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Need for Speed Shift's mix of simulation and arcade offers a simple old school approach to racers I can truly get behind. It avoids the complexity that often breaks my engagement with the realism of modern games.
On another sweltering summer day, I slot my copy of Need for Speed: Shift into my PS3. As the customary install grinds into gear, I recline in my chair, swig from my Dr Pepper Zero, and think about previous experiences with Need for Speed.
My first memory is of the Need for Speed: Underground games. As I mentioned in my V8 Superstars review, my gaming downtime came at university - too much work, not enough games - but it was interspersed by some sneaky intruders. I recall that quite a few of these were racing games. I think that's because I kept my PS2 at my girlfriend's flat, and her two housemates were absolute car nuts.
While neither of them had even heard of hip-hop they still fell in love with the Underground vibe. My girlfriend and I would chuckle as they fitted under-lighting to humble estates, all the while pushing out their palms to the beat of Petey Pablo. Even now, when we see a garish spoiler on a car it shouldn't be in touching distance of we sing out ‘I got a Need for Speed, Ooh-um' in homage to the idiosyncratic theme.
The two Underground games were fantastic albeit rather silly, but since then the Need for Speed series has suffered from an identity crisis. It flitted from street to realistic racing, sometimes dicing with cop chases, but never truly established its values. The only series mainstay appeared to be the cut scenes featuring flirtatious ladies, and while they were appreciably cheesy to my younger self, the older, more discerning me deems them tiresome and dumb.
This evolution has hurt racing games. The closer they become to true simulations, the more I'm reminded that I'm no racing driver.
Back to the present, and the install meter ticks at 65 per cent. I'm worried that Shift is going to be another Need for Speed game unsure of what it wants to be. I know from reading previews that it's not quite a simulation or an arcade racer.
This evolution has hurt racing games. The closer they become to true simulations, the more I'm reminded that I'm no racing driver. But some ten hours of play later, I'm wondering if Shift isn't just the best Need for Speed I've played, but the maybe the best racer too.
Shift has elements of a serious simulation. There's a livery of sports cars, all shown off in smoldering spotlights. The physics aren't nailed in but they're not loose like you might expect from an arcade racer. However, old school rules still apply when it comes to collisions. Opponents can be your buffers, or you can send them spinning out with just the slightest tap.
What makes Shift a triumph is that aggressive driving which should negate the sophistication of a would-be simulator is not only encouraged but also actively rewarded. I actually gain points for driving into other cars, for spiraling them into the sand, for seemingly trying to cause as much carnage as I can. Precision is similarly rewarded, but there's no fun in good driving.
I wanted to be in the sleek sexiness of a Porsche but be able to drive it like it a banger.
While finishing first is the end game, to progress I need to rack up points too. The fun way to play is to try and finish first while also being as destructive as possible. I go careening into car after car, opponents reeling from my recklessness, and best of all I feel like I'm putting some skill into it. All those hours thrown into playing games like Gran Turismo 3 the wrong way are providing the leg up for me to play Need for Speed: Shift the right way. My unreasonable demand has been met. Shift is the answer.
A few days later, I receive a wedding invitation from one of the afore-mentioned housemates. I think of him performing terrible karaoke of another Need for Speed tune, Get Low, and a snigger slips out. I should give him a call and tell him to pick up Shift. I'm sure he'll enjoy it. It doesn't have the boisterous personality of Underground - even the scantily clad ladies are gone (mostly) - but I could see us laughing our way through it with a couple of beers, trying to wreck each other's race all in the name of points, so I grab the phone.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
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