It's hard to say when a franchise needs a reboot or an overhaul, stripped of everything so the developer — a new developer in this case — can build something amazing. The Need for Speed franchise is 15 years old, and the most recent titles have been completely forgettable. In handing the keys over to Slightly Mad Studios, EA took a calculated gamble that has paid off in spades. Need for Speed SHIFT is one of the best in the series, and for sim fans, the best so far.
Additionally, we are going to see two other Need for Speed games in their new three-pronged initiative: NITRO will debut in November for Wii and DS and will feature arcade-style racing; World Online will come out next year for PC and be more action oriented. This leaves SHIFT, or whatever the next installment is called, to cater to more authentic racing, encroaching on the Forza/Gran Turismo space. It has already been announced that Criterion Games (Burnout series) is currently working on the next Need for Speed slated for next year. If SHIFT is any indication, these drastic changes were the way to go.
Steering away from street racing and cop chases, Slight Mad (whose employees created GTR 2 for PC) have crafted a full-on simulation that is just arcade-y enough as to not scare off the casual onlooker, the way Gran Turismo can. The balancing act is pulled off very well, allowing you to tweak the game to your liking, and only hits a couple hiccups along the way.
Not many games deliver the driving experience or sense of speed like SHIFT. Everything about the presentation of the dynamic cockpit view, effect of lateral Gs as you drift around a corner, and the wince and blurry vision as you smash into the wall make you feel closer to actually racing. The cockpit jostles and moves around, instead of the static interior view we have seen before; it is quite impressive, even besting that of Forza 3.
Your career starts out by taking a test lap to gauge your performance, and you can always run it again if you do not like the results. What this does is set the difficulty for the game. Casual will turn all the assists to High and basically brake for you; you just need to keep the car on the pavement. Normal might be a good place to start, as it only provides Low driving assists, but for most seasoned sim racers, Experienced is the setting to go with as it turns all steering and braking assists off. There is a Pro difficulty setting, which also includes full vehicle damage, so as you can see, the game can conform to your play style.
With over 150 events in five tiers, Career mode is where you will spend the bulk of your time, to the tune of 35 or so hours. Although not all race types are available at the start, the variety is refreshing — nine types in all including driver duel, manufacturer events, drift, and lap eliminator. Progression through Career hinges on gaining stars in events, coming from podium finishes, meeting Profile Points thresholds, and completing bonus objectives such as mastering every corner of a circuit.
Profile Points will be familiar to Project Gothem fans, as they are similar to Kudos. You gain either Precision and Aggression points for passing cleanly or trading paint, for example. Your Driver Profile is based on you leaning towards being a precision or aggressive driver; this sort of factors into online play, but more on that later.
Another aspect of climbing the ranks in Career are badges. You earn badges for driver loyalty if you drive Japanese cars a lot, or win consecutive races, 27 different badges in all. These badges keep you racing well after you beat Career mode, and give the game a good amount of variety beyond simply completing this circuit, or that point-to-point race. One set of badges is for online play, too.
The game has longevity in single player because of its variety of racing, including a much better take on drifting than we have seen in previous Need for Speed games, and the addictive nature of the badge system. Sadly the online component is not as meaty, with only versus and driver duel events. The duels have a progressing ladder and are challenging to get to the top, but these options pale in comparison to what we have seen in Project Gotham Racing and Forza. Simply put, if Need for Speed is going to step into this space, it is going to be judged according to the competition. More online options would have helped here.
Your Driver Profile should dictate who your opponents online are — drive with precision and get matched with a like-minded racer. That is a nice thought on paper, but it never works out like that. No matter what race, you will have people gunning to take you out, not win the race. SHIFT tries to make up for this, and fails horribly. If you drive off the course, trying to take a shortcut or because an idiot smashed into you, your car is penalized by slowing to a crawl. This is not the answer to the problem and is a major frustration in online matches.
With 72 fully licensed cars, 18 real world and fantasy circuits, and a lot to love in the single player experience, the lackluster online does not bring this racer down one bit. The Need for Speed series has finally gotten back to its roots, making for a great sim racing experience that is not going to punish non-purists among us. Beyond the sometimes funky physics of crashes, and basic online events, Need for Speed SHIFT is one slick ride. This game is not perfect, but offers quite a bit for racing fans.
Need for Speed SHIFT is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: PS3, PSP, PC.