Another aspect of the console game style carried into SHIFT is what I call short attention span racing. As you start your career, you have to place well in various races to earn the points needed to advance to the next level and the dollars needed to unlock new cars. There is no qualifying in these races; it seems that you always start near the back of the field. That, combined with the fact that the races are often only a few laps long, means that you have to work your way through the pack quickly. That in turn means that you probably aren't going to work your way to the front cleanly.
To be blunt, the short races with high stakes essentially forces the player to drive like Kyle Busch. Interestingly, this fact is recognized in SHIFT with Driver Profiles. These profiles track your style as a driver as either aggressive or precise. As an aggressive driver, you earn points for blocking, spinning, or knocking other cars off the track. As a precise driver, you earn points for clean passes, staying on the racing line, and mastering turns on the tracks. You can, of course, score points in both driving styles concurrently. The profile that fits your driving style best will be used to determine the nature of invitational races you will be offered the opportunity to race in. Precision drivers will be invited to time challenge style races, while aggressive drivers will find themselves being invited to survival-of-the-meanest types of races.
You can more or less skip the short attention span racing mode simply by selecting Quick Race instead of Career at the start menu. This will allow you to tailor a race to your own desires, whether it be one-on-one with a single opponent or a 15 car field. You are still limited to driving only the cars that you have unlocked in the Career mode, but the races still have purse money available to build your funds. You can elect to drive anywhere from one lap to twenty, and you can select the track of your choice. Tracks include world famous European and domestic venues such as Spa Francorchamps in Belgium, Silverstone and Brands Hatch in England, and Laguna Seca and Elkhart Lake in the US. There are also much smaller tracks available in case you want to unleash your inner Kyle Busch. A twenty lap race with fifteen opponents at the figure eight, one-third mile Hazyview track is perfect for that.
The tracks themselves are realistically modeled, although it was surprising to see that the track at Spa still had the old style bus stop chicane rather than the modified chicane in use now. For the most part, though, the tracks will look just like the in-car view you've seen on TV. Well, albeit with some embellishments here and there; I don't remember ever seeing a carnival ride just past the Stavelot turn. But even with that, all of the turns are where you expect them to be and you will be able to drive some of the more famous tracks quite well after just a lap or two.
Even tracks that are unfamiliar to you will be reasonably easy for you to race on because of the dynamic multi-color racing line overlaid on the track. Not surprisingly, when the line is green you are at a safe speed, yellow means it might be time to consider slowing down a bit, and red means get on the brakes right NOW! The racing line can be disabled once you're familiar enough with the layout of the track that you no longer need it. The combination of the racing line and the user configurable difficulty settings goes a long way towards making SHIFT accessible even to casual players, an important trait in the console world.
The ability for both casual and hard-core racers to find something to love in SHIFT is a very good thing simply because it will allow just about everyone to experience the amazing virtual driving experience. The in-car views are fantastic, and visual tricks like blurring the dashboard as the car reaches dangerously high speeds impart a true sense of edge-of-the-seat, white knuckled driving. The compelling visuals carry over into the actual racing as well. Even subtle details like giving the car ahead of you a little bump in a turn to move him to the outer edge of the track to enable a pass and driving through the cloud of dust raised as his wheels drop off the edge of the tarmac adds tremendous depth to the experience. Flying across a bump in the track and feeling the car get light underneath you, sometimes to the degree that you find yourself clenching your seat, gets the racing adrenalin pumping every time.
And it's not just the visuals, either. The sounds are equally well done. The roar of the engine and the whine of the transmission is so compelling that I got myself into a little domestic trouble by cranking them up too high on a lazy Sunday morning when the rest of the family was still sleeping in. I also appreciated that I didn't have to endure a lot of loud background music while driving; my first stop in just about every new game I play is to find the audio menu and turn off the music. I want to hear the engine, I need to hear the tires squealing, and the whine of the transmission is every bit as effective as a speedometer in helping me gauge my speed.
With Need for Speed SHIFT, EA has made a profound, well... shift
in the direction of the series. Although they will continue to develop and release Arcade style titles under the Need for Speed banner, SHIFT signals a new branch into far deeper and more realistic driving simulations. SHIFT is a fantastic entry in the Need for Speed line up and hopefully only a precursor to ever more sophisticated simulations.
EA has turned a corner with their development of Need for Speed SHIFT. While it retains some elements of the traditional console game style, it also raises the bar for realism in a console-based racer. Budget for a steering wheel, though, to get fully benefit from the vastly better physics modeling.
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