Need for Speed SHIFT Review

Fasten your seatbelt, here come the clichés. The "shift" in Need for Speed SHIFT is of the paradigm sort. This iteration in the long-running series represents a total franchise reboot. The "street" has been taken out of the street racing game and the result is a game that has shades of Gran Turismo but is far more accessible. Racing sim purists may scoff, but for everyone else Need for Speed SHIFT delivers some serious racing excitement.

SHIFT dispenses with all of the story that was packed into recent Need for Speed games - which is probably a good thing because the rookie street racer racing his way to the top thing was getting a little worn out. A disembodied voice speaking to you through your radio headset offering racing tips at the start of each race is the closest thing you'll get to a story this time out. SHIFT shows you that it's seriously all about the racing right from the start as it immediately drops you behind the wheel of a car and has you run a few practice laps. These laps are used to gauge your relative skill level and the game will automatically adjust its realism settings based on how well you handle your first few laps. Of course you can fine tune the difficulty settings on your own, but it's nice to have the game adjust itself automatically at the start rather than forcing you to run a number of races that are either far too difficult or way too easy before you find the settings that you prefer.

The practice laps also give you your first look at how much things have changed in SHIFT. First of all you're now racing on closed courses and not weaving through traffic on city streets. Second, your default view is no longer from a chase camera sitting behind and above your car; SHIFT is meant to be played from the driver's seat. Sure, you can switch the game camera to the chase view that you're used to seeing, but I don't know why you would want to considering how impressive the cockpit viewpoint is in the game. Capturing the feel of speed in a videogame isn't easy, which makes it even more impressive that SHIFT does such a great job doing so. The game makes going 200 MPH actually feel like 200 MPH, not just in the way the scenery flies past but in a myriad of subtle ways as well - sound, jitter, vibration; you can almost feel all those horses putting a strain on the metal and rubber surrounding you. I've played racing games in which I've flown off of curves because I wasn't closely watching the speedometer and had no idea how fast I was going, but in SHIFT I can tell when I'm approaching a curve at too high a speed because it feels like I'm going too fast. SHIFT also makes wrecks feel like wrecks. The viewpoint will snap in the opposite direction from the collision just as your head would snap towards the impact point and if the impact is hard enough the screen will momentarily fade to grey or black just as your vision would after a nice little knock to the head. It's not just a gimmicky effect - it really makes you feel each collision, so much as can be felt in a videogame.

The game's career mode is not so much a career as it is a progression of event tiers. Within each tier there are a number of events for you to compete in and master, that include both straight races and other competitions such as drift events, elimination races, manufacturer events, best lap time competitions. Each class of event in a tier will be comprised of a number of individual events each set on a different track, so there's plenty of variety within each tier. Most racing games would require you to win all of the events at a level before advancing to the next, but SHIFT employs an interesting reward system that's not entirely tied to being the first to cross the finish line.

SHIFT employs a point system that measures your race performance in two categories: precision and aggression. You earn precision points by doing things like sticking to the Gran Turismo style racing line on the track (the line shows you the best path through the course and dynamically changes colors to indicate when you need to let off the gas or apply the brakes to get through a stretch), passing opponents cleanly, and mastering turns and corners. You earn aggression points by bumping opponents, spinning them out, drafting, and other such aggressive race maneuvers. These points accumulate to determine your driver level, and your driver level leads to unlocked accessories and detailing items in the garage. Also, each race has a couple of point thresholds and if you accumulate enough total points in a race you'll earn stars for the race - more on stars in a bit. For these things it doesn't matter whether you earn your points through precision or aggression, but the difference does come into play for two things. The first is that as you level the game builds you a custom racing badge that others will be able to see online. Earn more precision points since your last badge upgrade and you'll get a precision related piece, or earn an aggression related piece if you earn more aggression points. It's an interesting way to advertise your driving style to others online, but it doesn't go much beyond that. The other difference between precision and aggression points is that the game has a multitude of badges that you can earn, and the badges are tied to specific precision and aggression milestones such as cleanly passing 25 other cars or trading paint with 100 rivals. One last thing of note on the precision/aggression points is that you can earn them in online races as well and they will be added to the same totals as your offline points, so you can advance in level by racing in a mix of offline and online events.