With the Need for Speed series aiming to diversify and expand its’ audience, Need for Speed SHIFT may seem like an odd choice to pioneer the new strategy. Not least with the imminent arrivals of Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 also purporting realistic racing simulation, but also because that which it embraces so dearly may be the biggest barrier for entry. Need for Speed SHIFT is all about the feel of being a racing driver, and to that end may be perhaps the least mass market Need for Speed there has ever been.
Long gone are the neon, sexy cover girls and police chases, and in comes an address towards more realistic Motorsport. Fantasy still has a great bearing on the proceedings, with cars responding in a much more natural manner than the meticulous realism of the aforementioned simulators and rivals flipping at often the slightest of shunts, however this can’t be said to be a detraction from the player’s enjoyment, as Need for Speed SHIFT crosses this accessibility with the often less enthused interior view.
And here is where the barriers begin, as while the interior view in time becomes as tightly guidable as any third-person perspective, on face value it can be quite a deterrent from a full-price purchase. Things don’t become much easier too quickly, with handling feeling somewhat floaty to begin with. Seemingly little traction in early cars can lend to much oversteer, making it difficult for newcomers to adjust to the nuances of the Analogue control. The game is structured in Tiers, and earning a designated number of Stars within races will unlock further Tiers. Not all races in each Tier need be completed in order to progress, and earning maximum Stars in each race can be an engrossing experience.
Events offer the typical assortment of manufacturer and circuit races, but are met with interesting takes on time attack and other modes of play. Though the race set-up may be fairly formulaic and distinctly lacking the panache of Codemasters’ recent Colin McRae: DiRT 2, but once players progress to the second Tier all fears of the viewpoint resulting in cumbersome play will have evaporated, and players will be concentrating on earning points within races to improve their driver level.
Each race has a number of Stars available for podiums finishes – three for first, two for second and one for third – and often a few further possible given certain conditions. Setting lap times, spinning a set number of cars and other objectives are used occasionally, but more regularly is the reward for earning precision and aggression points. Two score levels are set, and the player will earn a Star at each. Precision points are awarding for drafting, maintaining a perfect driving line or mastering corners, whilst aggression points are accumulated for charging opponents and playing dirty. Filling the points meter atop the centre of the screen in each race will add a multiplier, greatly extending a players’ score and leading to quicker rewards. That this scoring meter is available at all times is a clever design decision, allowing the player to determine for themselves when to play in a more hostile manner and when to concentrate on taking the lead.
The game seems somewhat confused as to how the player should be rewarded. While shunts and spins are legitimate strategies, corner cutting is strangely still considered an offence. It appears that, despite the shift in direction, retaining the feel of fashion has been just as great a consideration as the refinement of the interior view.
The in-car detail is phenomenal, as it should be, and the visual feedback in the way the vehicles shudder and slide adds an incredible level of immersion to the often standard fare racing. A blur effect focuses the player’s attention on-track at high speeds and the dazed effects that occur upon collision are uncannily representative of that which a driver may experience, both alarming at the point of impact and disorientating when attempting to regain control. The thumping of the drivers’ heart is an ingenious addition, surely to eventually become as standard in the genre as the screeching of tires.
Despite it’s suggested pure simulation appeal, Need for Speed SHIFT actually retains an aspect of pure fun. Surprisingly accessible beyond it’s perspective and constantly rewarding, Need for Speed SHIFT has been a very shrewd effort to rejuvenate the racing hardcore’s interest in the flailing franchise. Retail success is almost assured with that respect, but whether the mainstream audience will accept Need for Speed SHIFT to the same degree of Need for Speed Underground, or even Need for Speed Carbon for that matter, remains to be seen.