It’s no surprise for the fans of the genre that the well known Need for Speed series has lost a lot of its value during the years, going through quite a few „facelifts”, until recent years when it almost went out in a flicker of a tuner’s neon. However you choose to put it, and regardless of the amount of appreciation you might have for the series, the „Fast and the Furious” inspired games started running on 3 cylinders in their more recent iterations. Circa NFS Carbon.
Although well known for its conservative decisions when it comes to its own franchises, EA has finally chosen to flush the toilet and apply a new facelift to the serie which, surprisingly or not, sold over 5 million copies in its last iteration, although the associated Metacritic score never excedeed a few points over the fatidic mark of 60.
So, SHIFT is radically changed compared to Undercover, marching on what the Slightly Mad Studios devs and the bigshots at EA call „driver experience”. Which brings us to an interesting question: what is Need for Speed SHIFT?
You see, „driver experience” doesn’t automatically translate to „simulation”. Or „arcade”. Or „neons under the wheels”, or even „fantasy tracks through the Alps”. For this reason, the first characteristic of this game might be something along the lines of „mix and match”, but fortunately enough for the target audience and my time spent to play it, the „mix and match” is quite successful.
Thus, the new Need for Speed game doesn’t have cheesy cutscenes with chicks who should really start learning how to act one of these days; there’s no shiny asphalt, no neons and no poor excuses for a story. It’s a game about cars, with some pretty good simulation elements securely strapped in under an extensive set of adjustable driver assists, with real life tracks (slightly modified to make them more visually appealing), classic fantasy tracks, licensed cars, a damage system and a healthy priciple to reward the player for each and every stupid thing he does on the track.
For novelty’s sake, the game’s handling will be analysed after all the assists have been ticked to „off”, with the exception of the driving line, which was really helpful until the way the car going anywhere but where I wanted it to go stopped being a perpetual surprise, arriving like an unexpected slap on the face from an apparently kind, but clearly deranged person sitting next to me.
The main reason I relied on this particular driver assist was the brutality of the driver experience from it’s revamped cockpit view. Every bump, patch of grass, the roadside vibrators, everything is felt throught the steering wheel and has an effect, accentuated by the force feedback of the wheel you’re using, or the rumble feature of the controller. The cockpit view shakes and rattles your view point in a really convincing way, and the inevitable impact with the wall is felt like someone punched you in the nose.
The sensation of speed is tremendous for cars which are actually capable of achieving some sort of reasonable amount of kilometers/hour. The car keeps going faster and faster until you just relax, take your hands off your preffered input method and imbrace the wall coming at you at 250km/h. It can’t be avoided. Not now, at least.
The much too advertised driver experience, at that speed, in the middle of the track, with the controller vibrating like crazy in your hands, surrounded by a very aggressive type of AI (even on easy), while your eardrums are being rattled and shaken by the incredible sound of a V12, is awesome, to say the least. And dare I say it, unique to any driving game released so far.
All the features leading to this insane in-car driving sensation is so well made that it will (for me, at least) hold as a benchmark for all future racing games, from this point of view. Becasue SHIFT makes me drool after a dedicated gaming room, with a 7.1 surround sound system, a Recaro seat and a G25 racing wheel that is mine to keep this time.
However, after a few laps you start to wake up a bit. Although the „I’ve lost control, where’s the brake?!” sensation is great, you still start to realise that, although your choice of driver assist is fine and your driving skills are increasing, something is still not right. The car is much too twitchy at speeds execeding 200 Km/h, even though you, the input giver are doing your job just fine. So, what’s wrong?
Well, SHIFT can tatoo its forehead with „I’m a simulator”. In bold. It’s not, and although the car’s physics are pretty realistic, the driving force behind its making was the desire to make you feel like your driving a car much stronger than your capabilities to tame it, and corners have been cut in this regard. The main directive was to „wow” you, not to blow your mind with amazingly realistic physics. As far as I’m concerned, if you realise this, and you’re ok with it, all is right with the world.
Moving on, SHIFT is really trying to convey the sensation of actually driving a race car through an ultimately limited control scheme, at least as far as simulation goes. For this reason, it applies a metric ton of visual and sound effects, it shakes you in your chair, it blurs your vision and after this… there’s a corner you need to take. And this requires some getting used to, regardless of what you’ve played before.
Finally, SHIFT is a bit (but not much) broken when it comes to the actual functionality of its control scheme, on any configuration, be it a simple keyboard or an advanced force feedback racing wheel. Some people call it „deadzone”, others „input lag”. However you choose to name it, the controls sometimes feel a bit imprecise and laggy, even with some time spent in tweaking the extensive controller configuration options.