Ever since the title has been announced back in January, Need for Speed Shift has split the sim community like few titles before.
While many people were quick to judge that Need for Speed titles will never be realistic, others hoped the involvement of the former Blimey! Games staff would lead to a new simulation title. Tons of preview videos, screenshots and lots of hype later, Shift is finally out. Is the newest Need for Speed a worthwhile experience for sim racers or another letdown like Race Driver GRID? Read the review to find out…
Just by looking at who’s responsible for Need for Speed Shift, it’s easily understandable why many sim racers got excited about the title. Even though Slightly Mad Studios was only founded back at the start of this year, the key personal is very well known in the sim racing community as some of the staffers go all the way back to the Simbin Development Team that earned a reputation for making high-class mods for F1 2002.
The new team started with the aim to drastically change the Need for Speed series that had moved away from being a classical driving game to extensive tuning, police chases and underground flair. The new direction didn’t do too well both with critics and buyers as the latest NfS titles both failed in reviews and in terms of sales.
Shift is a complete restart, taking the series back to more serious road racing. The result is a driving game that comes close to what genre benchmarks Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport offer – A big selection of cars from small hatchbacks to full blown race cars, plenty of tracks and an extensive career mode as cornerstone of the game.
Need for Speed Shift includes around 70 cars, ranging from sportive front-wheel driven cars like the VW Scirocco to full-blown racing machinery like the Maserati MC12. Almost all major makes are represented, giving players a rich selection of cars to choose from.
Even though the majority of cars in Shift are road cars, the title blurs the line between stock vehicles and competition cars with an extensive tuning and upgrade feature. I know that many sim racers will cringe when hearing about tuning, this isn’t about equipping your car with fancy lights or flashy rims but more about realistic performance tuning.
Cars can be equipped with turbos, body kits, roll cages and more, turning a regular road car into a racing vehicle. All of these updates cost money that needs to be earned in the game’s career mode first.
Much like Gran Turismo, Shift is about collecting cars first as you´ll start off with a very limited selection of vehicles.
To please both fans of the recent Need for Speed titles and simulation fans alike, Shift includes both real life racing circuits and fictional tracks.
In terms of real tracks, Shift offers some of the most important circuits, including the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Silverstone, Spa, Road America, Laguna Seca and a few others. Every real track is included in several variants such as the National layout in Silverstone, even the Nordschleife can be completed in parts for those who feel the 16 mile track is a task too tough to complete.
Even though the tracks are fairly accurate, they´re spoiled by heavy usage of fictional track side objects. While fictional advertising boards could be found in other titles such as GTR Evolution, SMS really went over the top with that in Shift.
Some of the tracks are barely recognizable thanks to the carnival that is happening on both sides of the road. Shift doesn’t stop with a few Ferris wheels or other amusement park rides along the track, it even includes fictional buildings and circuit tents. The result is not just totally unrealistic but can also be very distracting as many of these objects are animated.
Just like other popular console racing games, Shift centers around an extensive career mode. If you´re looking to just pick a car and track and go driving like in simulation titles, forget it.
The game starts with a little driving test that is meant to evaluate the player’s abilities. Most sim racers will pass that with flying colors, leading the game to suggest the pro mode without any aids.
Once the test is completed, you can choose to either start your career, do a quick race or start a time attack. The latter two are pretty much useless in the beginning as you can choose any track you want but you don’t have any car to race with – To get any of the interesting cars, you´ll have to use the career mode.
Your career consists of a variety of events, from normal races to time attacks, drift events or car battles where you have to beat another driver. Participation in the events will reward you both with money to spend on new cars and upgrades as well as points to raise your driver level.
These level-points are one of the main things in Shift as the game will reward you with points for every single thing you do. Passing other cars, keeping your car on the racing line or even slamming into other cars – Everything will earn you points, making it very easy to advance in the career mode.
While the first races with a slow car on a fictional track can be pretty dull, the career mode gets interesting quickly with a nice selection of different events, none of which are mandatory to complete. Don’t like the drifting events? Just leave them out as you´ll earn enough points to advance anyways.
Shift’s graphical presentation sets new benchmarks for driving games, at least on the PC platform. From great lighting and reflection effects to the very detailed cockpits, Shift’s graphics leave little room to criticize.
If you´re used to gMotor-based simulations, real-time shadows in the cockpits and reflections in the windscreen are something you aren’t used too. Shift’s circuits feel very alive too, partly due to the wrong reasons (see track chapter above) but also due to nice details such as animated spectators, photographers or mechanics.
What Shift’s graphics engine does best is deliver an immersive driving experience. The game offers an excellent feel of speed you can’t get in many other titles, partly due to the usage of motion blur and depth of field effects
Even though both effects will not be everyone’s cup of tea, Shift does not go over the top with them like other titles, the look stays more or less realistic. The blur can even be adjusted or turned off in the options.
While the graphics overall manage to impress, some low resolution textures and graphical bugs spoil the experience a little. Furthermore, the good graphics come with the cost of high hardware requirements. If you´re used to get 100+ fps in gMotor simulations, you won’t end up with much more than 30-35 fps in Shift, using the same resolution.
More annoying than the rather slow performance are the dreadful loading times though as anything in Shift will take quite a while to load. Even switching from one car to another in the showroom will come with considerable waiting time.
Much like the graphics, the sounds are another strong point of Shift. Overall, the cars sound mostly like their real-life counterparts, combined with excellent tire sounds for audio feedback.
The sound of your car will even change once you buy upgrades as adding a turbo kit will not just increase the car’s power but will also add a distinctive turbo whistle to the audio experience.
The only negative aspect on the sound side is the annoying and repetitive spotter that you´ll soon want to turn off.
Physics, Force Feedback & AI
Here comes the touchy part: How does Shift drive? Those who were holding their breath for Shift to be a simulation will be disappointed, it is clearly not.
While the cars are challenging to drive in the pro mode, they´re partly for the wrong reasons as almost all cars are suffering from permanent oversteering. Once you turn the wheel, your car will start sliding through the corners, a condition that can not really be helped with setup settings.
What makes this matter worse is a steering lag that is present both using the Xbox 360 Controller and the Fanatec Porsche 911 GT3-RS wheel. Even though Shift offers profiles for both controllers, it took quite a while of tweaking to get them to feel right and suit them to Shift’s somewhat odd needs.
The slightly numbed steering is not helped by the games’ Force Feedback that is not precise enough to be really helpful. Don’t get me wrong though, it isn’t all bad as Shift manages to deliver a good and mostly believable driving experience. Unlike in Race Driver GRID, braking isn’t mandatory and you will spin your car if you push too hard.
The game’s damage effects are in place mostly to deliver nice effects as it won’t affect your car’s handling very much. Even hard crashes won’t take you out of a race as you can still do competitive lap times.
The worst thing about Shift aren’t the physics though – It’s the AI. A title that comes with an extensive single player career mode relays a lot on the AI to make it a pleasant experience, sadly Shift fails completely in this department.
While computer controlled cars in racing simulations rarely behave very clever, the cars in Shift often struggle with the simplest tasks. It’s absolutely common to see a pack of cars stack up in a slow corner simply because the leading car chooses to slow down for no apparent reason. If you´re in such a pack, the AI cars will ram into you.
This makes the racing a little dull as the cars will struggle to meet your lap times because of these problems. It’s even worse in the time trial events where your objective is to set the fastest time while sharing the track with other cars, which do nothing but slow you down.
On the contrary, the AI can be almost frustratingly quick later in the career mode, especially in the 1 vs 1 driver duels.
So, is Shift a worthwhile experience for sim racers? That heavily depends on your personal preferences.
Sim racers who look for a real simulation will not just be turned-off by the games’ mediocre physics but also the arcady presentation and the limited gameplay options. If you´re used too just pick a car and drive and don’t want to be bothered with a career mode, Shift isn’t for you. If you´re looking to do longer races than a few laps, that offer real-racing elements such as practice, qualifying and pit stops, Shift isn’t for you.
If you´re looking for a nice driving title with somewhat believe physics, a big selection of cars and a very immersive driving experience, you can give Shift a try. In general, Shift is a step in the right direction for the Need for Speed series, especially considering the series’ most recent titles.
Shift fills a big void, especially on the PC were the selection of driving titles is rather slim. If you´r looking for a graphically stunning driving game with lot of cars and a substantial career mode, Shift is pretty much your only choice.
On the consoles however, Shift will most likely be blown away by the upcoming competition of Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 as Shift can’t match the sheer amount of content and depth of these titles.
Still, if you´re enjoy driving games and pretty graphics, Need for Speed Shift is a worthwhile diversion from using simulations all day – Just don’t expect it to be one…it isn’t.