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Need for Speed has been in denial for years. Finally, it admits its split personality and creates three separate racing games. Shift is the game focused purely on simulation racing - in addition to Nitro's more casual approach on Wii and DS and browser based World Online.
The previous Jekyll and Hyde nature of the series meant that you never quite knew what to expect when you opened the box. Carbon returned to the open world and illegal street races of earlier iterations, then Pro Street cleaned up its act in preference of high performance track races before Undercover headed back to police chases and leggy detectives.
This year, rather than trying to cram both arcade and racing modes into one game EA have split the franchise three ways. Need for Speed Shift on 360 and PS3 creates a track based simulation experience that can hold its own next to the likes of Grid, Forza and Gran Turismo. Need for Speed Nitro holds the arcade race and chase space on Wii and DS, whilst Need for Speed World Online offers a free to play front door to the franchise on the PC.
Spending some quality time with Shift for the first time you can't help but be impressed with the visual and audio quality.
Spending some quality time with Shift for the first time you can't help but be impressed with the visual and audio quality. Maybe slightly enhanced by the mocked up cockpit and clamouring crowd of games journalist, my adrenaline was soon pumping. And happily, the game seemed to be able to offer a drive that I could pick up and play in minutes.
The first thing that hits you is the sheer feeling of speed and impact (when you crash). This not only comes from the nippy frame rate and high numbers of vehicles, but from a range of visual tricks. Although not immediately noticeable these work together to create the illusion of velocity and g-force. These are most effective in the cockpit view that makes its first appearance to the series since Porsche Unleashed some years back.
The dash, for instance, blurs as you put your foot down - something that focuses your attention on the road ahead. This same effect is applied to your main view if you clatter the scenery or other cars, meaning that it takes a while to recover from the carnage. It's the sort of trick that made Burnout Paradise so graphically impressive and it is great to see EA bringing their other successes to bear here.
Then there are the camcorder-like shakes and rolls when you accelerate, corner or impact with other cars. This comes from the decision to attach the cockpit camera to the driver's helmet rather than the car. It's a simple but a very effective move. You see the surrounding vehicle pitch and roll around as you accelerate through the gears and throw yourself into corners. It works much the same way as Skate's low slung shaky cam, adding the same sense of connection here as it did in EA's skateboard title.
The game, so I read, has benefited from the fresh impetus of Slightly Mad Studios who have a prestigious racing history with the likes of GT Legends and GTR 2. This is a game of some obvious quality, and has been in the works for a good two years.
Although my kids may find Need for Speed Nitro more easy to play this year, I know they'll love the high impact looks of Shift. There is a kindred spirit here to the likes of Motorstorm. The feeling of speed in palpaple, as testified by their whoops and screams.
The rhetoric of the franchise seems to have genuinely turned a corner and to some extend grown up.
Clocking up some laps I started to get a feel for the physics. Shift seems to sit somewhere between the realism of Forza and the more twitchy controls of Burnout Paradise. Whilst this meant I could easily pick it up and play without a problem, it also reduced the sense of realism. Particular when viewed from outside the car, the connection between rubber and tarmac was a little questionable. This slightly floaty feel to the driving still feels a little off being perfect and may disappoint the more hard core racing fans.
Details like this will be important for the new game if it is to stand alongside the likes of Grid, Forza and Gran Turismo. The already crowded simulation racing genre is very competitive so it is even more important for Shift to come out of the gate with a strong first showing.
But these concerns aside, there is no denying that Shift is a thoroughly enjoyable drive. The only nod to its street racing history is the drift brake that allows you to easily hang the back out around corners. Purist may again balk at this but, come on, it wouldn't be a Need for Speed game without some exaggerated sideways cornering. This just needs to be kept in balance with the rest of the driving to ensure it retains its simulation edge.
Add in the career and progression modes and you have a strong package in what is a very competitve market. But more than any of this, here is a game that obviously focuses on the driving experience - something that is right up our street. The rhetoric of the franchise seems to have genuinely turned a corner and to some extend grown up.
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