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.
You can argue that driving racing cars should be scary, and there's something to that. Slightly Mad certainly seems to think so, underlining the point with ferocious camera-shake and extreme blurring and depth-of-field effects, making impacts jarring and high speeds nerve-wracking. With judicious tweaking of the control sensitivity, AI difficulty and driving aids to suit your skill level and style (none of which penalises rewards in any way), SHIFT's handling can be mastered. But you'll do so with grim satisfaction rather than pleasure. It's telling that even the normal setting for handling difficulty feels the need to offer heavy-handed assistance with braking and steering.
It just doesn't have the accessibility of GRID, the panache of PGR, or the heft and cast-iron credibility of true simulators like Forza, GT or SimBin's games. Wherever on the arcade/simulator spectrum it finds itself, a motor racing game should be about a love affair between tyre and tarmac, be it a quick fling or a deep commitment. SHIFT's version of the relationship is raw and passionate alright, but at times it verges on domestic abuse.
That's in stark contrast to the game away from the track, which is falling over itself to offer positive reinforcement. Few racing games have ever exhibited such a mania for showering the player in points, levels, trinkets, achievements and box-ticking unlockables.
Racing earns you money to buy and upgrade cars with (the Xbox 360 version tested also allows you to buy cars with Microsoft Points). You get profile points for certain on-track moves, which level you up. Driving levels reward you with cosmetic unlocks, special events and more money. Stars - earned for podium places, hitting profile point thresholds, and completing bonus objectives - unlock the content, which is split into four tiers of events plus the climactic Need for Speed World Tour. And then there are minor and master badges, a rather anal and pointless achievement system within an achievement system, which mostly seem to be doled out for pure grind: trade paint with X number of opponents, drive Y miles in a European car. The Achievements themselves are equally uninspired.
The incessant fanfare of congratulation and swelling progress bars after every race is all very friendly, and obsessive completists will lose their marbles over it, but it's a bit overweening. You wonder if this tangled set of interdependent advancement systems couldn't have been streamlined a bit.
Profile points are the most unusual, and the headline gimmick for Need for Speed: SHIFT. They're earned for either aggression (drafting, sliding, contact with opponents) or precision (following the racing line, "mastering" corners, clean overtaking moves). These will then characterise you as either aggressive or precise for the rest of the world to see in your increasingly elaborate level logo. Aggressive ratings are initially hard to avoid, but as the game comes to you, you will find your style naturally reflected in your rating. But since you'll pick up points in both all the time, and both contribute to your overall level, it doesn't feel like a choice, and has little direction or purpose.
It's certainly not as successful in lending a sense of personal investment to the track action as GRID's team system, or its finely-crafted story arc of the road to racing greatness. One positive SHIFT does share with its inspiration, though, is lively, characterful and unpredictable opponents to race against. A far cry from Gran Turismo's processional obstacles, these drivers make mistakes, get in scrapes, hustle each other and even have identifiable styles. This seriously increases the entertainment value of the racing, and makes up for the number of times you'll have to restart after a first-corner pile-up.
It also helps that SHIFT is quite a spectacle. In a genre hardly shy of technical belles, SHIFT is never less than totally convincing, with superb, crisply-lit car models, subtle effects and solid recreations of a good variety of testing, technically interesting tracks (some fictional and some, like the ubiquitous Nordschleife Nurburgring, going under licence-dodging pseudonyms). It can't match Forza or GT's 60 frames a second, though. Audio is less distinguished, turning all the sound effects up to a brutal 11 and smothering menus in the whooshes and metallic crashes that we should have laid to rest with our copies of Tekken 3.
SHIFT's car catalogue is far from the biggest or the most diverse, sticking mostly to contemporary road cars, but Ferrari excepted, it has all the important, current high-end hardware. All of it can be upgraded in a fairly self-explanatory and linear fashion; some can be modified into works racing or drift models. The rating system for your car's power often seems out of whack, however, and as ever in games of this sort, the difficulty curve can be something of a lottery. Slightly Mad has tried to mitigate this by having opponents scale to your current car to some extent, but that just devalues the upgrades - and it doesn't stop some cars, Tier 3's Nissan GT-R SpecV for example, from destroying all comers.
For all its variable difficulty and tricky handling, SHIFT is not a punishing game to make your way through. The star system's varied goals mean you will still make progress on a bad day, and it's geared so that you only need to complete a third to a half of the events in any given tier, and low-tier events can be used to unlock high-tier ones. It's not an engrossing structure in itself, but it's pleasantly free-form; you're mostly free to pick and choose your favourites from its reasonably diverse suite of event styles, the main ones being open racing, single-model races, time trials on busy tracks, really quite difficult drift competitions, and duels.
These one-on-ones in set pairings of cars are best-of-three point-to-points, with one car leading, one car chasing - and, if it comes to it, a side-by-side rolling start in the third round. Duels are novel and fun, and offer the best entertainment in multiplayer too, where they're organised into knock-out championships. Otherwise, SHIFT online offers a standard selection of basic events in ranked and unranked modes behind EA's needless secondary account system. In line with the deplorable trend for the modern racing game, there's no split-screen play.
SHIFT is a solid basis to start building a motor sport series on. It's got all the features you expect, it looks fantastic, and the track action is exciting, if fraught. If the skittish handling and overbearing, messy advancement can be reined in, Need for Speed could have a future in its newly serious and somewhat crowded surroundings. But with the infinitely more comprehensive Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 looming in the very near distance, it's hard to see the point in this second-stringer this time around, for console players at least. And given Need for Speed's recent, confused history, you shouldn't count on it wearing the same face next year.
7 / 10