After nearly 15 years of arcade-style action, the Need For Speed series has finally made its sim-centric debut with NFS: Shift. Longtime fans of the series fearing a steep learning curve can rest easy because the developers have struck a nice balance between the hardcore sim stylings of Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport and the faster-paced, arcadey fare that this series is known for. Coming just a month before Forza 3, Shift blends some of that series’ most well-known traits - like visual car customization and the on-track racing lines, with the PGR series’ kudos (called profile points here), and throws in the NFS series’ top-shelf production values and fast-paced nitrous-infused racing action to create a more unique experience than one would expect that winds up being greater than the sum of its parts.
While Shift definitely takes some cues from other racing games, it does put its own spin on them. Take Forza for example - it rewarded you for driving in a respectful manner and not colliding with rivals, which forced players to be creative in how they passed them lest they face a penalty. Here, you can be rewarded for that kind of driving, but aggressive driving isn’t discouraged - it’s encouraged and yields its own set of rewards just like passive driving does. This certainly helps broaden the game’s appeal to more than just the sim racing set as it makes the races more exciting - even if you’re just a spectator. So if you want to race dirty and ram people off the road, you can, and you‘ll earn as much as someone who chooses to race a clean style, or one who prefers a flashy approach.. This is another feature that makes the game more accessible and while it may lead to some abuse online as people have no real motivation beyond honor to not just run you off the road, that can be avoided by simply playing with friends or avoiding those kinds of players.
Similarly, while Shift has a points-earning setup like the PGRs, it takes the concept further by awarding points for not only impressive moves and clean driving, but for just about everything imaginable. The excessive rewards make acquiring points easy, which in turns means you can get through career mode faster, and increase your earnings to buy more cars. It also gives you the freedom in the career mode to skip a section of races - like the incredibly hard drift events or sometimes-frustrating one-on-one races, and still progress through the mode by making up for it in other areas. Some may find this to be cheap since it allows you to bypass events, but I like it since not all of the events are done well and doesn’t punish players for not being able to excel at everything. I’d rather have this aspect of the game be too easy and see people keep playing because of the flexibility than see them quit the game in frustration.
No matter if you’re going through a career or just enjoying a few races on the side for fun, you’ll be treated to the most thrilling crashes I’ve seen in a racing game - while the body damage isn’t as severe as something like GRiD, the screen-altering effects here help make them seem more devastating as they obscure your vision very briefly until you move away from the crash. You can also cause crashes much easier here than in other games, which adds some thrill as you can drive into the back of a car, have its back go over your front end, and then flip it over. I don’t recall any other game that’s allowed this, but it’s an awesome little feature to have. There’s also quite a bit of strategy to the crashes because you can use them to back up the racers behind you if you run the first place driver into a wall in such a way that his car then takes up half of the track - leading to a massive pileup and a well-earned first place win.
You do have to be careful with aggressive tactics though, because if you don’t take a rival driver out doing them, they’ll come back at you with great ferocity and try to take you out. The aggressive AI is another element to the game that helps set it apart from the rest - rivals aren’t just here for you to pass by. They’re in this to, and they’ll take out other drivers in order to win. You don’t see many games where AI drivers will cause one another to wreck, but it happens here and I love it.
One downside to the sim/arcade hybrid style of the game is that the controls are kind of stuck between being loose like an arcade racer and really accurate like a sim racer. The end result is a sim-style racer that doesn’t quite control as accurately as others on the market, but still controls really well overall. The handling definitely feels a little odd at times, but after an hour or so, you’ll get used to the nuances and be able to control your car with ease. Well, except for the drift races, which never quite feel right as the handling is far too slippery and it’s way too hard to control your car with any degree of precision.
Visually, Shift is easily the best-looking sim racer yet, and one of the best-looking racing games you’ll find on the market today. The car models are few in number compared to other sim racers (with only around 60 cars featured), but they’re also intricately modeled from the inside-out, with the interiors looking just as beautiful as the exteriors. The interior of your car also change as you modify the car - so if you change a normal street car into a finely-tuned racing machine, it’ll go from having an everyday interior to one that better reflects the inside of a racing car - with safety equipment and such visible. The intricately-designed environments are also amazing to look at - and the developers have changed track surroundings around a bit by taking out boring parts and replacing them with more interesting parts. This might hurt the accuracy of the game a bit, but it does make it more visually appealing.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of Shift’s visuals are stellar. The on-screen HUD during races is entirely too busy - there are over half a dozen things of various sizes, shapes, and colors to keep track of that can easily distract you during play. The HUD features a rear-view mirror, a constantly rotating map, profile point counter, star counter, race position marker, a variety of time-tracking areas and the usual assortment of gauges to track your speed and the like. While the text for most of these things is clean, there’s just entirely too much going on to completely focus on the race and oftentimes you’ll have the lighter-colored text end up unreadable due to either lens flare or a light blue sky.
Also, while the car models and environments are incredibly detailed, a price has been paid for that in the form of unbelievably long load times. Pre-race load times clock in at about a minute each, and while that amount might not seem like a lot if you just play for a half hour and don‘t partake in many races, when you have marathon sessions it becomes clear just how much time is being spent waiting for things to load.
Shift rebounds nicely with some incredible audio. The sound effects are amazing and allow every crash to sound as vile as it should. They also showcase the difference between a low-end car and a high-end one in their varying engine roars. I’m also glad that, despite this being an EA game, there isn’t a huge licensed soundtrack of questionable quality. In fact, there’s no music played during races, which allows players to become fully immersed in the race and easily get into a groove during a race - especially when you’re using the cockpit view and can really hear the roar of your engine and the ones around you during a close race.
Overall, Need For Speed: Shift is a welcome change of pace in the long-running series, and a welcome addition to the sim racing genre as well. While there’s certainly room for improvement in some areas, I was surprised to see just how finely-tuned the final product was considering it is the first entry in what I’d like to see become a regular part of the NFS series. Sim racing fans will definitely enjoy it, and I think it would be a great way for NFS series vets to be introduced to the genre because it’s not so sim-like to be daunting and gives players so much freedom in races that I’m sure even those new to the genre would like it quite a bit. I also think that those used to the Forzas and Gran Turismos of the world will enjoy it simply because it’s a fresh take on the genre and does introduce some things that, while they aren’t new to racing games as a whole, haven’t been used in sim racers before.