September 30, 2009

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The Need for Speed franchise has survived many low points over the last few years. Silly additions and subtle changes made to each iteration of the series have pushed the well-known brand further into mediocre and sometimes downright awful territory. For their latest release, Electronic Arts went back to the drawing board, and handed over the reigns to developer Slightly Mad Studios, which had experience crafting the award-winning racing franchise, GTR. What a smart move that was. Need for Speed SHIFT not only revitalizes the franchise’s name, it revolutionizes some aspects of the racing genre, providing gamers with a palpable sense of what it actually feels like to get behind the wheel of the fastest cars on the planet. Find out why, after the jump.

Need For Speed Shift PS3 image (1).jpgNow, unlike many of the more recent Need for Speed games, SHIFT is purely a track racer. No running from the cops or thin storylines this time around. Just racing, earning money, buying and customizing cars, and dominating the worldwide race challenges. After waiting a few minutes for the game to install the necessary files to your PS3 hard drive, you’ll navigate the slick menu scheme and start your first trial race in My Career. After a quick trial lap around a course, the game will recommend control and difficulty settings based upon how well you did. You can, of course, change these settings at any point throughout your career to affect things like opponent difficulty and car control assistance, if you so choose. Then, it’s off to your first race. You’ll earn some money, buy a Tier 1 car from the moderately extensive car list, and get to the meat of the game’s experience.

Need For Speed Shift PS3 image (2).jpgEach time you compete in a race, you try to earn “stars.” Increasing your amount of stars unlocks more difficult races and various challenges (such as time challenges and head-to-head Driver Duels), which in turn unlock the more advanced Tiers. Cars are grouped by their Tier level, with Tier 1 cars being the least powerful, and Tier 4 cars reaching the pinnacle of dreamland racing machines. Stars are earned primarily in two ways: first by placing within the top three in each race, and second by executing certain maneuvers throughout the race. These “maneuvers” earn you points while you race, and are split into two categories: Precision and Aggressive. You earn Precision points by performing such feats as cleanly passing opponents, mastering turns at correct speeds, and following the “race line” (a colored line on the track that shows you the best route and speeds to take turns at). Aggressive points are earned by more competitive tactics, such as drafting your opponents, causing them to spin out, and drifting around corners. Get enough points in a particular race, and you’ll earn a star bonus on top of the stars you receive for placing in the top three. But don’t think that you’ll be distracted by trying to perform “maneuvers” while racing – as long as you’re trying to win, you’ll typically rack up points without even realizing it.

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These points are also converted into “experience” which increases your “Driver Level.” Every time your level goes up, you unlock new “invitation only” events according to your “precision vs. aggressive” driving style. You’ll also receive more spots in your garage to hold additional cars, a cash bonus, and additional exterior car customization options. On top of that, after completing each race, you earn in-game “badges.” Whether it’s driving over 10 miles in a European car, or placing in two amateur races in a row, you’re rewarded after every race for pretty much anything. Admittedly, earning in-game badges is somewhat cool because you get a feeling of instant gratification, but they’re honestly not much more than fluff, and simply something to show off to your friends or used to earn Playstation Trophies.

Now for the important part: the gameplay. Need for Speed SHIFT is neither a simulation racer nor an “arcade” experience. It straddles the line between something like Burnout, known for its high speed, arcade control, and awesome crashes, and titles like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, which emphasize proper race mechanics and tend to have a steeper learning curve. Slightly Mad Studios has done a fantastic job of giving players unfamiliar with simulation-oriented racers the chance to have a simulation-like experience with only a few minutes of training, by creating a compelling control scheme and enabling heavy computer assistance when necessary. Of course, more experienced players can turn off different aspects of this assistance to gain more control over their vehicles and have a more realistic racing experience, but for the inexperienced gamer, turning on all assistance options will still make for great gameplay. My one gripe with the assistance and difficulty options, however, is that there’s very little incentive to change the assistance modifiers or increase the other drivers’ difficulty. The game can be played on “easy” from start to finish, with the only reason to alter the settings being to improve your own racing ability, or for purely personal satisfaction. Luckily, depending on how you spend your cash, the game can still get plenty difficult in the higher Tier races, regardless of what assistance you have enabled.

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However, where SHIFT truly excels, and separates itself from the myriad of other racing titles on the market, is in its ability to make you feel what it’s actually like to race in one of these powerful machines. Have you ever been going so fast in a car that, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know that just one false move could easily send the car out of control? That’s what going fast in this game feels like. Simply put, I have never felt a more palpable sense of fear for the speed that I am travelling in a virtual environment more than in this game. And this sense of speed is even heightened as you progress through the game. The difference between racing in a Tier 1 car and a higher Tier car like the McLaren F1 will be apparent the moment you step on the gas. It’s unreal, and addicting.

The way that the game is able to accomplish this is through its innovative camera, graphics, and sound. The default setting places the camera precisely where one’s eye line would be if they were really sitting behind the wheel, and although you can choose to move the camera to a third person, outside view, the default setting is absolutely the way to go. When you turn and move the car, the reacts realistically, giving the feeling that you, the “person” inside the car, have your own inertia. Couple this with the graphics, which are not only highly detailed both inside and outside the car, but also utilize blur effects to simulate realistic depth perception at high speeds, and visually you have an unparalleled virtual racing experience. When you crash, your screen even goes blurry and grey temporarily as your driver attempts to steady himself and recover from the shock.

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The true clincher in this “drive so fast you’ll feel scared” package is the incredible sound design. Slightly Mad Studios wisely chose to have all music turned off during races by default, forcing the player to become engrossed in the great sound effects. Every type of car seems to sound different, and the terrain that you’re racing on is accurately represented as well. Anyone who’s been to a race track knows how loud these cars are, and SHIFT nails the overwhelming sound of the engines, the crushing of metal during collisions, and the squealing of tires on the track. You can almost smell the burnt rubber.

In terms of car customization, SHIFT does a decent, but not quite extraordinary job. Aesthetically, there are plenty of options and ways to trick out your vehicles, but the controls and the inability to copy decals or line them up to gridlines make the experience a bit more tedious than it needs to be. As a side note, much to my geeky delight, I was able to recreate and race in a Chevy Camaro with a Transformers-style Bumblebee paint job. Still, there are plenty of ways for players to adjust their car’s actual performance, by purchasing upgrades to increase the car’s horsepower, etc., but gear nuts can go really in depth and fine-tune everything like their car’s individual tire pressure, weight distribution, and gear ratios.

Need For Speed Shift PS3 image (8).jpgThe online portion of the game is also quite good, and nearly lag free. There are a few different modes to compete in, in either ranked or unranked matches, that are similar to the ones found in the single player campaign. The best part, however, is that you continue to earn badges and experience even while competing online, which benefits your single player career. In an effort to keep an even playing field, drivers are also penalized with a temporary “speed cap” mid-race if they try to go off-road and cut corners. All in all, the online gameplay is as solid as its offline.

Final Thoughts

Need for Speed SHIFT is a triumph for the franchise, and the racing genre as a whole. It’s able to retain everything that people love about simulation racers, and yet still be accessible to those unfamiliar with the basic mechanics. There is a lot to accomplish and unlock, incredibly detailed graphics and sound, and a sense of speed unmatched by any other racing game to date. It’s not quite perfect, but if you’re even remotely interested in the racing genre, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.

Rating: A minus

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