The ‘Need for Speed’ name is synonymous with motor racing games. The original, The Need For Speed – back in 1994 was widely accepted at the time as one of the best racing games around. Seven tracks and nine cars were all you’d get for your money then – but it didn’t matter. All your mates were playing it, everyone loved it.
Its follow up, Need for Speed II in 1997 made NFS a household name amongst gamers. Sensational supercars like the Ferrari F50, Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1, jaw-dropping concept cars like the Italdesign Cala and Ford GT90 were the machines we had in posters on our walls. Suddenly we could drive them – and there was something incredibly special about it all.
Over the years, NFS grew and evolved. The “Hot Pursuit” iterations of the series added exciting police chases and a whole new dynamic beyond simple circuit racing. “Porsche Unleashed” was a fantastic tribute to a solo manufacturer and arguably one of the most detailed NFS games that had been seen to date.
More than a decade later, with NFS continuing to evolve with the times, new spin-offs such as Underground, Most Wanted and Pro Street followed the modern fascination with street racing and car modification. The Need for Speed purists were driven away, but the series has attracted new followers in new directions.
Despite being poorly received by reviewers, the last Need for Speed game – Undercover - went on to sell over 5.2 million copies on 8 different platforms. Undoubtedly, Need for Speed is still a successful franchise.
Electronic Arts have adopted differing franchising for the latest Need for Speed games however – rather than tackling a single motoring interest and targeting a specific group of gamers, the new evolution of NFS is a multi-faceted model, consisting of Need for Speed: Nitro, Need for Speed: World Online and the just released Need for Speed: Shift.
Need for Speed: Shift abandons an age of arcade racing games in favour of driving simulation. Developed by Slightly Mad Studios, part of the team behind the brilliant PC simulation games, GT Legends and GTR 2, NFS: Shift has promised to be a solid racer with all the hallmarks of classic NFS games, a car list to match and a dedicated team to make sure it all worked.
You’re immediately in the seat of a BMW 1 series and instructed to do a lap of Brands Hatch so the game can accurately assess your driving ability and automatically set your level of difficulty and driving assists. There’s no messing about, just in the car and off you go.
Of course, you’re free to completely ignore what the game suggests and go about anything your own way, but the option is there for people new to the simulator genre.
The way the ‘Career’ works in Shift is quite simple. You’re a fresh driver looking to cut your teeth in the professional circuit of racing. There’s a phantom team in the background to assist you on your quest through a variety of events and all the way towards the ultimate goal of winning the NFS Live World Championship.
Throughout your career you’ll earn three forms of reward; Stars, experience and cold hard cash. The latter is obvious, money allows you to purchase from any of the game’s 70-odd cars and upgrade them at your discretion.
The Home menu, showing your currently selected car. Pagani Zonda R
Stars however, are awarded during events and are more like challenges or mini-achievements. For example, one race may have 6 possible stars on offer. The first three stars relate to your final podium ranking. One star for a 3rd place finish. Three stars for 1st place. Then you have the miscellaneous challenges like “Complete a Clean Lap” or “Maintain 1st for an entire lap” and other goals to that accord.
These stars form a sort of ‘currency’ and increasing your success rates in events unlocks additional events, further Tiers of racing – and Invitational events, but more on those later.
Experience is awarded for doing basically anything on the race track and is adjusted according to your driving style and ability, broken down into a sort of karma system;
Experience in Shift is awarded on a sort of ‘karma’ basis, a seemingly popular investment in games lately. Think of it as the inFamous of motor racing. You can either choose to be a good driver, stick to the racing line, overtake only when its safe to, don’t push other drivers off the track, drive cleanly and nail all the apexes – OR, you can be an absolute jerk, push everyone off the road, tailgate, use other drivers for braking assistance, swap paint, miss the apexes, choose your own driving line and generally just go against the grain.
Each of these directions falls under two main categories of experience – “Precision” or “Aggression”. While you can earn any of either value throughout a race, your predominant overall experience earned defines what sort of driver you are to the game. For example, you might have a great race, lead it most of the way, but you may have punted off another driver at the start. So you could be awarded 450 points of Precision, and 150 points of Aggression. Your final ranking for the race would be Precision. Simple enough.
This karma system really has no effect on the progress itself. Each level up gained is the same for either driving characteristic, but it does reward you for what sort of driver you are – though mainly as a gloating index amongst your friends.
In total, there are 125 events to try your hand at, ranging from Time Trials, to Drift challenges.
Earlier Tier events are laid out in single race formats, race x car at y track and the difficulty is relatively moderate, even on the harder difficulties with all of the driving aids off. Time Trials are also introduced early on, but in a slightly different setup to what you’d be used to in simulation or arcade racing titles – instead of racing by yourself against the clock, you have generally 4 laps on a track, with a full grid of other drivers, to make your best lap count. Its an interesting dynamic that not only has you racing the clock, but also jostling for good track position over your rivals.
It has only just begun…
There are also specific Manufacturer events, where you’re given a handful of laps against a full grid of identical cars. The idea being the race comes entirely down to driver skill over car modification or class.
As you progress into the later Tier 2-4 events, you will encounter additional categories, like Drift races – and also Series Events. Like more traditional “Championship” racing, these series events are usually composed of 3-5 races, each individual race awarding you points based on your finishing position, the final tally at the conclusion of all races determines the winner.
USA, Japanese and European rounds also feature, selecting only Country-specific race tracks and sometimes only Country-specific car types. So you may be faced with an all Viper race on Laguna Seca for example.
Invitational Events are awarded for career progress and offer glimpses into future car ownership (whereby you may be ‘loaned’ a Veyron or something similar, for a specific track challenge). These events are quite enjoyable, offer a reprieve from the normal career progress and award good cash advances.
Finally, Endurance races complete the event lineup. Usually anywhere between 3 laps (for longer tracks like Spa Francorchamps and the Nurburgring Nordschliefe) and 10 laps for the shorter circuits. These events offer more cash bonuses, as well as a significantly increased opportunity to earn driver points/experience.
Cars & Tracks
Vehicles are organised into four separate categories, or “Tiers” to coincide with respective events. Starting out with access to only Tier 1 events, you have only access to Tier 1 cars as well. These include autos like the Ford Focus ST and BMW 135i Coupé.
You work your way up to Tier 4 cars by earning stars in previous events – Tier 4 cars can be unlocked well and truly before you need them though, I was barely scratching the surface of Tier 2 when I’d earned enough stars to unlock the Tier 4 cars (and events).
Tier 4 cars are the stuff autophile dreams are made of. The McLaren F1, Pagani Zonda R, Bugatti Veyron, Koenigsegg CCX… I must have spent 10 minutes just appreciating each of the cars when I first put Shift into the console.
Slightly Mad have done an absolutely sensational job with all of the motors in its impressive garage list. No detail has been spared, no holds barred in ensuring every car, no matter how popular or mundane, has been rendered and detailed in stunning, genuine fashion.
The track list is equally as impressive as its cars. Most tracks are immediately recognisable, European well-knows such as Spa Francorchamps, Brands Hatch, Silverstone and the Nurburgring Nordschliefe, to American circuits like Laguna Seca. There are fictional circuits as well, which feel more like the old NFS titles, outback/rural settings, racing through fictional cities and exotic street circuits.
Most importantly, they all offer varied driving experiences. Some tracks suit some cars better than others. Tight little street circuits are more rewarding when driven in the Lotus Exige S, as opposed to the heavy and bulky Veyron.
The most important piece of any good racing game is the car list, closely followed by the track list – areas solidly canvassed by Shift.
Customisation & Tuning
All cars can be modified, customised and tuned from the inside-out in a number of different ways. All options of Tuning fall into six major categories, Tyres and Brakes, Alignment, Springs & Dampers, Differential, Gearing and Aerodynamics.
When using the ‘Advanced’ tuning option, you have the power to set up nearly every aspect of the car, from ride heights to downforce, from gear ratios to limited slip deceleration lock.
Tuning menu, showing ‘Advanced’ setup options
True, later on as you begin to modify more powerful cars and add significant upgrades to supercars, you’ll almost be forced to tailor the car to suit its newfound speed and handling characteristics.
The tuning aspect of Shift is by far the most detailed ‘simulation’ aspect of the game. Without addressing tuning options after upgrades, you will quite often find yourself behind the wheel of an almost un-drivable car. Thankfully, the level of tuning available is accompanied by a great “Tips” option on every tuning item – where your phantom team manager tells you exactly what the said option will change on the car, how it will change it – and what you want to do to combat unwanted traits and characteristics.
After purchasing one of my most sought after cars in the earlier Tier events – the Porsche Cayman – and fitting every possible upgrade money could buy, I took it to the Nordschliefe only to find it was impossible to muscle around even the simplest of corners. It would bottom out, bounce over the ripple-strips and go immediately into an uncontrollable slide or spin and was totally unable to wrangle out of low-speed turns.
Jump into the Tuning area, significantly increase the front & rear downforce, add some camber to the front wheels, raise the ride height, soften up the suspension, decrease front tyre pressure and stiffen up the roll bars – and suddenly the car becomes drivable.
Customisation in Shift includes everything from body kits to rims, to vinyl & decals. You have a powerful Paint Shop at your fingertips, with a multitude of paint types, combinations and styles to choose from – with an almost infinite colour wheel to select for your paintwork.
If simple colours aren’t enough, you can jump into the Vinyl editor, where you can choose from a load of preset designs and shapes to add to your bodywork, or select from up to five ‘out-of-the-box’ liveries that the Shift team have included for each car. The possibilities are endless – and the editor system itself is quite easy to use. The only problem I could find was a lack of “Mirror” options, allowing you to transfer the design on one side of the car to the other. A feature that would be greatly appreciated for complex designs and one found and relied on in its competitor titles such as Ferrari Challenge.
At first, the driving physics in Shift take some getting used to. You’re not babysat in Shift like you are with other titles such as Gran Turismo and Supercar Challenge. You can’t go into a corner, hit the apex, then pump 100% throttle on the way out. Without a doubt, you’ll inevitably end up facing the wrong direction, or planted into a wall.
Throttle control is absolutely mandatory in Need for Speed Shift. There’s no way around this and if you haven’t got a racing wheel handy, the controller does little to favour irresponsible throttle application or violent steering input. I imagine that most of the complaints about the driving physics in this game will stem from Slightly Mad’s decision to place an incredible level of focus on throttle control. You will either adjust in the first thirty minutes of play time – and love it – or you’ll end up throwing the disc out the window.
There are some saving graces though – you don’t need to play on the maximum “Professional” physics settings – there are two other modes available for mere mortals, or people just getting into the simulation genre of racing. They offer driving aids, even right down to the “Beginner” physics model which offers 10% more grip for newcomers.
‘Driver Profile’ layout and award badges
So while Shift has all the hallmarks of a proper simulator at the top end of the spectrum, it is also accessible to newcomers with a well-implemented set of customisable physics models that can be selected at any time by the user.
One problem – and seemingly a big oversight from the developers – is the “Hop glitch” that you often encounter later on in the game when dealing with high performance supercars or extensively modified tuner cars. Due to the lowering of body work, additional front splitters, underbody modifications and different wheel/tyre combinations, cars seem to run far too low, removing ground clearance and effectively making a car bottom out over even the tiniest of bumps. This results in a ridiculous and uncontrollable glitch where a car will continue down a straight as if its rolling on hydraulics like a Chevy Impala from a Snoop Dogg rap video.
You can work around the issue to some extent by maxing out the allowable ride height, but in some cars – its simply not possible to completely rectify the problem. And it ends up in tears when the front splitter digs into a bump and catapults you into the air at 200+kph on a straight. One or two Invitational events rely on cars that are affected by this glitch – and you cannot Tune during Invitationals, so the event is seemingly impossible to complete. How this was missed in pre-release testing I’ll never know, but hopefully a patch will address this issue in the future.
Attention to detail is high on the list of priorities in Shift. From the menu cosmetics to the insanely detailed car interiors, its all proud and professional when navigating around the game.
Menu systems are all animated, backgrounds move and make unique transitions between pages. Text is bold, easy-to-read and nothing is hidden from view or difficult to get to. Everything can be accessed easily from sleek looking scrolling bars or lists. Everything stems from the “Home” menu and each sub menu category maintains the same slick presentation values.
The cars are obviously the highlight of the experience. All 72 cars at your disposal are rendered in superb detail, from the stunning interior view to the external bodywork, they’re all faithfully recreated like their genuine counterparts. Jumping straight into a BMW 135i Coupé you can’t help but be immediately impressed by even the most basic of the Tier 1 cars.
Then there’s the customisation. Every car has its own set of unique custom parts – everything from mechanical to aesthetic changes can be administered and all of the latter have an effect on the cars appearance in the game and menus. Aerodynamic kits add front splitters, aero fins and eventually equate to huge racing spoilers, new custom bumpers and sometimes a widebody kit. So your once bog standard BMW 135i Coupé becomes almost unrecognisable as a super tuner.
As mentioned earlier, you have a wide range of livery options at your disposal too (in addition to basic paint types and almost limitless colour choices and combinations). Each car has 5 or so predetermined liveries in the basic package – but you can also build and design your own livery from the group up. As far as I could see too there were no problems with any of this, no dramas with different levels of upgrades – even the custom liveries and set liveries adjust to suit wider bodies and flared arches. Its all insanely well done graphically on Slightly Mad’s part.
Tracks are also impressive. You have a huge range of tracks to take to, each one has its own unique style and vision. There are the real-world tracks like Spa Francorchamps, Brands Hatch and the famous Nurburgring Nordschliefe – all recreated in brilliant and genuine detail. If you’ve played other racing games with these tracks before, you’ll feel right at home in Shift. They ‘feel’ familiar. Largely in part to the graphics and detail. The Nordschliefe in particular is probably the most stunning recreation of the circuit we’ve seen in a game to date. Never before have the elevation changes, forest setting and scenic surroundings been presented so convincingly. Although the backgrounds are often not genuine to their real-life surroundings, the tracks themselves are rendered brilliantly. There really is nothing like taking a Porsche 911 (997) GT3 RS or a stripped out BMW race car to the ‘Ring for a few laps.
Porsche Cayman (modified) from in-game Photo Mode
The early screenshots of Shift gave us a glimpse into what the game developers were striving for – and they’ve accomplished it in real-time, with smooth, flawless graphics all the while maintaining an impressive level of detail that ALL motoring enthusiasts appreciate on their dream cars.
Its one of the best looking racing titles out there at the moment.
The aural bliss of a Porsche 911 GT3 RS screaming down the back straight at the Nordschliefe is so well done, you’d almost swear you were in the drivers seat of a real car, strapped into a harness, the raspy engine note piercing your eardrums.
Every car has a unique, beefy sound that fills the room with loud, mechanical delight. Shift has some of the best car sounds in racing games.
Additionally, ambient noise such as tyre squeal, road noise and opponent cars really help you into the experience. Crashes are met with brief moments of deafness – when all you can hear is your driver’s racing heartbeat. Its a fantastic representation of what you’d imagine a crash at over 200kph to feel and sound like.
While Shift does the audio side of things almost perfectly, there are occasions when you’ll jump into a race and suddenly be met with no car noise at all. Like the vehicle has been muted, even though your opponents and ambient sounds like crash impacts are still audible. Other times, the audio will seem to fall out of sync, popping in-and-out with the racing, until it manages to catch back up again.
Its a shame that such a brilliant audio track is marred by some slight technical issues, but overall it doesn’t really deter from the Shift experience and happens very rarely anyway.
Online consists of two major events – Versus mode (subdivided into Ranked and Unranked racing) or Driver Duel.
Versus Mode is similar to what you get in most racing games. You can create or join a Lobby, where the host can select from any number of car and track combinations, lap numbers, and class limits – with the option of private or public races. The ability to set up ‘mini enduros’ is also welcome (up to 25 laps on some tracks) and with support for up to 8 players, it is quite accessible and definitely what any racing enthusiast would hope for.
The other game mode, Driver Duel, is more of a Championship type event where you participate in a “Ladder” of events, three rounds to begin with, leading into Quarter Finals, Semi Finals – and eventually Finals to win the overall Championship. Its quite an innovative mode for online racing and one I’ll definitely be spending significant time with once I’ve completed the Career.
Thankfully, online is totally solid, connectivity has been problem free with Friends and overall seems like a system with plenty of option and fresh variation, that you’d want to come back to on a regular basis.
Need for Speed: Shift is the first of the ‘series reboot’ titles to hit the market and without a doubt, the new direction works. As a simulation racer, it is a little soft around the edges – not as brutal or as utterly unforgiving as titles like Ferrari Challenge or Supercar Challenge, but that’s not to say this is in any way detrimental to the ‘simulation’ experience. Its just slightly more accessible than its competition.
Shift is more of a development sim, rather than an ‘out-of-the-box’ simulator. You make a car handle better, you tailor it to suit your driving style, your habits – even the course you’re driving on. Performing extreme modifications to a vehicle unleashes the wrath of unknown handling issues and setup problems which usually have to be rectified by hitting the Tuning shop. It can be daunting at first, but it is also extremely rewarding once you nail a killer setup.
The innovative ‘head-physics’ system, makes for a truly immersing cockpit environment – coupled with the ‘tunnel vision’ blur effect at speed – and the brilliant sensation of speed experienced in Shift makes it a clear-cut winner over other racers in its genre.
Overall, there’s a massive attention to detail, true professionalism in the presentation, menu systems, event management, upgrades, tuning and all other aspects of customisation. Its all been very well interfaced and thoroughly planned for ease of access and usability.
Its a title that does have some technical issues and ‘glitches’ in its release form – the hop effect that some cars exhibit over bumps is quite disconcerting and a little disappointing – but it can be somewhat rectified manually with Tuning. Audio suffers a few small glitches here and there as well, occasionally dropping sync – or dropping the player’s car audio entirely.
These problems don’t fault the title too much however. There’s still a huge selection of cars that are completely drivable – and the audio issues are so slight, I’ve only experienced them two or three times out of about 15 hours play-time.
So, Slightly Mad have delivered something that the NFS series has been missing for a good while – a true racer – and no doubt a title you’d want to have in your collection, rather than a simple weekly rental.
They’ve established the series reboot convincingly and if I’m completely honest, if this is what NFS titles are going to be about in the future – bring ‘em on.