Nothing makes you feel less masculine than watching some souped up car go past with a group of friends and as they bang on about ‘nought to sixty’, ‘dump valves’ and ‘horse power’ about the only thing you can interject into the discussion is something like ‘yeah, what lovely racing stripes’. In fact, as someone who’s put off even learning to drive for about six years and whose interest in driving games only ever centres upon one thing - smashing the crap out of your car - it will be no surprise to learn that track racers were never top of my Christmas list. But that said, something intrigued me about Need for Speed: Shift (ok, I admit it was the advert) and for some reason I felt I might be missing out on something quite special.
So – I decided – despite my feeble knowledge of cars, my feelings of inadequacy as a man, my prejudice towards chavy kids who stick a spoiler on the back of their Metro and spend hours lapping the town centre, NFSS would be a racing game I wouldn’t automatically turn my back on after one or two goes. And now, with my NFSS career well underway, I can honestly say a miracle has taken place. I've become a born again boy racer…
Having dipped in and out of various NFS titles over the years from Underground to Undercover, the franchise never made much of an impression. Taking part in illegal street races and getting chased by the cops etc was quite fun, but what I couldn’t understand was why anybody would opt for NFS over something like Burnout or even GTA? The franchise always seemed to be lagging behind; the open-world format felt shallow, the Fast and Furious –style-narratives were tedious and the series never seemed to stray into anything particularly original. But now, after handing the reins over to developers Slightly Mad, NFS has at last ditched all of that cop chasing, open world nonsense and regressed back to its roots. As a track racer.
So did all that inward reflection and soul searching pay off? Well the answer has to be a resounding yes, because as a driving simulator, NFS: Shift is one of the slickest, most brilliantly presented racing games I’ve ever laid eyes on – and more than enough to turn waverers like myself into fully fledged car racing fanatics. Everything from the well choreographed cut scenes to the polished menu system to the voice of your mentor/coach, who always praises your efforts and encourages you like some weird father figure, is enough to sike you up into a full on frenzy. Indeed, as you sit at the start line on your first race and he tells you to ‘have fun’ before shouting ‘go,go,go’, you feel as excited as a little kid about to do Indi-kart for the first time.
However when you get to the actual experience of driving NFS: Shift only heightens the adrenaline with its fantastic 1st person cock-pit view and the superb quality of the engine sound. How realistic this is I have no idea, but as you brake, slip round a tight U turn and then hit the accelerator to pull off down some straight, the engine roar that fills your ears actually makes you go slightly weak at the knees. Similarly the 1st person cockpit view - a feature which certainly should be compulsory - really is the only way to experience NFS: S. The way your drivers head slowly recoils as you accelerate and then slams forward upon impact – your vision blurring and eyes watering – really does convey the body shock sensations of track racing so vividly, you almost feel a touch of nausea yourself.
Overall, this comes together to create a virtual driving experience where you actual get a proper sense of the extreme speed these vehicles are capable of. Even when the speedometer used to break 200kph in titles like Gran Turismo it never use felt like you were doing more than about 70. Regarding Shift however, break one-hundred and you definitely know, one-fifty and you’re flying, two hundred and well, it starts to get slightly scary.
It’s actually difficult to find any aspect of the gameplay to criticize, but for one thing, the car dealership is quite limited in terms of the number of vehicles available. The point system also feels a bit redundant. Basically you are rewarded for either driving with accuracy or aggression and gain stars to unlock the various tournament tiers until you finally reach your ultimate goal: the NFS World Tour. This means that, like your coach who pats you on the back even when you come in last, the game rewards you for doing pretty much anything from ramming your opponents off the track to seamlessly slipstreaming round the circuits.
Regardless of these minor issues however, Need for Speed: Shift is a sequel which just oozes quality and style. By cutting out all of that unnecessary chaff which had gradually accumulated around the franchise, Simply Mad have produced a racer which is easily up there with the best of them. With no tedious long winded story, no badly done open-world format and none of that silly illegal street racing nonsense, it really is a case of ‘less is more’.
The game also caters brilliantly for those who are not fanatical car enthusiasts with a dealership which allows you to easily customize vehicles – without endless options and tons of boy racer jargon – and quickly get onto the best part: driving. This in itself is so enjoyable, especially thanks to the quality of the 1st person view, that even trailing in last place is thrilling. You might not catch me subscribing to Max Power, but after playing Shift, driving lessons are certainly not out of the question.