Review – Need for Speed: Shift

I tend to have been playing quite several computer car driving games ever since…well, anyone remember “Pitstop”?

Like all other things computer, car driving games (in the widest sense) have come quite a long way. In today’s world, you’ll find anything between simulation, action game including driveby shooting, illegal street racing, race team management, and everything in between.

A big player in the field, since the first eponymous release in 1994, was “Need for Speed” (distributed by Electronic Arts). If we include the announced release for this November, there’s no less than 19 releases, including several looks at professional racing, street racing, cop vs. driver and whatnot. Just recently, they’ve started the sub-series “Shift”, which is meant to be more professional motorsports and more simulation-oriented.

Today, I’m reviewing the original “Shift” release from 2009, not this year’s sequel “Shift 2: Unleashed”. Why do I review it? Valid until Sept. 12th 1900 MESZ, all the latest Need for Speed games are on sale at Steam with 50-75% off, giving Shift a price of €5. I thought that was worth a try.

General Concept

Need for Speed: Shift is built around races which happen on official race tracks, using street-legal cars. The races here consist of different speed-oriented challenges (which can be either normal races or “hot lap”-style) and drift challenges – I’m really happy that this game seems to lack drag races completely!

There’s over 60 cars, mainly focussing on contemporary products (the Toyota AE86 being a welcome exception here), and 19 race tracks, modelled after real-world tracks.

In the game, you advance through some career with the usual concept: you win races, and if you do that a lot, you can start in more challenging races and afford better cars. There’s upgrades and tuning (albeit on a rather basic level – Underground 2 had more tuning complexity there), and the genre-typical vinyls you can stick on your car.

Cars and Tracks

On the cars side, the game provides a good overview of genre-typcial cars: there’s your choice of European, Japanese and US cars. Sadly, some important brands are missing (most notably: Ferrari), but apart from that, the usual suspects are all there.

Cars are grouped into four tiers, from top to bottom normal sporty cars (e.g. Mazda RX-8, BMW 135i), special sports versions of normal cars or more sports-car oriented cars (e.g. BMW M3 E92, Porsche Cayman), supercars and race-oriented cars (e.g. Porsche 911 GT2, Nissan GT-R) and hypercars (Bugatti Veyron, Pagani Zonda etc.).

The mother of all sensible sport cars at the edge of oversteer

There’s both upgrade and tuning options, and with the upgrade options, things get a little complicated: in general, following the concept known from e.g. Most Wanted, you can tune the tier 1 cars in three steps, whereas you only can tune tier 3 cars one step and can’t tune tier 4 cars at all – which means that a fully tuned tier 1 car advances in performance regions normally held by hypercars. There’s also the so-called Works upgrade available for some cars, and there’s also drift adaption for some…etc. You get the point – it’s a little complicated.

Tuning options are directly related to the upgrades you have installed: on a standard tier 1 car, you can only adjust tyre pressure etc., while a fully tuned car gives you access to chassis parameters, drivetrain ratio etc.

And of course, there’s the optical side: vinyls and paint, plus your choice of fancy rims.

A point of critizism here is the complexity of what can be tuned with which upgrades etc. – this upgrade/tuning system is not understandable at all. Plus, the optical side leaves much to ask: why can’t we have the same flexibility as in e.g. Underground 2 from the NFS series?

A nice thing is the visuals of the helmet camera: the dashboards of the cars are very accuratley modelled, at least from their optical appeal, not so much for the functional: as one example, if traction control and stability control is turned off, the corresponding lights in the dashboard fail to light up. And unfortunately, the game does also not make use of some car-specific features which would be benefical for racing use, such as the E92 M3’s adaptive suspension.

And there’s the question of realism – but about that, see the “how much of  a simulator?” chapter below.

As for the tracks, there’s also your usual choice of tracks from Europe, Japan and the US, all of them already known from other games, not only from the NFS series. There’s Autopolis and Ebisu, there’s Brands Hatch, Donington, Spa and the revered Nürburgring Nordschleife. All of these tracks really look fine (a real eyecatcher: the theme park next to the Spa Francorchamps track) – as for the realism topic, see again the “how much of a simulator?” chapter.

Your Career

You just received points for...what was it again?

Your career works with three different currencies, namely dollars, stars and points. Dollars are used to buy cars and upgrades, and are earned for winning races. Stars are also earned for winning races (and possible side-missions, such as “do a clean lap”) and unlock additional competition events and cars. Points finally are awarded in two categories, namely precision (such as staying on the track) and aggression (e.g. spinning an opponent), and both advance you through a system of driver levels, which in turn unlock additional stuff such as vinyls, free cars, storage space in your garage etc.

This complex economy seems to make the game and the advance in the career path unneccessarily complicated. However, I have found that by simply playing through the game, this doesn’t stand in your way. You normally simply advance at the correct pace, have the right amount of money and the right driver level. Still, if it’s no good anyway, why this complex system?

How does it look?

First of all, I’m more looking at the actual driving than at the graphics for such a game. That being said, I found the optical impression to be, if I may say so, up-to-date without being overtly spiffy. There’s smoke from the tyres (which looks cool), there’s a funny damage system, the environment is modelled with a high degree of detail etc. – all in all, nice to look at. On the other hand, some details that are actually important to the racing experience are simply missing: one example would be the “Yokohama” sign on the right side, cleverly marking the turn-in point for the Tiergarten bend at Nordschleife.

General Gameplay

Europe vs. US challenge - not much of a challenge, if you ask me...

Typically, you launch into a race or a series of 2-3 races, doing each race and trying to win. The game allows you to set different levels of driving aids (from “nothing at all” up to “full stabillity system and braking and turning aid”). It also displays a race line which by its colour tries to tell you if your speed is right – which doesn’t work. So why not be able to turn that off, or rather replace it with/add a display which suggests gears for each bend? The full-blown HUD also leaves a lot to be desired: there’s the race positions in light grey-blue on the area of the screen which usually shows the sky (which is also about the same colour). Based on the complex driver points and side-mission stars (see above), you also get tons of messages displayed all the time, the best thing here is to simply ignore them. Fortunately, in every view except for the helmet camera (I usuall stick to hood camera because it most closely resembles how I feel the environment when I drive a car), the dials of the car are displayed in a well-readable fashion on the bottom of the screen, so you’re able to throw out all that unneccesary and confusing info and still get the info you need.

Apropos gameplay, more specifically computer AI: these drivers are bound to have different personalities, and they are usually a little on the aggressive/reckless side, at least for professional motorsports. Some drivers will simply tap you out in corners (but of course, you can do that, too), so if you’re not used to that and/or don’t like that, that can be a little annoying.

How much of a simulator?

As already mentioned, Shift is meant to be more into the simulation and away from the action game genre, so let’s find out how it goes here. Of course, with more than 60 cars and about 20 tracks, it’s hard for most people to really compare that to real life, so I did at least try to have a look at what I can with good conscience judge:

First, the cars are not exactly that much “simulated”. To give an example, the real-life BMW 135i and the BMW E92 M3 are from their chassis completely different cars: the 1 series more prone to oversteer, the M3 much more well-balanced and if anything at all, then with a slight tendency for turn-in understeer.

In the game, however, the M3 behaves like the 135i with more power, while the 135i behaves more like a Mazda RX-8 (which, in the game, rather performs like a 1984 911 Turbo). Do those cars feel different? Yes. Do they feel like actual, physical cars? Yes, sort of. Do those models properly reflect the differences between those cars? No, not at all.

Let it be known that in real life this is possible without smoke!

Unfortunately, the same is true when it comes to the tracks: there’s one (if only one thing) I can say something about here, and that’s a standard E92 M3 on the Nordschleife. The short version: if you’re going for somewhat dynamic driving, everything is different than in reality. Just to give a few ideas: there’s a whole new line possible at Kallenhard, and the triple-right after Kallenhard can be done at much higher speeds than in real life. Interestingly, Angstkurve can be done with about 20 km/h more (!) in real life than in the game, and the same (albeit not with that much of a speed difference) is true for Pflanzgarten I, where in the simulator the lane choice of the crest before Pflanzgarten II is completely irrelevant as to how far you fly. I could go on…

This example shows about the same for the tracks as for the cars: it’s a model of some track, which happens to look like an actual track. But it’s not the same.

Summary

So, Shift has tried to be a simulator, and failed. This is not so much of a problem, unless you are looking for a simulator because you need one. If on the other hand, you’re looking for a car-driving game in which the cars behave like cars, where there’s still more to it than just lap times, and which gives you a lot of fancy cars and beautiful race tracks, then – at least as part of that Steam sale – you really can’t go wrong here.

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