Need For Speed: Shift
Here at GameVisions we always look at things from a slightly different angle. In that vein we're bringing you the first of what we intend to be a series of a new type of review. The DoubleVisions reviews are a double-header of short format reviews of two tightly competing games. We then take them head to head and show you the comparison to help take the guesswork out of which game you'd rather spend your hard earned cash on. In this, our first installment of the DoubleVisions series, we compare EA's Need For Speed: Shift against Codemaster's DiRT 2. First in the hot-seat? Shift!
Need For Speed is a series with a legacy nearly as old as racing games themselves. It's had a pretty faithful following over the years due to its rapid impulse easy handling as an arcade racer. Fast luxury sports cars from the likes of Audi, BMW, and Porsche could always be counted on as players take the wheel on point to point impromptu urban city tracks in a fast paced adrenaline rush of reckless racing that could only happen in the arcade world of skewed physics and magic gravity. In other words: Fun.
The name "Shift," however, serves as a somewhat playful reminder that this new installment in the Need For Speed series represents a large titular shift from its mindless arcade origins. EA declared that the NFS lineup will be split into several versions with Shift becoming the multi-platform flagship and representing a new direction in the form of a more simulator like racing game. While we can still count on fast, shiny, overbuilt cars piloted by a silent hero that clearly must be compensating for something, much else has changed in the world of Need For Speed.
The game has taken on a serious tone, though one with very little personality. While the edgy electronica music fits the mood, there's a noticeable lack of personality to the game. The menus are just that, menus. The cut-scenes take the form of quick flashes of first person high speed racing, while your English accented racing manager talks to you about whatever it is he needs to blather on about between races. It doesn't warm the heart much, but, then, this is a racing game. Less talk, and more careening at high speed around large concrete barriers - as though we don't care much about whether our blood is located internally or externally to our craniums - isn't a bad thing in this genre.
Rather than sheer reckless racing, Shift signals an intent to try to clone the heavyweights of the console racing genre: Microsoft's Forza and Sony's Gran Turismo. Utilizing a realistic damage model, more realistic physics for turns and speeds, collisions, car handling, and the differences between cars, etc, this Shift is markedly more like a simulator than its predecessors. Right down to the garage which allows very specific custom tweaking and requires a bit of knowledge of the inner workings of performance cars and the visible racing line nearly identical to that of Forza, this is a conscious effort to make the Need For Speed series compete with its more simulator like brethren. This comes as a highly surprising and baffling move from EA. While it's certain that Forza and Gran Turismo are the most profitable racing games around at the moment, it is puzzling that Need For Speed is attempting to clone them while Activision is attempting (though, given the recently announced delay, "struggling to attempt" may be a better phrase) to go the opposite direction with their new Blur franchise. I'm not saying that Shift does a bad job at cloning much of the strengths of the big guns, quite the opposite. It does a stellar job, and at least until next month when the next installment of said titles is released, it even bests them in some areas. The trouble exists not from a gameplay standpoint, but from a business one. Given the choke-hold the first party titles have on the genre, there's likely to be limited interest in the third wheel, which is a pity, since it's well put together and is definitely worth a try. Shift certainly has its own flavor that will be to the liking of many, however for XBox 360 fans, Forza is the king of circuit racing. For Playstation 3 fans, Gran Turismo is the king of urban luxury street racing. For PC fans and the hardcore racing simulator fans, rFactor is simply unbeatable. So what market is Shift targeting? Sadly, I'm not sure I'm able to answer that, though I hope for the future of the genre there is one, since there's a definite need for competition to spice up the genre.
While Shift has gone strongly to the sim genre, not all is lost for long-time fans of its NFS predecessors. There's still a firm rooting in the arcade realm to Shift, which goes a long way to carving out its niche, despite the effort to market it as purely sim. Ultimately this distinction is what is likely to keep Shift on shelves. Partly helped by the weak graphics engine, the courses are a strong reminder of old arcade racers like Sega Rally. Those who remember those old arcade racing simulator machines with the semi-enclosed chair and the pedal & wheel setups will know what I'm talking about. Remember the generally flat courses complete with tunnels, circling planes and hot air balloons, and the ubiquitous Ferris wheel in the background as you pass by? Yep, it actually has those courses. It almost feels out of place given the new heights of the racing genre, but it's somewhat refreshing to go back... or would have been if the environment graphics not been so sparse and flat looking. The cars look great, but the environment leaves a lot to be desired. Graphics aside though, there are other arcade elements that make Shift stand out on its own.
The most notable feature is that, where most games strongly encourage the more realistic scenario of not trying to damage your vehicle or others, Shift gives you an option. You gain experience and levels along two styles of driving. Most maneuvers you perform on the track reward you via points acquired. Some points go to the precision style, by cleanly overtaking a competitor, for example. Other maneuvers reward aggression points such as ramming your way through a pile of cars, or sending an opponent spinning off the track. Beginning a race with the arcade inspired intention of ramming your way through all the other vehicles is a dark yet delightful design. Getting rewarded for it is even better! Also, while on the track, stringing maneuvers together boosts your score meter. When full, you gain multipliers for all points acquired, which can lead to more arcade-like trick acquisition system. This makes for a unique game in many ways, even if the game's other personality is just borrowed from the more simulation-like racers.
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