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.