With the Need For Speed franchise in a dwindling state, it was quite surprising to see a new title in the series announced so quickly, especially since it promised a change in direction. Need For Speed: Shift is this promise, and it's aim is to move the series towards the more serious echelons of simulation racing.
It's known that Need for Speed: Shift is definitely more simulation geared this time, so racing is a lot more realistic and has a much less arcade feel to it. For those weary of that statement, comfort can be found in knowing that the game supports a full range of assists for those who are more into arcade style. On that note, there is plenty for simulation veterans, as settings range way beyond the ability to change braking systems and stability controls. Shift features the option to tune vehicles in several manners, including the ability to turn on advanced tuning features such as tire pressure and suspension settings should the urge arise. Either way the game controls smoothly and responsively. Different cars have distinct feeling to them so not every vehicle just seems like a faster version than the last. For example, all wheel drive cars are going to respond much differently from a front wheel drive, and smaller vehicles feel quick and light, while larger ones feel brutish and drag their way through the tighter corners.
There are a lot of choices to be made in Shift, with a wide array of cars and race types. Vehicles fall into three categories in which they can be upgraded. Nitro cars can be fitted with nitrous tanks for an extra bit of boost, drift cars which can be used for drift events and works cars which can be fully upgraded into finely raced tuned touring cars. One big part of works cars however is that they are very expensive, so it's best to save the money for a few cars that are most fitting to the player for the works tuned packages. Even still, without a lot of money in the beginning there is a fair trade off in the events made available. This means that most times buying a new car isn't required. For selected events, sponsor cars are also given to the player to race in place of a home tuned or non-existent cars in the player garage.
Race types are also divided into a variety of different challenges, which range from standard lap races to drifting competitions involving a points based system involving speed, angle, and precision. There's also some really interesting car rivalry races where two preset cars face off in three rounds where the first car to finish a lap wins the round. There are also same car races that challenge pure driver skill.
With skill in mind, that is essentially how the game progresses. Coming first place in each race isn't the most crucial part of racing, but how each race is actually played out. There are four tiers to Shift in which stars are required to unlock event types and eventually more tiers. Stars are awarded for a finish in the podium spot, completing a set goal for the track such as mastering corners or drafting, and also for how much experience is earned in each race. The experience system works in two levels: aggression and Precision. The player is given a badge for which style is best represented, decided by an early race. Experience points are given on both sides no matter which faction the player lies with, but it will dictate what race types are unlocked earliest. Precision awards clean driving and smooth cornering with little contact, where aggression awards rougher driving such as blocking and bumping opponents. As the driver skill levels up, it also unlocks different wheel packs and vinyls for vehicles as well as bonus cash for more cars.
The driver skill system is very interesting, since it applies to any race the player participates in offline or online, which helps to compliment the integrated feel. Getting into an online match is very simple and it feels like a nice extension to the single player career mode. It allows for players to hop in, pick a style of race and go. The player still gets race winnings and experience that works for the career mode, so going online doesn't feel like wasting races online without reaping any benifit. A system like this is handy for people who just crave trying to get to the next level. It also means the 'story' is much more simple. No more is there an awkward plot about a missing package or kidnapped relative that needs to be sought out by street racing. In place is a story about racing on real courses and working to the ultimate racing cup by building a reputation on the track and buying new vehicles and upgrades. Although it's not an epic tale that will be retold through the ages, at least it's not some far-fetched ridiculous scheme to give reason for racing a car.
Visuals in the game have really taken a step-up for the series, and the in-car views look exceedingly impressive. A good level of detail is also present in the stages, and specific landmarks can be seen in events based around famous places. There is also a complimentary soundtrack which provides a nice backdrop to a sleek menu system.
As a full package, Need For Speed: Shift delivers on just about all fronts. Great visuals, an excellent driving model, and a seamless multiplayer experience to keep the game in the disk drive longer. The only people who may shy away from this title are those looking for a pure arcade style racer, others however will find a great new experience that's knocking on the door of the Gran Turismos and Forzas of the modern day. It's good to know that Need For Speed games can still be fun when done right, and Need For Speed: Shift is a shining example. For the right crowd, this may be one of the best Need For Speed titles ever made.