The Need for Speed series has gone through a lot of changes over the years. Recently, all that's stayed consistent is the franchise's declining quality. Need for Speed Shift marks yet another new direction, ditching cop chases and cheesy movie sequences to focus on a more authentic racing experience. Does it have enough horsepower to jumpstart its reputation?
Shift's career mode tests your driving skills in over 200 events as you rise through the ranks, with your ultimate goal being to compete in the Need for Speed World Tour. There are five tiers of competition in all, offering a broad scope of events. There are standard races, time attacks, and drift challenges, as well as lengthy endurance races, and car battles, which pit two very similar vehicles against each other. You advance to higher tiers by earning stars through podium placement, earning driver points, and completing bonus objectives, such as maintaining the lead for a full lap. There's plenty to do in each tier, and higher ranks become available long before you've exhausted earlier options.
Your driver profile, which tracks your driving style as it evolves, develops in parallel with your career progression. The actions you take on the track are weighed as either precise or aggressive, and are assigned values that add to your experience pool. Depending on which way you lean, you earn special badges that illustrate your driving behavior. When you earn enough points, your driver levels up, giving you access to more customization options, additional garage slots for new cars, and invitational events in line with your driving style.
The vehicle selection isn't exhaustive, but Shift's stable of more than 65 cars centers on the most desirable vehicles out there, without padding the numbers with mini-vans or superficial variations on other models. Many cars can be upgraded with body kits or nitrous tanks, and tuning-minded players can choose to work with either general attributes, like balancing top speed with acceleration, or get in deep to tweak stuff like tire pressure and gear ratios.
Visual customization isn't quite as robust. You can add aftermarket rims, repaint vehicles, choose pre-designed liveries, and add vinyls, but there aren't any tools to let you copy vinyls from one side of the car to the other or to create designs from scratch. A simple photo mode lets you upload snapshots, but replay options are limited and there's no function to save replays either.
There are over 50 track layouts, including famous locations like Brand's Hatch and Laguna Seca, as well as fictional tracks in cities like London and Tokyo. Shift keeps the action limited to professional settings, but there's a fair mix of stadium venues, city routes, and wooded endurance courses.
Online options include versus races for up to eight players, and if you try to cut corners online, you'll be penalized with a temporary speed cap. Your driver profile carries over to online play, so you can continue to earn badges and experience. Additionally, there are one-on-one driver duels, which let you face off against another driver with pre-determined cars and tracks to see who can win two out of three rounds. Winners move up to the next bracket, with more challenging cars and opponents, while losers are kicked back down to round one.
Car handling in Need for Speed Shift is sim-based, but accessible. After the initial test lap, players are able to choose from one of four driver settings, ranging from casual, which provides generous braking and steering assists, to pro, which dispenses with traction control and anti-lock brakes. Likewise, you can turn off the green race line or enable damage effects. With the damage option on, strong collisions will alter your steering and speed, but it isn't so involved that you'll knock off wheels or total your ride. The settings provide options for every player, but aside from personal satisfaction, there aren't any rewards for choosing tougher setups.
In addition to races and time attacks, Shift also has a series of drifting competitions to master. The more authentic drifting technique can be quite challenging for players used to sliding around corners in older Need for Speed titles. There's no tutorial or space to practice, so if you're determined to master the drift, you'll just have to retry early events until you get it right.
When it comes to getting behind the wheel, Shift fires on all cylinders. You'll notice significant differences in handling depending on which car you drive. The Aston Martin DB9 feels smooth and almost detached, the Chevy Camaro muscles its way forward with power, and the Nissan GT-R can practically drive sideways through slippery turns. The sense of speed when you first get into the seat of a tier four car, like the Pagani Zonda, is incredible. You play in the cockpit by default, and it's easily one of the most comfortable and drivable examples of this in any racing game. Mirrors are in clear view, allowing you to keep tabs on other drivers, and the perspective never feels cramped or closed-in.
The focus on precision and aggression, with points constantly tallying in the upper display, changes how you look at each race. If you're going the precision route, you'll use more caution to pass opponents without trading paint and do your best to master all the corners in each track. Meanwhile, going the aggressive route means more actively running drivers off the road and sliding around corners.
The AI drivers adapt and react to your driving style, but they tend to be fairly aggressive in general, bumping into each other and actively blocking you from passing. It's not uncommon to see drivers ahead of you crash into each other or simply blow a turn and slide off-course.
Once again, the cockpits in Need for Speed Shift steal the show, with sharp, detailed materials, authentic knobs and switches, and working meters that even show metric readings when appropriate, regardless of HUD settings. Your dash reflects against the windshield, and when you crash, your view goes blurry as your driver struggles to catch his breath. Driver animations follow your actions as you steer, shift, and slam the accelerator. The only thing curiously missing is any form of handbrake animation, but it's great nonetheless to play with the HUD turned off every now and then.
Taking away from the visual punch are unimpressive damage models and a glitchy dynamic replay camera. Lengthy load times force you to stare at dull tip screens, and the PS3 version is hampered by increased aliasing issues that appear when playing in SD, as well as a few more framerate hitches.
On the audio front, Shift features loud roaring engines and environmental effects that send the sweet piston songs echoing back at you as you pass by shipping containers or other hard surfaces. It's wonderful overall.
Need for Speed Shift is a surprising turn for the series, pushing away from flashy street racing to compete with the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo. Its feature-set still has room to grow, but the tight driving experience stands up with the best.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3.