Need for Speed: Shift
Last year, Electronic Arts (EA) smashed preconceptions regarding a reliance on profit whoring and incremental updating by releasing impressive original properties Dead Space and Mirror's Edge while also producing two of gaming's best sports titles in NHL 09 and FIFA 09. However, although 2008 was a stellar year for EA, the software giant surprised many by failing to register a clear victory through its usually dependable Need for Speed series. Lacking in overall quality, hamstrung by shoddy narrative, and largely devoid of progression, more recent Need for Speed entrants have stalled on the back straight and EA has seen its once mighty franchise overtaken by various racing rivals.
With Gran Turismo 5 and Forza 3 growling in their respective developmental pit garages, EA is offering up Need for Speed: Shift, which eschews Hollywood-inspired storylines in favour of pure racing action, breakneck velocity, and white-knuckle excitement. The all-important question is, of course, does EA's fresh focus on nothing but racing represent an authentic gameplay 'shift' or is it nothing more than a fleeting sidestep, a distracting stopgap before the roaring arrival of bigger and better things (see above)?
First and foremost, Need for Speed: Shift combines memorable, tyre-shredding thrills with a standard of jaw-dropping aesthetic presentation that convincingly resurrects EA's stilted driving series on virtually every level - but the package is by no means original. Specifically, Shift's wealth of race modes and resulting on-track execution simply reek of Project Gotham Racing, while the emotional attachment it crafts with the player from behind the wheel takes its cues from the original ToCA Championship Racing. Pinpointing such 'homage' to established and acclaimed driving titles is not necessarily a criticism, but it is worth noting that EA has obviously cherry-picked the upper tiers for the sake of assured quality.
Built around a layered Career mode, Shift tasks budding racers with amassing performance-based Stars in order to progress through four gradually more difficult racing Tiers (or classes, if you will), and ultimately reach the coveted and elite NFS Championship, which is home to the cream of the world's racing crop. Players are also spurred on by further motivational incentive with Tier and Driver Level progression providing access to steadily more powerful vehicles, more varied and challenging race events, increased sponsorship funding, along with unlockable vinyl designs, paint effects and wheel rims. Also, continued progress enables drivers to hone an individual Precision or Aggressive racing style based upon race actions such as mastering corners, following the racing line, drafting, trading paint, completing clean laps, executing dirty/clean overtaking moves, and even spinning opponents off the track.
Racing modes and gameplay variety aside for a moment, Shift will likely be remembered for the outstanding visceral experience it creates when played through the driver's eyes. Often a disappointing aspect of many racing videogames, the point-of-view cockpit camera used in Shift successfully creates a high pressure and claustrophobic environment that partially restricts vision from behind the wheel without ever compromising the player's ability to drive effectively. Factor in rear-view and driver-side mirrors, manufacturer-specific dashboard instruments, accentuated engine roar, wheezing and whistling turbos, chassis groans, traction judder, crunching impact resonance, driver grunts, visual disorientation, creeping windshield damage and eye-popping motion blur - and it's unlikely you'll play Shift any other way. It really is that good.Not just trading on the value of its exhilarating cockpit view, Shift also delivers - for the most part - in terms of racing and content fundamentals. Offering up around 70 beautifully rendered vehicles from some of the world's leading manufacturers, Shift's physics engine rarely struggles to accommodate the differing performance parameters created by evolving car packages, while opposition A.I. is challenging, aggressive and unpredictable, and real-world track reproduction provides stunningly rich detail and photo-realism that may fool non-gamers into believing they're watching live-action footage.
Sadly, while initial signs suggest EA has succeeded in creating a faultless slice of tightly contained racing, wheel nuts do start to loosen when the action progresses above Tier 4 and frighteningly fast supercars are unleashed. For example, Shift's otherwise solid gameplay handling shows signs of buckling under the pressure when struggling to remain competitive while fighting from corner to corner with a fish-tailing Bugatti Veyron and an inexplicable downforce deficiency. This is a point of detraction most gamers are unlikely to notice when working through the first few Tiers of their career campaigns, where tracks are less demanding, cars are less powerful, and challenge parameters are less stringent. It doesn't make the problem any less apparent though. While drivers can tweak control sliders to eek out the best possible performance from their collection of cars, alteration doesn't always garner positive change and some Tier challenges force the use of vehicles hamstrung by default specifications. Beyond the obvious concerns of wobbly control mechanics, this can be frustratingly counterproductive where individual driving style is concerned because configurations cannot be altered to suit individual preference.
It's also worth pointing out that the unfortunate gameplay shortfall bleeds over into Shift's array of racing modes. Moreover, while straightforward multi-car races, hot-lap time trials, head-to-head battles and endurance tests all work well, some racers may feel that Shift's sporadic drift events drive a wedge through the game's overall appeal. To explain, much of the conventional events function smoothly because they entail simulation racing with a clear undercurrent of slick, arcade influence - which is possibly why more challenging vehicles fail to impress. However, Shift's drift challenges have been heavily influenced by significant physics input from Drifting Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr., which could annoy and frustrate novice gamers because even the smallest of mistakes is mercilessly punished and the learning curve is near vertical. Anyone choosing to avoid drift events shouldn't find themselves denied Career progression - mainly because drift events are not tethered to masses of Stars - and perseverance should pay dividends for those willing to shoulder the associated challenge. That being said, of all Shift's events, it's the trend-led and gimmicky drifting that feels somehow tacked on and out of place in a package that boasts such strong core racing.
Without focusing too heavily on the related annoyance of online cheating, race disruption, idiot griefing and inescapable abuse that generally accompanies any videogame driving experience with a multiplayer facet, Shift fans still have plenty to look forward to when testing their mettle on PSN. Let's just leave it at this: Our brief association with Shift's online multiplayer was promisingly varied, occasionally laggy, a little difficult to maintain, and - to be honest - thrilling but not a patch on the single-player's level of heart-pounding, clammy-handed excitement.
Taking all things into consideration, and despite some dodgy gameplay balance issues, wonky supercar handling, and ill-fitting drift events, much of Need for Speed: Shift is undeniably impressive and EA's work is done with regard to breathing fresh life into a decaying series corpse. The game's staggering presentation, unforgettable cockpit viewpoint, and addictively tense track racing combine to just about eclipse any niggling bugs and glitches. All in all, it's not a seismic shift, but it's a shift nevertheless.