Need for Speed: Shift Videogame Review
By Alex Kalogiannis
We have all found ways to satiate our car lust in the interim time that our supercar of choice is unavailable. Be it a Hot Wheels collection, a magazine or oft-visited website (made up of handsome, exciting and popular contributors), our greatest automotive fantasies are constructed with the materials available to us. Being just shy of 30 (renew!), I’m fortunate enough to have been a part of the generation that grew up on the magical device that allows us to vicariously experience our wildest fantasies from the comfort of our living room: the home video game console.
The Need for Speed series of games has been around for a very long time, taking its loyal fans on a tumultuous journey throughout its many evolutions. In the beginning it was a virtual cruise through Road & Track, which then expanded to different modes keen to fuel the enthusiast’s desire to perform such acts as outrunning the fuzz in a Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR through a gothic cityscape in the dead of night. The series then went Underground, focusing on modded-out rides and pandering to a demographic that believes an aftermarket spoiler bolted to the trunk of a Honda Accord imbues it with stunning agility and street cred as it sets the highways ablaze with streaks of neon.
Need for Speed: Shift is the beginning of a new era for the series, taking the action off the street and bringing it to the track, with a focus on bringing the player as close to the fray as possible. The game puts you in the role of a driver just setting off at the start of a racing career that takes you to tracks and events across the globe, mastering different styles and crafting a personality based on your unique driving attitude. Your race engineer is the narrator’s voice that gives advice and introductions for the game’s many events. He starts you off in a hot lap in a BMW M3 that determines what control setup and difficulty is best recommended for you, which you can arrogantly ignore and apply the most hardcore settings if you so choose (and later humbly reset after some eye-opening humility).
I attempted to be as pro as possible, turning off much of the assists and immediately removing the visible driving line on the track. That’s just…no. The one setting that defeated me was my attempt to play with a manual transmission, as the makers of the game chose to place the upshift and downshift buttons on the controller right above the triggers used for gas and brake, so if I wanted to upshift, my finger had to leave the throttle, and, most frustratingly, the other had to leave the brake for the sake of a downshift, which in a pinch I want to do simultaneously. With no way to re-map the buttons, (my evaluation copy was played on the Xbox 360, and I assume it’s the same on the Playstation 3), I was forced to relinquish control of the transmission to the game.
In Shift, much attention has been given to emulating the sensation of speed and, indeed, the dramatic loss of it. An in-car view is available, with pleasantly detailed interiors that can be scanned freely, with fully functioning gauges and upgradable features, plus usable mirrors. The development team seems to be aware of how distracting enjoying the interior details can be when you should be paying attention to the race at hand, so you’ll notice everything inside of the car slowly blur at speed, forcing your eyes to concentrate on the world through the windscreen. Looking up too late will treat you to the jarring sight of a tire wall or barrier rushing towards you, and plowing into it turns the screen into a distorted, shaky mess as the game does its best to make you really feel like you’ve had a serious collision. The degree of the impact determines just how dazed the perspective becomes, from the full-blown aforementioned madness, to a little color de-saturation and gauge rattling for minor scrapes. All this knocking about will reflect on the cars as well, depending on the settings you choose. If you’re going for as much realism as possible, the shunts and slams that your car endures will reflect on the body and performance of the vehicle. While there isn’t a way to fully incapacitate your car, a massive accident will leave your ride a crumpled mess with low power and skewed alignment.
The car you choose will be one of many in the four-tier system available to you based on your driving level. Tier 1 contains cars such as the BMW 135i and the Volkswagen GTI, while higher tiers promise the chance to purchase supercars like the Pagani Zonda and Bugatti Veyron with the in-game currency you’ll earn. Being a green racer when you pop in the disc, only a handful of cars will be unlocked for purchase, and your initial funds allow for only the most frugal choices. As you progress, you will unlock more tiers, with higher performance cars, better garage spots, and different visual and performance upgrades for both the interior and exterior.
As mentioned before, your skills in NFS:Shift are measured in your driver level. At level one, you’ll have only bare-bone essentials at your disposal, but as you race, you’ll advance in rank as you earn points for podium finishes and different challenges for particular races (such as hitting a certain speed or spinning out a number of competitors), as well as points earned for the two branches of driving styles that define your progression: Precision and Aggression. You’ll earn Precision points for driving the line, clean passes, and managing corners properly, and gather Aggression points for trading paint, throwing the tail out, and generally muscling your way through the grid. The system seems fairly responsive, but I spent a few races shoving rivals out of my way, only to inexplicably end up with a “Precision” badge at the end of the race because I managed to drive a decent racing line most of the time.
Tracks like Brands Hatch and Spa-Francorchamps mix in well with the various fictional tracks designed for the game. A series that has been notorious for its product placement has found a good medium in track advert postings and car liveries, and so doesn’t have the feeling that the game is shilling any particular product. Some of the menus for tuning and customization could be a little more user-friendly. You can paint the car in numerous configurations and apply your own decals to it, but there isn’t a way to have a design on one side of the car perfectly mirror the other, which will work the OCD of in-game car artists hard. Other than this section, your currently selected car will be featured in the background, spinning and being shown off at various angles. This is nothing particularly worth mentioning until you attempt to change the body kit in the upgrade menu, which sits opaquely on top of this animation. The kits are functional and there’s a graph that shows the difference in performance if you choose to install it, but it’d be nice to see what my car would look like if I did so, especially since if you select a kit, it is applied to the car animation as a preview, only visible through the spaces in between the menu windows.
Assuming you don’t play the game in the 3rd-person perspective, the only ways to enjoy your visual tweaks are through the after-race replays where you can also pause and take snapshots of your car at various angles, inside and out. I spent a lot of time in photo mode just for the sake of scrutinizing and enjoying the in-car details without having to worry about driving, taking pleasure in nit-picking features of real-life cars I’ve driven, and pretending to be behind the wheel of cars that I haven’t, which seems to me is the point of the game—fuel for the fantasy. Players of the game will enjoy the gameplay, but most of all, they’ll revel in opportunities, like pitting a Reventon and a Veyron head-to-head at Laguna Seca to see who’d win, even if it’s just make-believe. Even so, in lieu of the real deal, it might be a good way to settle a few bets.
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