Need for Speed: SHIFT Review
The last time a Need for Speed game aimed at realism, as partial as it was, was with Pro Street. And while it wasn't quite the blockbuster EA hoped for it to be, it was a fairly fun game in its own right. For the next iteration, NFS returned to the open world theme with Underground, which, at first was terribly flawed by a framerate that would later get patched and fixed. Now, during the course of the last two years, EA was cooking up an all new Need for Speed game unlike anything we've ever seen from the franchise. And it wasn't Black Box who was in complete control, but rather a group of guys who were responsible for the PC's best sim racer: GTR2. A team formerly of SimBin Studios and Blimey! Games, both parties responsible for GTR2, Slightly Mad Studios houses an incredibly talented bunch, and despite being their first console title, it shows.
Need for Speed: SHIFT has been touted as a very serious sim racer, and throughout the months, I have confirmed as much. I've played Need for Speed: SHIFT in the past before, and I have praised the game numerous times for its nearly superb mixture of realism, while at the same time maintaining the excitement the series has always been known for. But, unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the game I'd like to discuss, as well. First, the good stuff...
For starters, SHIFT supports Logitech wheels and has full support of the G25's clutch and shifter setup. Within the game are a plethora of tuning options for the wheel, so that you can customize its feel, various sensitivity settings, and feedback to your liking. More over, there is even G27 support here for you future owners wondering if the game is compatible with Logitech's all new and improved setup.
Now, the Career mode in this game works fairly simple. You are a racer looking to make a name for yourself in the professional circuit. As always, you have a few people helping you out with some tips here and there, but for the most part, you're on your own. You'll earn money, points, and badges for your racing. The points are there to improve your level, and with every level up, there are rewards to be had, sometimes money, sometimes cars, sometimes unlocking upgrades, and so forth. Progression is very easy, as all of your events are laid out for you and are broken up by tiers. You'll have to progress through a certain amount of Tier 1 before you can move on to Tier 2, and so on.
Just like most racers, you'll start off with a certain amount of money, and the first car you purchase won't be anything special, but it'll do to get you your first winnings. You'll eventually need to upgrade the car, and the list of main upgrades is broken up into three stages, which you'll unlock the more you play through the game. Upgrades within the three stages are: drivetrain, turbo, suspension, tires, brakes, and engine. Upgrades beyond the three stages include body kits, cockpit upgrades, weight reduction, nitrous kids, race exhausts, shorter final drive, wider tire upgrade, rollcage, and a brake master cylinder upgrade. When you've purchase things such as suspension/handling components, you can enter the game's tuning screen and play around with the settings of your car, which includes: toe angle, camber, ride height, sway bars, spring rates, bump stop length, damper slow bump, damper slow rebound, damper fast rebound, front/rear downforce, brake balance, steering lock, and even tire-pressure. Then, you get into the transmission upgrades, which starts off with just being able to tweak the final drive, but with later upgrades allows you to fine tune every available gear of your car. Lastly, differentials can be toyed around with sliders that include: limited slip acceleration lock, limited slip deceleration lock, limited slip preload, and "visco" electronic lock (I can only assume the game means viscous, not visco).
The game tracks your driving performance by measuring your style of racing using two characteristic traits: aggression and precision. Based on your driving style, the game will reward you points for both traits, and depending on your habits, you'll earn more points for one trait, as opposed to another. This system will also automatically work online as it will matchmake and drop you into a group of racers most closely related to your driving. Of course, if you don't wish to partake in the matchmaking, you don't have to, it's purely optional.
Now, SHIFT is an extremely exciting game, but it does have a number of shortcomings that I was really disappointed to see. These shortcomings are both gameplay and presentation related. For starters, many will notice that the game physics are way too prone to oversteering, even with FWD and AWD cars. No matter how much I tuned for stability and toyed around with the game's control sensitivities, driving still felt incredibly twitchy with cars that were extremely modified. I found myself tweaking the settings around for way too long, until I felt like I found something acceptable, but I should never have had to sit there and torture myself not through just trial-and-error, but also through the constant load times.
Slightly Mad should've implemented not just free control over the sensitivity settings, but also designated pre-sets that when enabled would automatically tune the controls to a certain feel: planted, loose, or something in between. Another issue is that there is also no in-between with the physics settings themselves, you're either totally nannied by the assists, or you're slipping and sliding all over the place - I'd have like to see a mixture of arcade/sim mechanics, sort of along the lines of Project Gotham Racing. Is the game still playable? Of course it is, but you will endure quite a bit of frustration, especially in the Career races where you may find yourself twitch and lose control of the car, losing pole position at the last minute and having to restart or settle for a lesser standing. It also doesn't help that even on Medium, the A.I. is very tough, which will require you to dial back to Easy for certain races just so you can get past them. Most of the races can be won on Medium no problem, but I've hit a few figurative brickwalls in the game where I just couldn't get past a race or two and had to tone the A.I. down.
Now, when you feel like you're being outclassed and you don't have the money to purchase more upgrades, the game actually has an exploit that'll earn you $4000 in about 45 seconds of time. Simply by entering Quick Race mode, choosing Drift, setting it to one lap, no opponents, and the tiniest stage, you will, by default always be the winner. That will earn you $4000, in addition to points to add to your driver level. Drift sessions consist of three rounds, which is why the total adds up to 45 seconds, and not 15. You can do this with other race modes, such as time trial, but drifting is the quickest. On the subject of the game's drift mode...I must reluctantly say that it isn't very good. When in the mode, cars are automatically re-tuned by the game to deliver an insane amount of oversteer, so much so that even accelerating on a straight will cause the car to wildly spin out of control. Every corner you take in the mode almost always ends up in you smashing a wall with your nose or just losing control. I went on the game's Figure Eight course, set it to 20 laps, and still couldn't get the awkward drift mechanics of the game down. And apparently, I'm not the only one. Thankfully, drifts don't play a very crucial part of the career.
And here's the last negative I'll mention, which doesn't affect gameplay, but rather the presentation. I don't know who was in charge of adding the specs for the cars, but whoever it was did an awful job at it. Cars all over the game are listed with the wrong weights, horsepower, and torque figures. And I'm not talking about being off a smidge here and there, it'll range from hundreds of pounds in weight, as well as horsepower and torque numbers that are just really, really wrong. Now, bear with me here, because I'm going to go into some details that some of you will appreciate it and others won't. Why am I doing this? Because this is supposed to be a car sim, and these oversights are downright odd and upsetting to someone like me.
*The 350Z in the game is a 2006 model, but has the stats of a 2007-2008 car (which had a newer/different engine). Because it's a 2006, it's supposed to have 300HP and 260lbs of TQ, not 306HP/268TQ. If it's meant to be a 2007-2008 model, then it's supposed to have a different hood design and a redline of 7500RPM to reflect that. On top of that, despite using a 2006 350Z, the interior is from the older 2003-2005 car with an automatic transmission, which were notably different in certain ways. I don't understand who, if anyone, was in charge of consistency and fact checking, they literally crammed a whole bunch of wrong elements into one car.
*The Infiniti G35 Coupe also has the wrong stats and model, none of the 1st generation G35 Coupes (especially the 2003-2005 models) made over 300HP. Only the 2006 6-speed came with 293HP. The game has the car listed at 303HP (which no G35/G37 ever had, so I don't know where they got this number). On top of that, the game model is that of a 2003-05 model (different headlights and taillights), which has 280HP and 270lbs of TQ in real life.
*The Corvette Z06 has its numbers listed backwards, it seems. The car has 505HP and 475lbs of TQ - the game has it written the other way around.
*The Dodge Viper SRT10 has the wrong Torque number: it's supposed to be 560lbs of TQ, the game says 640lbs.
*2006-2009 B7 Audi S4. The in-game specs say 329HP, 325TQ, and 3990lbs. Well, the actual specs are: 340HP, 302TQ, and 3800lbs. The specs NFS uses are from the all new, completely different 2010 S4 which is actually a supercharged V6, and not a V8 anymore.
*Ford Escort RS Cosworth. The in-game specs say: 220HP and 259.95TQ (what's with the decimals?). The actual specs are: 227HP and 225TQ.
*Ford Focus ST. The game in-specs are identical to the Escort (including the decimal and all). They're two completely different engines, the Focus uses Volvo's turbocharged T5, which makes 227HP and 236TQ.
*Honda S2000. This one I found quite laughable because everyone knows the one thing the S2000 is not known for is torque. So the in-game specs here are: 247HP and 232.27TQ (again, what's up with that decimal?). Real specs range from 237HP to 250HP, so I'll let the HP number slide. But the torque is only rated at 153lbs for the actual car.
*Toyota Corolla GTS AE86: In-game specs are 128HP and 386.83TQ!! Holy crap! The horsepower is correct, but the actual torque number is supposed to be a measly 103lbs.
And you know what? There's more of these errors with other cars, but I simply didn't have the time to sit there and wade through anymore of them. So I ask again, who was in charge of this? And can we please have this patched up? It's disheartening that such a solid simulator has such awkward and glaring (to me) flaws. I've already brought it up to EA, and they're aware, but I want to make sure they're aware enough to patch this. As it stands now, my offer is this: fix the errors and this review gets edited, and the score gets bumped up a bit to a solid 9.
So, back to the good stuff. The tracks are a mixture of real-life circuits with made-up ones that take place in actual locations such as London, Nurburgring, Spa GP, Laguna Seca, and so forth. In total, 18 locations exist, with over 50 different track layouts. The track design is practically perfect from what I gather, as every legitimate track is recreated with precision, and even the fictional stuff is a blast to drive on. In total, a selection of 80 vehicles will be made present, and there are more on the way as downloadable content, in addition to even more tracks via DLC.
Now, despite the shortcomings I've mentioned before, this all new NFS is still a very good sim and developed by one of the leading developers of racing-sims, you'd better believe that SHIFT boasts an amazing physics engine. You get into a car like the Audi RS4 and you immediately feel the inherent advantage of having an AWD system like QUATTRO giving you all of the grip and traction you need in order to stay on course. But the second you move to a rear or mid-engined supercar like the 911 GT2 or the Zonda, all hell breaks loose (as do your tires upon every sweeping turn). Heck, even when you step foot into a car where the engine is front-mounted (Z06), you immediately feel the difference in balance and weight distribution. Each and every car feels like its got a personality of its own, and that really helps keep SHIFT away from the GRID comparisons many are throwing around out there. But again, don't forget, in order to keep the cars manageable, you will need to spend a lot of time with the settings.
Moving on, we get to the visuals. For the first time in a very, very long time, I do not have complaints about the framerate. Where as in the past NFS games, even on the PS2, the framerate stuttered and barely ran to spec, SHIFT has a framerate that's super tight, moving at a crisp 30 frames per second with barely a frame drop in sight, no matter how crazy things get. There is the occasional hitch here and there, but they're very few and far in between, from my experience - so no points were docked for that. The overall quality of the visuals is absolutely astounding though, as the game's texture work is every bit as brilliant as it looks in the screenshots. The cars are very detailed, and so are the interiors, even though some cars are using the wrong interiors that aren't in conjunction with their model year, but it's minor stuff that only the hardcore like me would notice. There's no doubt about it, but this is one gorgeous game, surely the best for the franchise.
Additionally, there are some neat visual touches such as the motion blur, and the crashing which causes disorientation if severe enough. When playing the game using the in-dash view, your camera is essentially the eyes of the driver, and with every slam of the brakes, every burst of throttle, every nudge and crash, the camera will jolt forwards, backwards, and side-to-side - it's a very cool effect and extremely immersive to the overall experience. The only thing I would like to see improved is the lighting, because while it's great most of the time, chrome pieces such as headlights reflect very awkwardly. And perhaps bringing back the crazy tire smoke from Pro Street would be nice.
Further solidifying the visceral experience of SHIFT is the equally visceral audio that roars through the speakers. Honestly, a lot is lost in the enjoyment of the game if you're playing this on a puny audio setup, either get a 5.1 setup or something capable of 5.1 sound (I recommend the Sony HT-CT100 Soundbar w/Sub, it's amazing). You simply have to hear the roar of these cars, even when they're stock it all just sounds fantastic. The game even does you a favor and by default turns off the music for the races. I'd talk about the soundtrack, but I paid no attention to it, and neither will you. I still do wish to see custom soundtracks out of an EA game, though.
All in all, despite some awkward design choices, Need for Speed: SHIFT is still a fantastic racing game, and once you figure out your preferred sensitivity settings, everything just clicks and you'll find yourself going from one race to the next, onto the other, and before you know it...it's 4AM. Yes, I speak from experience, that is precisely what happened last night as I was writing this review, intending to have it up last night and not today. It's an addictive game, and money isn't very scarce, so you'll be able to dive right into the upgrades as soon as they become available to you. Visually, it's a great looking game with a solid framerate, with audio that'll shake your entire living room. I just wish we get a patch that fixes all of the factual errors in the game so I can boost the score to a 9...make it happen, EA. You patched Undercover for a shoddy framerate, so surely this is much, much more simple task. In any case, fans of sims, you need to buy this.
9/16/2009 Arnold Katayev