admittedly their effects are a lot more subtle than in previous NFS games.
EA's influences extend beyond these more cosmetic areas and into the gameplay as well, with a range of race types that retain shades of previous NFS games and the Burnout series. Shift's events extend far beyond standard, closed circuit races with timed events such as the 'Hot Lap' and 'Time Attack' competitions, as well as two different types of eliminator events, Driver Duel's that set two cars against each other in single-lap gladiatorial battles, and the previously mentioned endurance races.
Without a doubt though, the most refreshing change of pace comes from the drift competitions, which are played out in sanctioned events across world motor racing venues. Cars modified for high revs are used and must then be guided across a series of turns. Hitting the markers and extending the drift for as long as possible is the critical skill required to ratchet up the points, so the events are not too dissimilar to their illegitimate cousins from the NFS: Underground games and their offshoots.
These events continue up through four tiers, with each tier introducing a new range of more powerful cars and a considerably steeper learning curve with this added performance. Vehicles range from common road going vehicles in tier 1 (e.g. the Ford Focus and BMW 135i), to the most powerful supercars in the world at tier 4 (e.g. the Bugatti Veyron, Mercedez-Benz SLR McLaren, and Pagani Zonda), while the likes of Ford Shelby GT500s and Lamborghini Murcielagos in-between are more than enough to keep things interesting. For a full list of the tracks and cars in the game you can click through here, but suffice to say there are more than enough to keep the game fresh and exciting all the way up to its conclusion in the Need For Speed World Tour invitational event.
It's this sense of progression and achievement in the game, coupled with a challengingly steep learning curve, which ensures that its level of appeal doesn't drop at any stage. Equally, the content held within Shift's four tiers and the NFS World Tour will keep gamers beavering away for hours. If you simply want to progress through the tiers to the World Tour as quickly as possible, then it'll take you a good 15 hours. On the other hand, if you want to win every event that's available on your way to the tour, then you can add another 10 hours on top of that. Playing the game until you've achieved every star that's available on all of the events (achieved by completing additional tasks such as mastering all corners), then you could be playing for around 35-40 hours, possibly more.
What's The Damage?
Beyond the impressive camera work mentioned at the top of this article, Shift's visual prowess varies depending on the platform. The PC version is superior to consoles by quite a margin with better motion blur effects, more detailed car models, improved lighting across the environments, and better heat hazing effects. The added details are particularly noticeable in Shift's stunningly detailed cockpits, which are probably the most accurate and well designed interiors ever seen in a racing game.
The console versions then obviously run at a lower resolution, while the textures aren't quite as smooth as they are on PC. Damage modelling is another area where the PC comes off better than consoles with more detailed panel crumpling and damage effects. Additionally, the modelling on consoles uses muddier textures and appears to be less dependent on the scale of a collision. However, SMS has previously indicated that Shift's development has been led on the PC platform, so we're inclined to take the PC version's graphics into account when considering scores.
Exactly how well this damage system is used by SMS is another question though. Gamers are offered two damage options in the difficulty menu: 'Visual Only' and 'Full'. However, when set to 'Full', the worst thing that'll ever happen to your car is that it will veer off to the left or right a bit. You can't total a car, regardless of how heavy an impact is, which seems a bit cheap for a developer that prides itself on realism. Similarly, the physics behind crashes are a bit questionable as your car has a bizarre tendency to scoop up opponents like a pie slice whenever you rear-end them, even at relatively low speeds. It's this that often leads to the more spectacular crashes in the game, such as cars going airborne or rolling across the tarmac multiple times, although it doesn't always look that convincing when it happens to be honest.
However, it's hard to think of many more criticisms than these and there are many more good things to say about it that we haven't had the time to go into great depth about here. The AI is superbly dealt with and produces opponents that are not only very aggressive, but will also make believable mistakes when you're not interfering with their race. We often saw opponents getting into tangles ahead of us, which adds another layer of realism to the races beyond what most other racing games can muster.
The online multiplayer is also well accounted for, with ranked and unranked races for up to 8 players as well as the ability to organise Driver Duel Championships (similar to the single-player event listed above) and check out your friends' fastest lap times and scores from the single-player career. The sound won't disappoint either, with engine noises that would make Jeremy Clarkson gurn, although it has to be said that the soundtrack is a touch generic. There's also the occasional voice-over from a member of your pit crew, who often does his best Murray Walker impression with a "Go, go, go!" at the start of a race before comically reminding you to "Have fun".
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