Yes, it may be a cliché that guys like nothing better than driving fast cars covered in decals, highly tuned to perfection and emitting a throaty roar like a cougar, but EA has made a tidy pile from capitalising on that stereotype with the Need For Speed series that began as far back as 1994. Shift is the 16th incarnation and more are already slated for release.
Fans of the series are perpetually divided over whether EA should veer more towards simulation or arcade style driving and whether they should favour fictitious street racing locations with police cars in pursuit, over fixed tracks on recognised circuits. Having taken note of the relatively lacklustre response to the more recent releases in the series, EA has dropped the cops and gone back to essential competitive driving skills.
There’s certainly no shortage of cars to choose from (around 70 in all), ranging from the classic 1972 Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R through to the 2009 BMW M3 GT2 and the 2010 Ford Shelby GT500. 18 race tracks are featured which provide a mixture of real circuits (Nordschliefe, Brands Hatch, Silverstone), fictionalised (Glendale) and city centre (London, Tokyo).
The aim of the game is to earn enough stars through your Career mode to enter the NFS Live World Tour. Stars are gained either through finishing in the top three in each race or by gaining a target number of Profile Points which are awarded either for precision driving or for aggression (i.e. acting like a road rager and ramming people off the track). Points also help you to level up and gain money, new vinyls and the chance to enter extra races.
Is it more arcade than sim? Undoubtedly, because right from the start you’re given a BMW 3-series on a test track to assess your competence level and adjustments can then automatically be made to boost your chances of success. Crashing is not the end of the race, even at top speed: you’ll feel a judder, the screen will wobble and then you’re back in the action with no long term consequences. The number of points and stars awarded for relatively simple tasks also gives away the underlying emphasis on keeping you racing as long as possible.
However, the cockpit detail is astonishingly realistic and this now includes a slight blurring effect when you’re driving flat out. Also, this wouldn’t be Need For Speed if it didn’t have a fair degree of customisation, tuning and upgrading, whether you need more efficient aerodynamics, a seam-welded chassis (for a mere $22,000) or a Nitrous kit for extra kick. There’s less variety, though, than in previous games in the series, when it comes to paint, rims and vinyls.
There’s no shortage of race modes, on the other hand, including firm favourites like Time Attacks, Drift, Driver Duels, Hot Laps and Eliminator, and up to eight players can compete online (but only in three race modes). Surprisingly, EA waited until after the PC release to announce a patch to add LAN gameplay and greater mouse control: shouldn’t those have been standard ingredients?
On the whole, the car handling experience is what EA intended – fast and furious – but on some tracks extra tuning will need to be performed to reduce bouncing. Also, the AI occasionally lets overtaken drivers suddenly reappear and there’s a tendency to inexplicably slow down. But for most NFS fans who’ve been waiting for the pendulum to swing back from just looking cool to driving prowess, this is a welcome return to the roots.