The racer that swings both ways.
Back in the idyllic early days of gaming, racing games appealed to everyone. Like Aristophanes’ androgynous octopeds, old racing games perfectly combined an attention to realism with a whimsical knack for chaos. But then the fickle gaming gods showed up and killed everyone’s buzz by dividing the racing genre into two halves: sim racing and arcade racing. Ever since, the world has existed in a state of perpetual darkness and strife, waiting for the day when the two halves might again be one.
[image1]Many sim racing series have tried to bridge the divide, but nearly all of them have fully succumbed to the seductive gaze of arcade-style zaniness and never returned. Not only does Need for Speed Shift successfully strike a near-perfect balance between the two types of racing, but it simultaneously rescues EA’s long-running series from a seemingly inescapable downward spiral.
At first glance, Need for Speed Shift looks like Project Gotham Racing’s brother from another mother. It has a point and star system highly reminiscent of PGR’s kudos system, rewarding players for various tricks and accomplishments garnered during races. But what sets NFS Shift apart is that points are measured in two categories—one for precision and one for aggression. Technical driving prowess rewards you precision points, and driving like a maniac rewards you aggression points. The more you earn points in one category, the more the game will tailor your experience to that type of driving by unlocking extra events more suited to your play style.
In addition, you’ll earn stars for podium finishes, for reaching certain point totals, and for performing special tasks like racing a clean lap or forcing opponents off the tarmac. Since you can earn points through both precise and aggressive driving, how you choose to win is entirely up to you. Feel like practicing your entry angles and brake timing? Great. Feel like ramming the be-jesus out of the opposition? Again, great.
Because there are so many different ways to earn points and stars, you don’t have to win every race in order to feel like you’re progressing. Nor does it ever feel like a grind to earn enough money to buy the car you’re after. Cash comes at exactly the right rate, always giving you just enough to buy what you want when you want it without ever having to work too hard for it—exactly as real life should be.
[image2]The biggest roadblock separating sim racers from arcade racers has typically been the vehicle handling. Many sim racers include braking and steering assists to keep newcomers interested, but those assists usually feel more like training wheels meant to ease you into the more sim-like physics models. Not so in Shift.
The more arcade-like handling options feel like genuine alternatives rather than dumbed-down versions of the big boy settings. On its most forgiving handling setting, it feels as immediately accessible as the default setting in Grid. And at its most sim-like, Shift’s controls are technically demanding—though still short of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue’s stellar professional mode. The default settings in Shift are tuned better for a wheel than for a controller, but the addition of control customizations makes that a moot point. Even so, it would have been nice to have separate control presets for a standard controller and a wheel.
It may not be the best-looking of the sim-racing bunch, but it has one big visual trick up its sleeve. Cockpit view has become all the rage this generation, and Shift’s cockpit perspective is by far the best—easily outpacing the rest of the titles in the genre. I appreciated the attention to detail in GT5P’s cockpits and I liked the intensity of Dirt 2’s, but Shift’s cockpits are the first that I actually want to play the whole game from. The versatile and dynamic field of view makes playing from behind the wheel feel like the only way to play. With a cockpit view that finally works, Slightly Mad Studios has set the new standard that future games in the genre will now be expected to match.
Damage modeling is a largely tacked-on affair. Regardless of the damage setting, it takes a lot to affect your vehicle’s handling adversely. Worse, contact with other cars can send them sailing into the air with the slightest nudge. Shift is a perfect example of why damage modeling is an overrated—and generally unnecessary—addition to most racing games.
[image3]If Shift were only about its single-player career, it would unquestionably be on par with Gran Turismo and Forza—and may have even bettered them with its dual sim/arcade approach. Unfortunately, its multiplayer options bring the whole package down a few notches.
There’s no local multiplayer, but that’s a disappointment that isn't new to race fans this generation. More significantly, online play overwhelmingly favors aggressive driving since there are no collision penalties whatsoever. As a consequence, every race comes down to raw demolition power rather than pure driving technique. Sim fans will quickly give up on online play altogether, which only further compounds the problem.
Online racing in Driver Duel is a promising concept, but it’s also flawed. Not only does it suffer from the same lack of collision penalties that standard Versus mode does, but it also falls victim to its own design. Driver Duel is a single-elimination online tournament with seven tiers, culminating in a championship race. As you win each round, you move into the next bracket with a faster car and a more difficult course. The problem is that as you progress it becomes harder to find an opponent since the number of possible matchups decreases as you continue to win. On multiple occasions, I reached the third or fourth round only to find no matches for the subsequent rounds after 5-10 minutes of searching. Even during high-traffic hours, I could easily find a match for the first round, but subsequent rounds became increasingly difficult to get into.
Luckily, the single-player game is a deep experience. There are hundreds of different tracks, varied competition types - circuit, point-to-point, drifting, duels, manufacturer-specific races, and more - and a respectable array of cars. Invitational events tailored to your play style add even more legs to an already lengthy game. Dozens of tuning options and vehicle upgrades will keep the serious race fans busy, while more balls-to-the-wall race fans will appreciate how easy it is to jump straight into a race and go.
Need for Speed Shift is on a mission to bring peace and love to the racing genre. If this is a sign of what’s to come, the civil war that has long raged between arcade and sim fans may finally be drawing to a close. Despite its disappointingly lopsided online play, Shift is easily among the best multiplatform racing games available, and its cockpit view sets a new gold standard for the genre.
Shift has successfully risen from the midden heap of its forebears, offering vehicular free love to any and all comers. The only problem is that it’s the kind of “love” that’s best enjoyed without others.