Review: Need For Speed Shift fills gap between Forza 3 and GT5

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Fall 2009 was supposed to be the next golden age of the racing game, with the genre's two heavy hitters – Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 – scheduled for release. While Xbox 360 owners were rewarded with an incredibly good Forza 3, several delays of GT5 wrecked the plans of many a Playstation 3 owner, this writer included.

But since we were hell-bent on a new racing game, the decision was made to take a chance on another new racing game that was receiving some good press: Need for Speed Shift. We've spent the last two months playing Shift on PS3 to keep ourselves busy until GT5 is finally released. Were we disappointed or pleasantly surprised with the dark horse of the racing game pack? Hit the jump to find out.

The Need for Speed franchise has gone from pretty good to bad over the past few years, but the folks over at EA Sports went to Slightly Mad Studios to create this latest edition of NFS from the ground up. The goal of Shift was to create a much more realistic driving experience for gamers with 15 real-world courses ranging from Laguna Seca to the Nordschleife and over 70 vehicles available for purchase. Did EA Sports hit its lofty target? We think so.

The key to Shift's success is its realistic driving characteristics. Gone is the arcadishness of past NFS titles, replaced by a much more realistic driving simulator that makes the gamer feel like he or she is really behind the wheel of cars that are out of their price range. Hit the accelerator and you're greeted with clever depth-of-field effects that blur the screen to simulate high speeds and g-force. When a crash happens, debris goes all over the track and the driver begins to breath heavily while the screen goes blurry and black and white. And the sounds. You can hear the realistic whistle of the supercharger under the hood of the Mustang GT500. The V10 powering the Viper sounds like it wants to eat you alive. But great driving simulation and realistic sounds only go so far, so Shift also strives to keep you motivated with interesting game play.

The goal of Shift is to win the NFS World Tour, but to get there you must first collect enough stars in your career to become eligible for the world stage. There are four tiers that proceed the NFS World Tour, with enough challenges to keep your attention for a very long time. When you begin to race you'll be given the choice of easy, medium or hard game play. Trust us when we tell you that easy just isn't challenging enough; you can pass the competition like it's stuck in Park. Even if you're new to racing simulators, medium is the place to start.

Gamers also have a choice of using a view from the front end, a front end view with the hood showing, a cockpit view and a rear view that shows the entire car. We find the cockpit view is best unless we're drifting when the view of the entire car seems to help. Once you get accustomed to the driving style of Shift, we suggest you challenge yourself by increasing the level to hard. This is the best way to prepare yourself for online gaming with other flesh and blood drivers.

Your career starts off with a free BMW 135i that is loaned out to you for one race. At first we had a hell of a time trying to keep the Bimmer on the road, but with a little practice we were able to get the hang of it. From there you're given $27,000 (if you win) to purchase your own vehicle that you will use in Tier One competition. We spent all of our money on a Mazda RX8.

Up to six stars can be earned in each event, with the first three stars going to podium finishers (first place receives all three stars) and other stars are earned by hitting points targets. Some races also feature star awards for reaching goals like a clean lap or hitting 75% of the racing line over the course of the race.

While stars are collected to reach the NFS World Tour, points are collected to increase driver level. Rankings go from one to 50, with 10,000 points separating each level. Points are earned in two categories: aggressive driving and precision. Precision points can be collected when drivers are able to accomplish tasks like mastering a tough corner, staying on the racing line and driving without incident or misstep over the duration of an entire sector. Aggressive driving points are awarded when the driver trades paint with another racer, hits another car while passing (dirty overtake) and spinning out another driver. Points are also awarded for drafting an opponent and drifting corners. If you hit enough points opportunities you will enter X2 mode, which will briefly double every point you earn. The more points you string up in X2 mode the longer you stay in X2 mode, too, so there is no better time to smash into the guy in front of you.

Speaking of crashes and aggressive driving, we were a little put off by the developer's decision to so richly reward the reckless driver. In real world racing, smashing into other drivers is rarely a good thing, costing big money and risking lives. This is one area where Shift steel feels a bit too arcade-like, keeping this still excellent game a slight step behind more realistic games like the Forza and GT series.

As you win more races, drive more vehicles and achieve more feats of awesomeness, you're rewarded with badges. For example, you will receive a minor badge for racing three American or Japanese cars 25 miles. The toughest badges for us to earn have been the ones for mastering all corners on a given track. Hitting the perfect corner requires perfect timing, steering and little or no sliding. The badges don't play specific roles in your quest for the World Tour but they do help you gauge how well your driving is progressing.

While racing Shift's four tiers there are several interesting competitions that can either make or break the gaming experience for you. There are Car Battle competitions that feature a choice between two vehicles that were always meant to go head-to-head. For example, one race pits the BMW M3 against the Audi RS4 while another showdown is between the Butatti Veyron and the CCX. The competition consists of three runs of the same course. You will start the first race in the lead, the second you will start in the rear and the third features a rolling start with both vehicles neck and neck. There are also Japan versus U.S.A. and U.S.A. versus Europe races that we found to be a blast.

One race style with which we were less than thrilled with was the drift series. The goal of the drift series is to drift the vehicle in and out of turns, collecting points for accuracy, angle of drift and coming close to markers placed at strategic parts of bends. Drifting is accomplished by feathering the throttle while deftly positioning the front wheels for optimal control. Why don't we like it? For starters, the drift series doesn't really fit in with racing nature of the other competitions, but we also it's just so damn hard to keep the car from hitting every wall we passed.

As gamers begin to win more and more races and their driving level increases, money becomes easy to earn. Those winnings can be used to purchase vehicles from Ford and Chevy to Lamborghini and Porsche. Tier one-through-three vehicles can also be upgraded with more power, better brakes and handling and body mods. A select few vehicles, like the Shelby Mustang GT500 and the Corvette Z06 can receive a Works conversion. The Works conversion can only be purchased after first purchasing every available modification, and the final price tag can be staggering.

For example, the baddest Works vehicle of them all, the Lamborghini Murcielago, will cost over $ 1 million by the time all mods are added. The reward for all that cash is the best vehicle Shift has to offer. The Bugatti Veyron may be a bit faster and the Z06 Works conversion nearly as capable, but overall the top Lambo has more miles than any other vehicle in this writer's stable of cars. Proof comes in the Works-equipped Murcielago's virtual 'Ring time of 7:12; faster than any vehicle (at least for this writer) on the famed track. Also, the wedge form of the Murcielago makes it easy to ram into an opponent with such force that the competitor flips over your head. Not realistic, but surely fun.

There are plenty of car choices including true exotics from Zonda and Koenigsegg, but there are also a few omissions. The biggest omission comes from the Ferrari camp. If you want to drive an Enzo or a 599 you'll be very disappointed. Also missing is the LS9-powered Corvette ZR1, though the Z06 is so potent we like to pretend that it has an Eaton supercharger underhood. But most of the vehicles you've dreamed about are present and accounted for and Shift gives you every opportunity to own as many as you want. If you purchase a vehicle and later want to sell it, you get full price, even for mods. Try pulling that off in the real world. And as your driving level increases, you're also rewarded with more garage spaces. Right now we've got a Viper, a Z06, a CCX, two GT-Rs (including a Spec V), three Lambos, a McLaren, three Porsches and two Zondas. And those are just the interesting ones.

Now that we've conquered the NFS World Tour we plan on focusing our efforts on online racing. So far we've relegated our online experience with Shift to a few versus and one-on-one matches with other unranked gamers. The competition has been pretty weak so far, though it's bound to get far better once we graduate to ranked competition. Xbox 360 owners have an advantage here, as Xbox Live is a real treat when compared to the online gaming prowess of the PS3.

We originally planned on ignoring Shift in favor of GT5, but after a couple months of game play we're actually happy Polyphony Digital is dragging its feet with Gran Turismo. Shift engages us with realistic-looking speed and sounds, and it keeps us interested with a plethora of great tracks that we've always wanted to drive. Sure, it isn't as realistic as GT or Forza, but that isn't always a bad thing, either. How many times are you going to crash a Reventon, still win the race and then sell the supercar for full retail? If you like racing games as much as we do, you'll find Shift to be a lot of fun.

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