October 01, 2009
The Need for Speed series has always styled itself on the seedier side of racing, with underground races, plenty of cops and enough customisation for you to pimp your car to the sun and back (though sadly no fluffy dice). The latest instalment has decided to do away with all of that nonsense and take a step into the light, as it tries to become a more serious, simulation based racer. For fans of the series and the gritty racing it always embodied, it is a bit of a body blow, though it has to be said that the quality of the titles has been gradually slipping recently so this revamp could possibly be the amazing turnaround required. Here is hoping that the game is more The Fast and the Furious as opposed to 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Developed by newcomers, Slightly Mad Studios, Shift is a vast departure from previous titles in the series, though considering the varied history of the franchise it would be more surprising to see something familiar. The whole idea this time around has been to take things away from the traditional arcade style of gameplay that has previously been employed and move things towards a more authentic driving experience. It is something of a gamble considering the fact that the huge fan base are more than happy with the over the top antics more commonly on show. While the move to simulation based racing may well be the shot in the arm the series needs, it could well upset some of the punters.
The first thing you will notice about the game is just how much better it looks than previous titles, it might not be up there with the realism of Forza or Gran Turismo but it more than holds its own. Actually, the very first thing you will probably notice will be the staggeringly long loading times that pop up constantly and soon begin to grind you down, but I digress. The in car visuals are superb and spot on down to the smallest detail even resulting in a cracked windscreen or blurred vision should you have a crash. Not to mention that the tracks are also great to look at and have their own unique personalities when it comes to race time. So far, so perfect you may well think – well that is until the glitches start to creep in. Considering the general quality on show it comes as a bit of a shock when patches of grass show up on the track, or your car strangely refuses to move during a race. Not to mention the fact that some of the collision detection can get extremely choppy resulting in spin outs from slight brushes or no response at all from heavy crashes. If you slip off the course too, you will have issues as the ground seems to have an almost magnetic effect which means you will struggle to get back on which is most peculiar.
The real issue with the game will come in your very first race, as something is wrong almost immediately upon setting off. Not many people will be novices to driving games but upon strapping yourself into Shift, you will certainly feel that way due to the fact your car will seemingly have a mind of its own. The handling is appalling at first and will do nothing to draw new players in. Those with a bit of nuance will immediately seek out the settings menu and tinker with the various options to make things more manageable, but you have to wonder how the original settings were agreed upon in the first place. Even on the easiest difficulty you will spin out on almost every corner until you either throw the game out in disgust or actually make an effort to set it up so that it works. No doubt, people will assume those that struggle are noobs and suck – but frankly the early stages of a racing game should provide the easiest learning curve rather than the toughest. Another problem is that the game has still retained some of its arcade sensibilities whilst the rest of it has edged towards realistic driving, so it finds itself stuck in the middle ground and doing neither particularly well. It also suffers from some of the most blatant AI rubberbanding, even on the lower difficulties, as rival drivers will prove far too easy to over take and then impossible to lose. With them often pipping you to a victory over the most minor mistake.
Even with ideal settings some of the cars still have extremely choppy handling until you modify them a bit. So again, you have to actually be good enough to win races before you can make your car good enough to win races – the thought process behind the whole set up is a little mystifying. Thankfully, once things are to your liking, the actual driving becomes a whole lot more fun. You can modify and alter your car to your own personal requirements, and even buy new rides should you have a yearning for the ability to drift or apply some nitrous. A handy racing line shows you the best route through races should you so desire, and you can make the AI help you out as much or as little as you need it to. As you progress through races you will amass more vehicles and more races to attempt, with the grand prize being the Need For Speed Live World series. The real issue is that you can rush through and win the ultimate prize in a very short period of time, which will leave you with nothing to fall back on except for you few races you missed and a few quick events. Hardly inspiring stuff.
Career progression is actually fairly straightforward as you work your way up four tiers with a variety of events. Sadly the same style of races continually pop up, so you are either doing bog standard races, time attacks to beat lap times or drift challenges to amass oodles of points. Barring a change of cars or a few minor variations that is pretty much it. Each race offers up a number of ‘stars’ as a reward for winning or doing bonus tasks like clean laps, drift points or spinning rivals. The more stars you get, then the more tiers you unlock and the more cars and races you have available. The main issue here is that it soon starts to feel like a grind as you slog through race after race with no real incentive other than the need to win and no real motivation other than your own pride.
Complete boredom is spared in some ways by the unique levelling and statistic tracking system on show. As you race you can acquire points for pretty much everything from sticking to the racing line, overtaking to drifting and all of these points will fuel your driver level. As you go up levels you will acquire more money, more invitational events and more garage spots, amongst other things. Your actions in races will also help you acquire "badges" - an in game measure of your prowess. These badges have no impact on the game itself, but do help to keep your interest as you churn out one result after another.
If you want to take your skills online then you have pretty much the same array of races and tracks available to you. So straight up races, time attacks and drift events can all be lined up against human opposition. You can select the course and the length of the event, which will determine the number of laps depending on the course. While races are fairly lag free and smooth, there is really very little to see here that you cannot find offline, plus you will really need to have access to some of the more top end machines before you stray too far. With only a few badges linked to this mode, it would seem that most players would not have much interest in dabbling too much, although there is a decent enough community around to ensure you get a race going without too many issues. Also on the plus side is the fact that all of the points you earn here will help towards your single player experience, so you are getting the best of both worlds.
Looking down the achievements list is a real disappointment and, depending on the settings you use, you can easily knock out the majority of the career points in a day if you were so inclined. After that literally everything is badges and it would have been nice to see these things mixed up a bit more. The idea behind the badges themselves is actually fairly neat, as you aim to build up statistics for clean and dirty overtakes, beating certain types of races, sticking with one car or even getting clean races on all of the courses. So the theory is certainly good. However, by just slapping them all under the ‘badge’ moniker, it just feels like a bit of a grind fest as you have to get twenty of them up to "epic" status and you never seem to be progressing towards specific goals as you spend your time picking up things here and there. Some of the badges are also insanely tough, such as getting all available stars so you will be forced to grind out races after you are done with the career for the tasks you neglected... and that soon becomes a drag.
I was truly hopeful that the change of direction would be good for the series, but it just seems like a major step in the wrong direction. Instead the game sits uncomfortably between an arcade and a simulation racer, and never really excels in either department. Plus, the loading times border on the outright unacceptable. The career is a weak progression of bland races with a dull voiceover and never really draws you in, whilst the online portion of the game is just more of the same. Fans of the series will be left disappointed and sim fans will no doubt want to hang on for Forza. A definite missed opportunity.
Superb sounds for all of the cars and the pre-race build up is decent if rather tiresome. Turn it up loud and shock the neighbours.
A good looking game that suffers from some shocking glitches at times to drag the whole thing down. When grass sprouts through tarmac you have to wonder how it was missed in testing.
The handling is appalling for newcomers and will need tweaking instantly so that you can have any enjoyment. After that you will have some fun for the first few hours but that will soon wane when you start seeing the same events and same poor AI.
A game that tries to be something different but falls down due to the dull career progression and dubious handling. Sure there are plenty of cars and events, but when they are just the same old thing repeated time and time again, who cares? Not to mention the loading times - oh, I already did.
A few career achievements and then the rest are slapped under the badges section. Just lazy really.
This game is just not good enough, especially when compared to the titles it so desperately wants to be. The Need for Speed series has always been about street racing and car modifications so this apparent leap into ‘legitimate’ racing is something of a bizarre choice. The career mode is dull, the handling woeful at best and the graphics border on the bizarre at times. You will no doubt get some fun out of the game but by the time you are done repeating the same style of race for the umpteenth time you will long for something with a bit more substance.