Nothing makes you feel less manly than seeing some suped up car go past with a group of friends and, as they rave on about ‘horse power’, ‘nought to sixty’ and ‘dump valves’, about the only thing you can interject into the discussion is something like ‘yeah, what lovely racing stripes.’. In fact, as someone who has put off learning to drive for about six years because, if I am honest, it just seems like opening the door to a stress laden world of rules and regulations, it will be no surprise to learn that driving games were never top of my Christmas list. But that said, when it came to Need for Speed: Shift it seemed like I was missing out on something good.
So - I vowed - despite my prejudice, my feelings of inadequacy as a man, my feeble knowledge of cars, NFSS would be a racing game I wouldn’t automatically turn my back on after one or two goes. And now, with my NFSS career well underway, I can honestly say a miracle has taken place. I have become a born again boy racer…
Traditionally (or particularly with regard to the last few titles), NFS was a franchise which got horribly bogged down by its open-world- illegal-street-race format – only to be consistently overshadowed by titles like Burnout. Despite a string of releases from Underground to Undercover, NFS never seemed to stray into anything particularly original and - no doubt under the influence of films like Fast and Furious - kept pursuing tedious narratives. Clearly something had to give, and after handing the NFS reins over to UK developers Slightly Mad, the franchise has at last ditched all of that cop chasing, open world nonsense and regressed back to its roots. As a track racer.
So did all that soul searching pay off? Well the answer has to be a resounding yes, because as a driving simulator, NFS: Shift is one of the slickest, most brilliantly presented racing games I’ve ever laid eyes on – and more than enough to turn waverers like myself into fully fledged car racing fanatics. Everything from the brilliantly choreographed cut scenes to the polished menu system to the voice of your mentor/coach, who always praises your efforts and encourages you like some weird father figure, is enough to sike you up into a full on frenzy. Indeed, as you sit at the start line on your first race and he tells you to ‘have fun’ before shouting ‘go,go,go’, you feel as excited as a little kid about to do Indi-kart for the first time.
However, as you get into the actual experience of driving, far from providing any form of anti-climax, NFS: Shift only heightens the adrenaline with its fantastic 1st person cock-pit view and the superb quality of the engine sound. How realistic this is I have no idea, but as you brake to slip round a tight U turn and then hit the accelerator to pull off down some straight, the engine roar that fills your ears actually makes you go slightly weak at the knees. Similarly the 1st person cockpit view, whether it’s compulsory or not (it definitely should be), really is the only way to experience NFS: S and quite unlike that of any other racer. The way your drivers head slightly recoils as you accelerate and then slams forward upon impact – your vision blurring and eyes watering – really does convey the body shock sensations of track racing so vividly, you almost feel a touch of nausea yourself.
All of this comes together to create a virtual driving experience where, unlike so many other racing games, you actual get a proper sense of the extreme speed these vehicles are capable of. Even when the speedometer used to break speeds of 200kph in titles like Gran Turismo it never use felt like you were doing more than about 70. Regarding Shift however, break one-hundred and you definitely know, one-fifty and you’re absolutely flying, two hundred and well, it starts to get slightly scary. It’s actually quite difficult to find any aspect of the gameplay to criticize, but for one thing, the car dealership is quite limited in terms of the number of vehicles available. The point system also feels a bit pointless. Basically you are rewarded for either driving with precision or aggression and gain stars to unlock the various tournament tiers until you finally reach your ultimate goal: the NFS World Tour. This means that, like your coach who pats you on the back even when you come in last, the game rewards you for doing pretty much anything from ramming your opponents off the track to seamlessly slipstreaming round the circuits.
But regardless of these minor issues, Need for Speed: Shift is a sequel which just oozes quality and style. By cutting out all of that unnecessary chaff which had gradually accumulated around the NFS franchise, Simply Mad have produced a racer which is easily up there with the best of them. With no stupid long winded story, no badly done open-world format and none of that silly illegal street racing nonsense, it really is a case of ‘less is more’. The game also caters brilliantly for those who are not fanatical car enthusiasts with a dealership which allows you to easily buy and customize vehicles – without endless options and tons of boy racer jargon – and quickly get onto the best part: driving. This in itself is so enjoyable, especially thanks to the quality of the 1st person view, that even trailing in last place is thrilling. You might not catch me subscribing to Max Power, but after playing Shift, driving lessons are certainly not out of the question…