The Need for Speed series zoomed to popularity with the breath-taking and ultra-fun NFS II, garnering a position as the premium arcade racing game over the years. When it switched tracks with Porsche Unleashed and ProStreet, it was met with mixed reactions: the first was a hit, the latter was the darkest moment in this fine franchise’s history.
The idea of an NFS game with simulation racing doesn’t go down well with most people, with the common refrain being: “When I play NFS, I want to bang into other cars and get that arcade feel; if I wanted realistic racing, I’d stick to the F1 and GT series.” But not many know that the NFS series actually started out as a realistic simulation racing game.
Since NFS: Most Wanted, the franchise hasn’t seen any game that has been a major hit. With the widely different tastes of its followers, Electronic Arts (EA) decided to trifurcate the series into a simulation racer, an arcade racer and an online component.
Shift is the first of this new lot, where NFS is going back to its roots and giving sim racing one more try, undeterred by the calamity known as ProStreet. And surprisingly, they’ve almost pulled it off…
In many ways, Shift is an attempt to convert the arcade-racer to the world of simulation racing. There is a lot of focus on making the transition easy, with the game providing several driver aids to start off. Of course, it is difficult to realise what driver aids you would need and what you wouldn’t; but NFS has you covered there.
Kicking off your campaign, you first need to figure out how good a driver you are and equip your car with driving aids accordingly. Taking a test lap around a circuit, your team’s engineers figure out your driving style (‘casual’ or ‘pro’) based on the mistakes you made, and give you a few driving aids accordingly. The Pro drivers, obviously, have no driving aids and will be on their own, while casual drivers will get help when it comes to braking, handling, etc.
This is a great way to ease an arcade racer into the simulation game. When playing games like Formula 1 for the first time, I had a horrible time figuring out which driving aids to enable and which to disable, learning the ropes slowly as I went along, leading to a tedious and tiresome experience. But NFS: Shift is downright intuitive, smartly figuring out your level of racing and providing you with suitable aids.
The good part about this system is that the game also slowly asks you to remove some of the aids as you progress. Slowly, but surely, you can kick off the training wheels to handle a car by yourself – and it’s a road worth travelling.
AGGRESSION OR PRECISION?
The switch from arcade to simulation racing has also been boosted by introducing two driving profiles: aggression and precision. When most arcade racers are first shown a simulation game, the biggest shock and subsequent turn-off for them is the inability to play ‘bumper cars’.
NFS: Shift does away with this, allowing drivers to adopt an aggressive style which has them sending other cars flying off the circuit. In fact, you can even earn points for the same as you progress!
This is all thanks to a new medal and experience system introduced into the game, which seems like it’s put in to make up for the lack of a storyline. After all, there has to be something to the game more than ‘Finish the race on top, rinse and repeat till bored’.
The profile points and medals raise your ‘driver level’, unlocking various challenges, cars and other goodies along the way; but you will have to stick to either aggression or precision in your style of racing. Each podium finish earns you a certain amount of stars, so get as many as you can of those!
The precision profile is very easy to achieve when you start off with all your driver aids switched on, but as you shed them one by one, it gets more and more difficult. The style requires you to stick to the best racing line possible, indicated on the track in front of you at all times.
The speed required on the line also plays a part in determining your points, and is depicted by the line switching between three colours in real-time: green (accelerate), yellow (coast) and red (brake). The real-time switch is absolutely brilliant, helping you learn how to tackle corners and hairpin bends as you make your way across the various circuits.
The artificial intelligence you are pitted against plays a huge role in bringing these races to life, as Need For Speed’s two distinctive racing profiles for you also apply to your opponents. So you will come across drivers who have an aggressive racing style and given an opportunity, they will try to take you out rather than overtake you! Meanwhile, others will stick to the racing line like maniacs, shifting between gears with a precision that you can only marvel at as you come in second.
This adds a lot of spice to what could otherwise have been just another mind-numbing ‘beat your opponents’ fare. What’s more, as you keep racing, you will come across the same drivers over and over, helping you figure out their style. It’s not as good as racing against a friend, but this is the closest that A.I. has ever gotten.
And if you are craving for a boss battle, NFS: Shift isn’t going to disappoint. Unlocking regional grand events will have you taking on the premier driver in that area; and as usual, his car can be yours by the end of it!
The circuits and tracks have been a recurring problem for Need For Speed, and by far the biggest goof-up in ProStreet. Designing a track is an art form: it requires a combination of various factors, such as the limitations of cars, driving styles, technical issues and an intuitive sense of how to make it all look good. You can put an F1 race at night and place it in the wonderful city of Singapore, but with the horrible turf and track layout, it makes for a boring grand prix to watch.
Thankfully, with NFS: Shift, the developers have got this part right, mostly because they have stuck to various famous F1, Formula 3 and Formula Nippon tracks from around the world. Recreating these wonderful tracks and getting to drive some of the best sports cars on them is an experience you won’t forget.
Can you imagine the sheer delight of getting behind the wheel of a Porsche Cayman and rocketing across the brilliant F1 track at Spa, zooming down from over 300km/h to take that famous hairpin bend? That alone is reason enough to give NFS: Shift a try!
SHIFTING BETWEEN CARS
The best part about NFS: Shift, though, is the fact that it lets you get into several high-end cars pretty early on in the game.
The game does employ the usual stratagem of ‘win a race, get some dollars, buy a car and pimp it out’. And that itself has a huge amount of cars available across four tiers, which you unlock as you progress. But even while you are on Tier 1, you can’t help but check out the goodies that lie in wait for you, right? In NFS: Shift, you could end up taking some of these out for a ride early on!
Developers Slightly Mad Studios and EA Black Box hit upon the wonderful idea of ‘International Races’ – a mechanism similar to NFS: Porsche’s ‘Factory Mode’ – which are unlocked when you earn more profile points. These are race events organised by manufacturers to pit their cars against one another, or against cars from their own stable.
So early on in the game, when you are driving a junky Nissan GT or some such, you have the opportunity to race two Lamborghinis against each other, or see which is the faster car between an Ford GT and a Dodge Viper SRT10.
Apart from helping to break the monotony of your current car, this lets you get a feel of how much diversity the game has to offer. The handling of each car is noticeably different, providing a great gaming experience overall.
The one disappointing factor about the game is the variety in race events. The Need For Speed series has brought some of the most challenging and varied racing events to the world of virtual motorsports, but Shift falls well short of the bar in this area.
There are five basic types of races: standard races, same-car races, time trials, drift mode and duels. None of these events bring anything new to the table; in fact, if it wasn’t for the variety of tracks available, this lack of change would have made the game boring within the first 10 races. And an NFS game without Drag races? Blasphemy!
The only change, as such, is in the duels. The format is the same as that which was introduced in NFS: Carbon’s ‘Canyon Duel’ – you and an opponent go head-to-head, with the winner being him who finishes first or develops a predetermined lead to the second-placed driver. The slight change is that duels are a ‘best of three’ event this time, with you started ahead in one, starting behind in the second, and starting on par in the third.
The lack of innovation on-track is an extremely disappointing factor, but could be chalked up as the developers not wanting to change too many things when trying to lure arcade racers from their dark, underground night-races to the bright and sunny world of simulation racing.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
What can’t be forgiven is the absolute lack of attention that Slightly Mad Studios has given to the graphics and audio departments.
Right off the bat, let’s be clear: the graphics aren’t bad. By any base of modern video game standards, this is good enough – but perhaps not for the year it’s being released in. What is horrible to see is how incredibly demanding it is on a system.
Checking it out on a PS3 and an Xbox 360, NFS: Shift does not look that much more superior than some of the games we have already seen a long time ago, such as Race Driver: Grid and Project Gotham Racing 4. And when it comes to the motion blurs that accompany a nitrous boost, it’s amazing how Burnout Paradise still manages to look so much better even after a year!
NFS: Shift does look a lot better on the PC than either console, which is not surprising as most modern PC systems will offer better bang-for-buck in the graphics department. What is downright frustrating is how resource-intensive the game is.
Burnout Paradise and NFS: Undercover run perfectly with all settings set to high and resolution at 1680x1050 on the test system, which has a 2.6GHz Core2Duo, 512MB GTX 275 graphics card, 2GB RAM. Throw in NFS: Shift on it, and the game coughs and wheezes till the resolution is taken down a notch and all other settings are put to medium.
The high demands would have been understandable if it brought a lot more to the table than previous NFS games, but with only a slight boost in the graphics department, the additional resources needed are simply not justifiable.
As for the audio, the lesser said the better. Sure, all the cars sound different, but the absolute monotony this creates is incredibly annoying. The horrible RJ in ProStreet may have made you want to throw a brick at your screen, but the silence that Shift proudly sports is unnerving and boring.
All put together, Need For Speed: Shift isn’t the wild ride that we have come to expect from the franchise. It’s an emperor trying out new clothes, while still trying to make the followers accept the change in garments.
Taken in the context of a game that is meant to build a franchise of simulation-based racing games, NFS: Shift is the perfect introductory point for arcade racing fans to get into this new groove. Race Driver: Grid was the only other game that made the transition as simple as this.
In a way, this is EA’s attempt to make another slow transition, buoyed by the success of changing the super-fun FIFA 2006 into the now super-serious FIFA 2009 and FIFA 2010, which has seen Pro Evolution Soccer quaking in its boots.
All indications point to this new game doing the same for the Need For Speed franchise, as it courts arcade racers to simulation gaming, and serious sim racers to the world of NFS. The title almost sums up the message of this review: Shift!