Before Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, there was Need for Speed. For those in need of a history lesson, the first Need for Speed game appeared in 1994 for the 3DO, with PC, Playstation and Sega Saturn games following up in the next couple of years. At the time is was one of the only attempts to create a realistic simulation, and a main part of the gameplay was being chased by the cops.
Unbelievably, there have been sixteen games released in the series at the time of writing, and a variety of developers have been involved since Canadian-based Distinctive Software unveiled the first game (They later became EA Canada). And since Need for Speed: Underground in 2003, the games have embraced the modified scene, rather than just including the exotic sports cars of earlier games.
Need for Speed: Shift was developed by Slightly Mad Studios and aims to restore the simulation balance to a game which has increasingly become an arcade racer.
Need for Speed:Shift is a game caught between arcade fun and realistic sim, which is probably closest in tone to Codemaster’s Race Driver: GRID. You get licensed real-world tracks and cars, damage modelling, upgrades, tuning and online tournaments – but at the same time it aims to be more visceral and exciting than you might find from Forza, Gran Turismo or GRID.
It opens well, with some inspiring video, and the game looks great throughout, although it doesn’t quite manage the 60FPS of the semi-official racing games.
The single-player mode is accessible, although the layers of achievements, points and rankings are a bit confusing and somewhat unnecessary when you’re forced to skip through endless screens after every race. But the bar for unlocking more races, cars and upgrades is pretty low, so you’ll always be making progress through the races, time trials, drifting and one-on-one car duels.
The tracks themselves are nicely done, and British fans will be pleased to see Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Donington appear – and the shorter Brands Hatch Indy and Donington National tracks are unusual additions.
The cars themselves are also nicely modelled, with the interior view particularly attractive – the exterior shots seem slightly less detailed, and that’s probably because the developers knew which view would be used in-game.
And crashes are well handled – the camera shakes, the screen loses colour, and you’re left with no doubt about the effect of a high-impact collision with other drivers.
Handling and Gameplay:
The reason you’ll end up using the in-car view is more to cope with the handling than for the sake or realism. It’s twitchy to the point of comedy and frustration, especially if you’re using a joypad. The cars never feel particularly planted on the road, and the frequent slides are fairly unpredictable, especially in the more-flighty cars.
You can argue that realistic racers are tricky to drive, and there are options to to tweak the responsiveness, but even so, racing competitively without the multitude of driver aids can be a challenge, and there are various options to make things easier on top of the usual traction and stability controls. Even with some of the aids on, the bigger barrier to winning is the handling, rather than the pretty good AI of your rivals.
One particular example is the run from Paddock Hill to Druids at Brands Hatch – if you’ve driven or ridden the circuit, you’ll know how racing down the towards the bottom of Paddock Hill before the run to Druids feels like a giant is sat on your shoulders as everything compresses – NfS:GRID handles it with the same feeling as every other stretch of track.
In terms of gameplay, the initial races are short, two-lap affairs, which don’t give you much experience of the AI until you’re jockeying with the top couple of racers, but the longer races demonstrate more personality and skill, as well as the ‘elastic band’ nature of the AI to keep games competitive, but which also sometimes negates investing in an all-powerful car.
The points system rewards precision and aggression in equal manner, so you can gain points for a clean overtake, or for tagging your opponent and knocking them off the track – either method counts. About the only way to be punished is by chopping a significant amount off a circuit, and you’ll still only be warned the first time, making for fast and loose racing.
Oh, and there’s no split-screen racing.
The normal ranked and unranked matches are present, along with a one-on-one duel match which is organised into tournaments. Besides EA tacking on a secondary login and profile, the only hitch is that, like most Need for Speed games, the players are mostly American, so it’s only really possible to find a good selection of games when the U.S is online.
You’ll also need to remember that the game encourages aggressive driving as much as precision, so be prepared to be nudged off into the weeds.
Need for Speed: Shift isn’t a bad game, and is pretty enjoyable – most of the achievements are achievable in single player, and there’s a reasonable selection of 60+ cars and event types to be diverting. There’s also Ferrari DLC to get some more cars and achievements, and the EA habit of allowing you to buy in-game content with real money (via Microsoft points) rather than earning it in-game. But it makes more sense at current prices than it did at release date with the likes of Amazon selling it for just over £17.