Genre: Sport Developer: EA Black Box Publisher: EA Classification: TBC Release Date: 17th Sep 2009 Platforms:PS3XBOX360
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The first hairpin on Laguna Seca is always a test - in just twenty seconds you instantly sort the noobs from the vets as the noobs plough through the corner into the sand trap at high speed. As I sprint out of last place in my Lancer EVO X I watch two rookie drivers do exactly that - I'm heavy on the brakes as I come down the first hill, probably a little too heavy I realise as my rear kicks out. I swing out hard to the right before I correct myself and punch the accelerator.
I've made it to sixth place as we tear up the hill towards turn six - the second trap for young players - and I brake late to pass my rival on the inside and shunt him into the sand trap as I do. My vision jars as he flies from the track, and my head is thrust back as I shift through the gears on my way to turns seven and eight. Fourth place brakes early before the crest and I roar past him, my wheels just staying in contact with the ground as I do. I'll use third's side panels to help me get around turn seven and then...
Third punches through turn seven and I narrowly miss their rear bumper. I haven't hit the brakes at all, and by now I'm going way too fast to do anything about it. I plough through the sand trap and into the tyre wall as my world darkens, my vision blurs and I struggle to stay awake. I shake my head and tentatively shift the car into reverse before tapping the accelerator. The car... moves backwards. I hit the tyre wall at over 100km/h, but my car reverses out of the wall before I shift back into first and drive away - I'm not even in last place.
Even with "realistic" damage on - not "visual only" - the above scenario is sadly extremely regular. What's worse is the weak amount of visible damage - ploughing into a wall at 100km/h looks absolutely amazing from inside the car but very unreal from without. It's a curious reversal to make, and one which impacts the game's realism greatly. I can't help but feel that it might have been a deliberate measure in this case - an effort to keep the game from being too hardcore for previous Need For Speed fans.
If your last Need For Speed game was one of the Underground games, Most Wanted, Carbon or even the ill-conceived Undercover you might be wondering why we're tearing around Laguna Seca, one of the most famous race tracks in the world. The reason is Shift takes us back to the track - the only traffic is your opponents, and the only red lights you see are the ones before the start of a race.
It's a reinvention of the classic formula, and it's quite welcome. As fun as it is to outrun cops at breakneck speeds, a return to defined courses and real race cars is actually quite welcome - as is an emphasis on more realistic driving.
You might recall Need For Speed Prostreet - the last time the series went back to the track. Unlike Prostreet, Shift actually handles nicely - it's fun to drive a car in Shift, fun to play the game itself and while the emphasis again is on a mixture of arcade and realism, the game swings much further towards realism when driving.
As I mentioned earlier, driving from within the car is a pleasure, thanks to the decision to place the camera on a fictional driver's head - meaning g-forces and outside elements affect the camera, which pays off immensely. Further putting the player in the role of the driver is the new scoring system - the game rates you as a driver every second you spend inside a car. Clean corners define you as a precise driver while shunts and bumps will have you labelled aggressive. As you progress through the game you'll find certain things unlocked depending on how you drive, encouraging you to have a balance (an interesting choice compared to the typical "drive like perfect AI to win" emphasis placed on players by many racing games).
Fans of the Fast and the Furious inspired Need For Speed games will be pleased to know that certain elements of the F&F gameplay have remained. You can still customise your car however you like - throwing Nitrous Oxide onto cars which don't need it, racing around the Nurburgring on 20 inch rims and all kinds of nonsense. Those not particularly mechanically-minded can buy upgrade packages, while
hardcore nuts can tool around with gear settings to milk tenths of a second out of their times.
Drift mode also makes the cut in this track based Need for Speed, and it takes some getting used to. Once you are used to it however, nothing is more thrilling than sliding around a corner with millimetres to spare.
The more you play Need For Speed: Shift the more you find yourself forgiving the half-arsed attempt at vehicle damage. Like any Gran Turismo fan, car damage becomes an afterthought to the tuning, tweaking and customising of your favourite cars. If you're the kind of person who only races from the cockpit view anyway, you're in for a real treat. It's not the best racing game you'll ever play, but it's great fun and the driver mounted shaky-cam is an idea every racing game should steal.