Version tested: Xbox 360
Need for Speed has been having an identity crisis. EA's premier racing series - a guaranteed Christmas number one not so long ago - ought to be successful enough to feel confident in itself. It had the girls, it had the cred in a crude, streetwise way, it had the sales. But it wanted more. Like a Hollywood pretty-boy going paranoid, exhausted by a punishing schedule and a ruthlessly commercial agenda, Need For Speed craved respect.
After a wobbly couple of years in which open-world racing and police chases were thrown away and then hastily reinstated in ProStreet and Undercover (improving matters neither time), uncertainty has tipped over into full-blown schizophrenia. This year, Need for Speed is heading in three different directions at once: a free-to-play PC game for the Asian bubble-tea crowd (World Online), the old-school arcade thrills of Nitro on Nintendo, and SHIFT, a po-faced tilt at the gritty world of simulation motor racing. In other words, the burnt-out matinee idol is taking some time to tour the world, write a children's book and do some off-broadway theatre.
SHIFT is analogous to the latter: a worthy, well-intentioned stab at garnering some critical respect. EA's persistent charm offensive with reviewers has in this instance extended to making a list of car games we like (Project Gotham, Forza, Gran Turismo and Race Driver), hiring some talented British coders to copy them (Slighly Mad Studios, who worked with Scandinavian simulation heroes SimBin on GTR2 and GT Legends), and applying a thick patina of focus-tested EA gloss and gimmickry to reassure the man in the street.
The result is certainly the highest-quality game to bear the Need for Speed name since 2005's brazen Most Wanted. But it's left caught between two stools. It's no longer a Need for Speed game in any recognisable sense, yet it doesn't quite have the sophistication or the grace to hold its own in the rarefied company it's now keeping. The poor little rich boy is out of his depth.
Of its illustrious new competitors, SHIFT is closest in style to last year's terrific Race Driver: GRID. That's to say, it's a game which wears the mantle of the simulation racer loudly but lightly, borrowing all the petrol-head pull of carbon-fibre body-kits, damage modelling and real-world race tracks, but aiming to improve accessibility and amp up the excitement by giving the handling a crisp, arcadey inflection. This is a delicate balancing act, and one that's always going to upset a few people. But the truth is that Slightly Mad doesn't manage it with anything like the same finesse as Codemasters Racing Studio.
Where GRID offered light but precise and predictable handling with a satisfying, grippy bite to it, SHIFT is a wild, tempestuous beast, prone to nervous oversteer (and not just in rear-wheel-drive cars). Steering is twitchy, and even with traction and stability controls switched on, your car maintains a tenuous relationship with the road at best. This isn't the elegant, tactile and progressive sliding of a PGR, either: it's sudden, and quite scary.