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Need For Speed: SHIFT

19:0129/09/2009Posted by Zoheir Beig3 Comments

Those cynical of EA’s annual attempt to make the seemingly long-stagnant Need For Speed series relevant would be well advised to look at the publisher’s handling of their FIFA titles over the last few years. A patient process of refinement has seen the games somewhat miraculously emerge as the dominant football game in both a critical and commercial context. Once derided as being all style and no substance, FIFA 10 is by all accounts a genre-defining title. While Need For Speed has a fair distance to go in this respect, SHIFT is an unexpected and deceptively bold step to rehabilitation.

nfs_shift_bmw_gt2_render_bmp_jpgcopyTo get here EA have had to strip out much of what the casual observer would normally identify with the franchise. So illegal street racing, extreme modification, police pursuits and awful sub-Fast and the Furious cut-scenes are out (even the game’s manual references this, er, shift, with one section on nitrous tanks beginning: “Just because the game’s gone legit”). In comes a tier-based career structure, a joyless approach to presentation and new developers in the guise of Slightly Mad Studios. This London-based outfit are the key ingredient of this facelift, with several members of the team having worked on studious, highly lauded PC racing simulations GTR2 and GT Legends. The former of these, back in 2006, was tagged with the unwelcome award Best Game Nobody Played; if the developers have retained their knack for realism and austerity, it’s also fair to say that they’re now swimming in deep commercial waters previously unexplored.

This change in philosophy will come as a shock to many; ironically it’s those Need For Speed-obsessed gamers, for whom every new entry is a day one purchase, who are probably set to be the most disappointed. SHIFT certainly doesn’t strive to be immediately embraced, and in the first hour or so of play the once-trademark EA glitz is conspicuous in its absence. Things aren’t helped by the default handling setting which, if the anecdotal mutterings on various forums is anything to go by, will have seen many copies abandoned or traded-in before patience and a little tinkering bears fruit. The initial problem is that the feel of the cars, their heavy back-end giving way to numerous spins and ponderous turns, doesn’t sit well with the game’s clear pretensions to being serious. Or perhaps it sits all too well, and we’re just not very good. Either way it’s just not fun to play, and ever so slightly frustrating.

nfs_shift_bmw_gt2_screen2_bmp_jpgcopyBut change a few parameters (I personally used Normal handling but turned off the braking assist and the racing line) and SHIFT, as an experience, is transformed. Stepping up from Normal to Experienced makes a huge difference, and so tailoring the levels yourself proves a satisfying compromise. It’s only once a comfortable adjustment has been settled upon, and races aren’t spent simply trying to keep the car on the road, that the modest intelligence of the game’s structure begins to reveal itself (incidentally, modest and intelligence are two words that I would never have expected to use when discussing a Need For Speed game). At first the array of points, badges and stars is a little confusing, but they all quickly fall into place.

To explain: Points are awarded for performing actions that fall into one of two camps: precision or aggression. Precision moves include clean overtaking, sticking to the racing line and even perfect starts, while aggressive moves predictably involve contact with your opponent, whether it be spinning them out, drafting behind them, or simply grazing the side of their car. These points go towards your driver level, which in turn develops your own unique driver icon. Additionally each race will have certain objectives (e.g. master 10 corners, reach 800 points), the completion of which will earn you a star, in addition to the maximum of three stars earned for a first-place finish. It’s these stars that drive your progression through the career, with a minimum of 280 needed for the final world tour…still with us? It’s far easier to understand in practice than that last convoluted paragraph may suggest, but the short version is that the system works very well. Each reward feels tangible and well deserved; while the badges awarded the more you perform each action are a completist’s dream.

nfs_shift_2_bmp_jpgcopyThis balance between the precise and the aggressive is crucial in another respect, because it seems to prove that the tension within SHIFT, of it being either a simulation or arcade racer – something that several critics appear to have highlighted as one of the game’s major failings – appears to be intentional. Slightly Mad Studios are cleverly acknowledging the series’ heritage whilst trying to show another way forward. When in the middle of a jostling, late-tier race, with the points bar at the top of the screen commending you for both mastering a corner and simultaneously spinning out an opponent, SHIFT begins to make sense. It’s all about the simulation and the arcade, the precision and the aggression, co-existing happily.

nfs_shift_1_bmp_jpgcopyFor any such title, attempting to rebuild a franchise’s reputation and horizons from a practically clean slate, it would be difficult to do everything right at the first time of asking. SHIFT’s career mode is lacking in depth and longevity when compared to the obvious reference points of Forza and Gran Turismo, though even the recent DiRT 2 outpaces EA’s effort by several hours. It’s possible to reach the final stages within a few sessions, the motivation for completing each series questionable given the limited range of vehicles and event types. Aside from the aforementioned streamlined presentation, visually SHIFT is little else but functional. Bar the excellent in-car view there’s little here aesthetically that stays in the memory.

Where EA go from here will be interesting. Having successfully shed many of the demons that previously haunted the series, the company now has an impressive foundation upon which this still valuable brand – at time of writing SHIFT is top of the UK charts – can go on to flourish. Confusingly it looks like the next entry in the series may be everything that Shift isn’t, with Criterion (whose open-city Burnout Paradise remains one of this generation’s great experiments in game design and post-release content) taking the reins. Pray that they get as much license to stamp their personality on the Need For Speed brand as Slightly Mad Studios have seemingly had here. It turns out that EA, first with FIFA and now with Need For Speed, had the answer to beat the cynics all along: simply make a good game.

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