Need for Speed: Shift Updated Hands-On

We go hands-on with the career mode in EA's upcoming sim entry in the NFS series.

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The Need for Speed series is taking a sharp turn toward realism with the upcoming Need for Speed: Shift. Better known in recent years for its over-the-top arcade racing and its ingeniously god-awful cutscenes starring C-list celebrities, the Need for Speed series is transformed with Shift into a game that is closer to a simulation racing experience than anything in the NFS series since 2000's Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. EA recently dropped by with an updated build of the game, and we've spent the past couple of days putting it through its paces.

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The centerpiece of the Shift experience is your driver profile, and practically everything you do in the game feeds into that profile. The profile measures what kind of driver you are--more on that in a bit--and also keeps track of your driver level, which you can improve by earning points in race events. You can reach up to level 50 in the game, and each new level you earn will unlock cool stuff like new vinyls and accessories for your car, cash rewards, new cars, and additional garage slots for your ever-growing collection of sweet rides. In a nice touch, you can earn points for your driver level anywhere in the game--whether you're grinding away in the five tiers of Career mode events or simply playing a quick match, any points or cash you earn will feed directly into your driver profile.

Shift's car roster is impressive, with authentic rides from manufacturers such as Audi, Nissan, Honda, Ford, and many more. Still, thanks to the persistent driver profile, how you drive is just as important as what you drive. Practically anything you do on the track will earn you points, and these different maneuvers are split up between "precision" racing and "aggressive" racing. Precision driving moves include things like making clean passes of opponent cars or following the correct driving line, while aggressive moves include hitting opponent cars, drafting closely behind cars, and even spinning an opponent off the track completely.

Shift represents a new direction for the Need for Speed series.
Shift represents a new direction for the Need for Speed series.

It's worth noting that the game doesn't punish you for "aggressive" driving; instead, it's merely classifying the way you drive and noting it on your profile. When you decide to race online, your profile will be visible to other folks online and is used for matchmaking purposes. If you prefer to race cleanly, for instance, you'll likely want to avoid racers noted as "aggressive" in their profile, and vice verse.

You earn stars in racing events that can be used to unlock new events throughout your career. Stars are earned for finishing on the podium, but that's not the only way to earn them. In some races, for instance, you might gain an extra star for racing a clean lap. Also, during most races, you'll have objectives you can complete that will earn you additional stars--examples include earning a certain number of driver profile points in a race or beating a set lap time before the race ends. There are also a bunch of badges available in the game, which you can earn over the course of your career. They act as milestones of sorts, such as badges for mastering all the tracks in the game or badges for simply racking up a certain number of miles on the different cars in your garage.

You'll be working your way through a ton of race events in Career mode--including traditional circuit races, point-to-point sprints, time trials, and specialized racing events like drifting and make-specific races. The way Career mode is set up, if you earn enough stars in one series, you'll be able to skip events you might not be fond of and still make your way to the next tier of events. Of course, you can always go back and replay a race to get the maximum number of stars from every event.

From a gameplay standpoint, Shift's driving model feels quite a bit different from previous NFS incarnations. The cockpit view alone improves the experience--every bump and jostle on the track is felt as your driver's vision goes temporarily blurry or, for harder shunts, as the screen turns black and white. In terms of handling, there's a decent variety in handling style, from the gripper front-wheel-drive cars to the rear-wheel models that feel like you're skating on ice when running in the game's many drift races. Overall the driving model seems to be tuned to allow a lot of sliding around the course no matter which car you're driving and even with handling assists like stability control and traction control engaged.

The game has a pretty decent damage model in place, which can be toggled between "full" and "visual only" depending on your preference. There are also three AI settings (easy, medium, and hard) as well as four general handling settings (casual, normal, experienced, and pro). You'll also be able to individually customize your handling tuning--on the pro level, for instance, you can choose toggle assists like ABS, traction control, and stability management.

No Tamoh Penikett for as far as the eye can see.
No Tamoh Penikett for as far as the eye can see.

Visually, Shift is coming along quite well. The game runs at a solid frame rate even with 10 or more cars on the track, and there are plenty of nice graphical touches, particularly in terms of the environment--it's a small point, but Shift has some of the best-looking trees we've seen in a racing game. It's too bad that these realistically rendered tracks and environments are too often marred by unrealistic dynamic ad billboards, which litter so many of the tracks in the game. Yes, a certain amount of advertising is expected at real-world circuits like Laguna Seca, Donington, and Silverstone, but placing a glut of billboards in some of the more remote sections of the 13-mile Nurburgring, on the other hand, strikes us as egregious overkill.

Will Need for Speed: Shift be a success? That will depend on how the Need for Speed faithful take to the game's new approach. No doubt the game has some high-profile competition in the console racing space this fall, so it will be interesting to see how the Shift experiment turns out when the game is released on September 15.

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