"Rebooting" franchises seems to be all the rage right now. First it was Batman Begins, then J. J. Abrams did it with Star Trek - and now EA has done it with Need for Speed.
The series has something of a checkered past, with successive releases erratically bouncing up to soaring highs (like the original The Need For Speed, Hot Pursuit and Porsche Unleashed) then swooping down to sputtering lows (like Need for Speed II, Hot Pursuit 2, Carbon, ProStreet and Undercover).
Back in the late 1980's there was a very popular racing game by the name of Test Drive, developed by a Canadian studio called Distinctive Software Inc (DSI). DSI was acquired by EA and became EA Canada in 1991. A few years later they released The Need For Speed, which was really an evolution of Test Drive, putting you behind the wheel of an expensive performance car and letting you loose on a scenic open road for a point-to-point race while avoiding being stopped by police. It attempted to realistically simulate the look, feel, sound and handling of the nine vehicles on offer, right down to each car's dashboard and even the sound of its gear shifter.
Subsequent games in the Need for Speed series drifted significantly from this premise however, with the emphasis moving away from realism and more toward arcade action racing - to varying degrees of critical and popular success. Lately that success seems to have been lacking, with the last few games all receiving relatively poor reviews.
With Need for Speed SHIFT, EA is putting that checkered past behind it and waving the chequered flag to signal a fresh start.
It has the same name, but this NFS bears only passing resemblance to its forebears. SHIFT was developed by the lads at UK-based independent Slightly Mad Studios, who have some serious racing sim credentials - under their former guise of Blimey! Games they developed (in collaboration with SimBin Studios) GTR2 and GT Legends, two respected racing simulators. So in SHIFT we are finally seeing the series move away from arcade racing and back towards the realism it originally strived for.
But while realism may be back in, this is not a "returning to the roots" story at all; NFS is headed in an entirely new - and promising - direction with SHIFT. What you get here is a curious hybrid between a straight-up motorsport racing game bred together with some strands of NFS's arcade racing DNA, the two combining in a delicate balancing act.
The first time you start up SHIFT, you are asked to drive a test lap so the game can assess your driving ability. Based on how you do, it then picks a "handling model", AI difficulty level, ABS, Traction Control and Stability Control settings to suit you (you can adjust them if you want to). The handling model is either Casual, Normal, Experienced or Professional; this directly determines how realistically the cars behave when you're driving. At lower levels the controls are more forgiving and you get steering and braking assistance - at Casual level you barely need to brake at all - while at Pro level it's set up for realism (a wheel is recommended for Pro level).
How realistic? Well, it's no GTR2. This is not a pure simulator. For the most part the driving model compares favourably with Forza or Gran Turismo, but SHIFT is let down somewhat by a tendency toward oversteer. At times the cars seem to have only a tenuous grip on the tarmac, and it requires a light touch on the controls to avoid power sliding around every corner (at least when playing with a PS3 controller - it might be a different story using a wheel, but we didn't have one available to test). Overall though, the driving model is good and it's a huge step forward from previous NFS games.
In keeping with SHIFT's motorsport slant, the tracks you'll be racing on are mostly real-world motor racing circuits, including Silverstone, Nordschleife (Nürburgring), Brands Hatch, Spa Francorchamps, Laguna Seca, Road America, and quite a few others - most with one or several variations. Many of these tracks will be familiar to players from other racing games, and they are faithfully rendered here.
Also faithfully rendered in SHIFT are each of the 72 fully licensed cars. These are organised into four tiers and you start the game by purchasing a Tier 1 car from a selection of potentially affordable models including a BMW 135i, Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Honda S2000, Mazda MX-5, Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R (C10), Toyota AE86 or VW Golf GTi. As you play the game you unlock further tiers, moving on to higher performance vehicles in Tier 2 like an Audi RS4, BMW M3, Chevrolet Camaro SS, Mazda RX-7, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX (or X), Nissan Silvia Spec-R (S15), Nissan Skyline GT-R (R34), Porsche 911 GT3 RS and Subaru Impreza WRX STi. In Tier 3 you get supercars including an Aston Martin DB9, Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Dodge Viper SRT10, Ford GT and Nissan GT-R Spec-V (R35), then Tier 4 takes you into hypercar dreamland territory with the Aston Martin DB9R, Bugatti Veyron 16.4, Koenigsegnigggseginiggggsegg CCX, Lamborghini Reventon, Maserati MC12 GT1, McLaren F1, Pagani Zonda R and Porsche Carrera GT.
Although SHIFT's car selection may seem small compared to, say, Gran Turismo's Sultan-sized garage, there is plenty of variety here (Ferrari's marque being the most glaring omission). And it's probably more vehicles than you'll ever bother to drive, because this is most certainly not a Gran Turismo-type car porn game; SHIFT does little to encourage any fascination with the cars it has on offer or make you want to build a car collection. You'll be much better off buying the best car in each tier and spending any spare cash on upgrades than chucking it away on extra cars. Just pick your weapon and get out on the track.
Nevertheless the cars in SHIFT are modelled in gorgeous detail, with particular emphasis on each car's cockpit - which is the default view when racing. You'll really be missing out if you switch to another camera view (of which there are the usual options), because the accurately modeled interiors add tremendously to the experience of driving each car. The cockpits have fully functional speedo, tacho and boost gauge (where applicable) - and having driven a couple of the game's cars in the real world, I can assure you they look just like the real thing. You also see your driver's hands turning the wheel and reaching for the gear stick when you shift.
SHIFT does some unique things to further add to the driving experience, helping to make you feel like you're actually in the car. To simulate the movement of your head, the camera and the HUD get jounced around when you go over a bump, or take a corner - or even just rev the car from idle, rocking it from side to side. Reach 150km/h and the game simulates "concentration" by blurring out the cockpit, focusing all your attention on the road. If you crash, you see your driver's helmeted head fly forwards toward the windscreen, then get arrested back by his seatbelt, while your entire vision blurs and becomes black and white. In particularly brutal accidents you'll even hear your driver cry out in pain. (Sorry mate - where did that tyre wall come from?)
Although SHIFT has a comprehensive visual damage model, deforming your car into all kinds of shapes - even smashing the windscreen - when you crash, this doesn't seem to have much effect on your car's performance. The damage model can be selected between "visual only" and "full", but with it set to "full", smashing into a wall at 200km/h just seemed to put the wheel alignment out, making my car list to the left slightly.