Friday, December 4, 2009 at 4:20PM
As a reluctant Gran Turismo fan, getting into another hardcore racing simulator comes with a fair share of baggage. There is even a longer road to hoe if your hardcore racing sim has Need For Speed in a stylish font splashed upon your box. The Need For Speed series has suffered from what has left Tony Hawk and other annualized game franchises completely stagnant. The games are either too by-the-numbers, like ProStreet and Underground, or they are a failed experiment, like Undercover. If this is the age of the first-person shooter, pulling up a distant second place finish would be racing games. Within the past two years we have seen entries such as GRID, Forza Motorsport 3 and of course Burnout: Paradise. With the exception of Paradise, the aforementioned racers have staked their claim critically, proving that hardcore racing sims still have relevance in the gaming community. What about Need For Speed: Shift?
What improvements could be made by Electronic Arts by enlisting the services of Slightly Mad Studios? If there is anything one can congratulate Shift on, from first impressions, would be that the game has incredible personality. Personality that can, at times be too far up its own tail-pipe, but approachable personality that was missing from the Forza series and especially the Gran Turismo franchise. Where Shift sprints ahead in the simple and flashy department the game completely wanes when the interface is explored with a more critical eye.
When you get over your fancy [and smarmy] British racing assistant, you will notice that Shift has one of the more impressive racing cockpit HUDs. An important note seeing as I typically race with the camera on the front bumper. However, since E3 and a seemingly endless amount of advertisements touting how "cool and dangerous" it is to be in the cockpit of these high-end horse powered beasts, the cockpit interface is a bit overwhelming. When you reach a top speed in your car your review mirrors are blurred to further obscure your vision, vision needed to make split second adjustments. Because of Shift's over reaching achievement system [more on this later], you will frequently see little phrases and awards pop-up mid-screen while mid-race, this will no doubt further cloud your ability to make that hairpin turn.
It is noteworthy, that as far as sound goes, Slightly Mad Studios got it right. Shift could arguably be the gold standard for replicating how cars sound; down to using the turbo and accelerating out of a 90-degree turn. Unfortunately, the sound effects were meant for the ADHD, whiz-bang crowd. I would assume this is the same crowd that loved this summer's Transformers and Terminator movies. If you have a 5.1 or 7.1 sound setup I would encourage you to utilize it when playing this game.
The oddest criticism towards Shift comes from the aimless achievement system. Electronic Arts has already implemented a pretty extensive trophy system for the game; 30 trophies to be exact. Maybe Slightly Mad were aware of how punishing the controls and overall physics of the game would, so as a consolation, you get an achievement system within and achievement system [so you can drive while you drive?]. Be that as it may, there is a Profile Point system that is absolutely useless to anything but trophy chasing.
Shift initially touts approachability, by offering the player features that look nice on the back of a box in Gamestop, but do little to actually help the player tolerate dealing with such twitchy over-steering mechanics. If you love rear-wheel drive cars then be prepared to lose a lot of races. Even with Shift's racing line and driving assists turned on, you will over-steer and crash to the point of being tepidly excited when you actually do win a race. Make no mistake, as in all racing games and especially racing simulators, there is a barrier of entry. Difficulty is not happily mastered in Shift. The game tests you prior to your first race and calibrates your racing style. The fact that they have advertised that you could be an "Aggressive" or "Precision" type of driver is ludicrous. What Shift means to say to the player is, "When you start off, you will naturally be an Aggressive driver, but once you adjust to our mechanics and restart dozens of races we will force you to be a Precision-style driver."
The game does have personality. So does Dirt 2, so does GRID and, to a certain extent, Forza Motorsport 3. The charm of the game is what makes Shift worth playing. The simple and linear tuning capabilities will attract novice drivers. Novice drivers will possibly be too frustrated with the difficulty ramp that occurs early on in the game to care about tuning their car. Hey, maybe the bazillion achievements that Slightly Mad poured into the game that only add to the aimless direction will be the proper carrot for the mules. Personality only goes so far. When playing some of the fictional and even the real tracks, the areas feel static and cold. The car catalog is decent, at best, cars can be upgraded to be racing beasts or drifting vehicles. Even in the upgrade system there is a sense of imbalance. If you hope to max out your Ferrari to take on that Nissan SpecV be prepared to throw rocks at a mountain.
It seems that in every aspect of Shift's goals there is always something missing keeping the game from the tier of a Gran Turismo or Forza. Let alone achieving the accolades of those types of games, Shift makes a name for itself, but at a slight cost. Messy controls, inconsistent frame rates, a baffling multitude of achievement systems and a passable garage and racing environment, keep Shift from truly shining. There is fun to be had with the multi-player. Sure there are standard racing set-ups like Head-To-Head, but the Racing Series options and Manufacturer Battles will keep the online community thriving. I would even go as far to say that the online multi-player makes this game worth buying.
Need For Speed: Shift is a good game. Slightly Mad Studios may have bit off more than they could chew, but unlike the previous iterations of Need For Speed games, there is something worth learning from with this game. I may kick myself later for this, but I would love to see a sequel to Shift. Granted the market is flooded, and flooded with quality entries, but I do get the sense that Shift wanted to be more than just a racing sim gimmick. Play this game, if anything, Need For Speed: Shift is worth a week of your time.
I give Need For Speed: Shift
The "Much Needed Driver's Lessons" Award