Shaft your opposition
I halfway feel bad for underground illegal street racers, for their culture has stagnated in the eyes of the world. After a couple dozen Fast and Furious movies, a couple dozen more bad spinoffs (who remembers “Torque”?) and far too many wave-riding video games with matching trip-hop soundtracks and badly-voiced characters whom wouldn’t know machismo if it bit them in the nuts, (and Nick Hogan’s little jaunt) people are bored with street racing culture. All that money racers spent on chrome-plated rims and neon-lit bottoms now serves no purpose in society but to drive up the insurance costs. I’d almost feel sorry for the racers if they weren’t so damned able to afford $300,000 rides.
Accordingly so, EA has finally…FINALLY ditched the whole underground racing business and “shifted” their franchise into realistic, respectable and legal territory with Need for Speed: Shift. Took ‘em long enough.
Now, I kind of enjoyed this game. The reason being is that it makes something that once inspired nothing but sheer apathy out of me and provoked a sense of…non-apathy. That something being simulation racers. Games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport build themselves as being more realistic than reality, with hundreds of real cars that drive realistically in races against similar cars that were never designed for any racing challenge more intense than the “find a parking spot at Wal-Mart” competition. Moreso, to drive these boringmobiles, you have to learn how to turn properly, how to break properly, how to handbrake properly, how to properly adjust the AC for maximum aerodynamic performance, and so on. And to do what? To slowly pace around a boring real-life track while listening to the in-game soundtrack of “Papa Roach” and “more Papa Roach”?
Shift acknowledges that some people are just not interested in tuning the tightness of their shocks or the wind-resistance of their windshield wipers. Shift also acknowledges that some people just simply do not want to sit through hours of tutorials and harsh-rating “driving schools” in the name of becoming that kind of racing aficionado that hangs posters of Porshe after Porshe after Porshe in their room, knowing full well that they will never actually afford a Porshe. A trial race at the game’s start allows players to course through a track at their leisure, and the game uses that to judge their aptitude. From there, the game suggests a difficulty (Easy for me), a transmission (Automatic), the level of control the player can have over the car’s advanced settings (none) and whether or not to automate some of the breaking (very much so, yes.) So right away, without ever giving me a tutorial on how to press a gas pedal, the game gives me the degree of control that I’d prefer to have in a racing game.
The Career Mode is in a bit of a quandary. There is no actual story, just you, a British male cheerleader for a coach, and a series of competitions. According to this charming lad, the dream of every aspiring wealthy racer is to compete in the NFS World Championships (blatant shoehorning of the Need for Speed name eh) and reaching that prestigious tournament involves working through four tiers’ worth of competitions. Such challenges that face the player include races, series’ of races, time trials where all competitors record their times at the same time and thus may as well be races, races where everyone uses the same car, competitions between two different car companies, competitions between the car manufacturers of different continents and…well you quickly realize some of these competitions could only intrigue the kind of car geek that wants to see a dream match between the RS4 and the M3 E92 (don’t know what the heck either of them are. They may as well be Star Wars robots in my mind.)
So the races you compete in will net you stars needed to move up in tiers, and money needed to either upgrade or purchase new cars. You’ll want to be stingy though, as the cost to either get a new car in a different tier or upgrade a current car to the next level is quite a bit. OR, you can purchase the fake digital cars in the game using your real money.
Yes, you can buy content that is already on the disc with real dollars out of your real pocket. Here’s an analogy to describe my feelings on the matter; say you just bought a pack of Upper Deck trading cards with a month’s allowance earned from cleaning the floors around the house. However, your bully of an older brother snatches the rookie Derek Jeter card and won’t give it back unless you give him another month’s worth of allowance or grind up a thousand push-ups. That is the kind of crock paying for in-game cars is.
The gameplay in Need for Speed is…no, wait, I feel so passionate about this money issue that I have to make another analogy, one that may hit closer to home to today’s youth. You’re six years old and your parents have just caved in to your nagging and bought you your first IPhone. However, your older brother puts a lock on the phone that keeps you from posting emo song lyrics on Twitter using your phone, and won’t unlock it until you either grind up a thousand push-ups or actually earn money for the first time in your life and pay him 50 cents. That is what paying for in-game cars is like. I know it’s only an option, but it’s an option designed to make earning your new cars and upgrades seem like a fool’s method, and that the option is merely present made me more eager to trade this game in out of spite.
Now, I did say that I halfway enjoyed Need for Speed: Shift, and the reason why is the first person driving. The default view of the game is set in the cockpit, already an advantage when you consider how most of the cars are expensive, half-million dollar beasts with stylized HUDs and the occasional hologram odometer. The right analog stick is used merely to look around and further gawk at the pricey automobile you’ll never own. Furthermore, EA has done their usual deceptive tricks of throwing all kinds of blurs, filters, camera shaking and other trick effects to make you feel like you’re playing through the eyes of a human driver. Or at least a human driving bobblehead. When you drive fast, you feel like the world is moving too fast and you’re about to die. When you gently bump into another driver, the world shakes and loses focus in an attempt to recreate the probably head trauma of driving. And when you crash head first into a wall, oh ho ho the fun that ensures! I don’t know if real competitive driving looks like this, but it sure seems like more fun this way.
And sure, you could switch to the third-person view. You might get a better view of the track or the wisecrack trying to spin you out from behind if you did. But why would you want to? This way is just too dang fun.
This is a rare game where I actually enjoyed being run off the track by my competitors, if just because it looked so fun to be flung off course. Inversely, realism be damned; I loved it when I rear-ended another car and they were actually chucked ABOVE my car and thrown off to the other side, all spun out and baffled as to what laws of physics were just abused. Another point of praise is that the AI competitors feel like human beings and not automatons moving along a pre-destined path (you know, that green line you’re also trying to follow.) They’ll sometimes try to run you off, run each other off, sometimes they even screw up and fly off course from some kind of mistake they made on their own.
It bears mentioning that you can earn those precious stars not just by winning races but through a Project Gotham Racing-like points system that promotes…seemingly everything. You get points for driving along the green suggestion line. you get points for making corners properly. You get points for passing opponents by smashing through them with force. You get points for passing opponents without smashing through them. You get points for rear-ending opponents. You get points for being rear-ended. You get points for being special. All of this point-earning also goes towards a – godammit – ranking system. You have an in-game account that needs leveling up, and doing so offers random new awards such as money and new decals. And there are in-game trophies for achievements like executing a certain number of enemy spin-outs, and is that not the most pointless feature a game can have? An Achievement system separate from the Achievement system associated with the Xbox or PS3? I know these are to reward the player for continuous play and not trading the game in, but it’s having the reverse effect on me.
Separate note: Don’t bother buying a “Drift car” to compete in “Drift Events”. These events, which award points not for the speed of your drive but the length of your drift, are considerably annoying. Drift cars have a tendency to spin out of control after running over a pebble on the road. And you’re being asked to drift large turns with these things? These Drift cars would not survive Super Mario Kart.
Back to the achievements, I get the sense that the developers intended their in-game ranking system to be some kind of crutch to motivate player through their unchanging career mode. While the game has just enough different tracks to keep the game from getting repetitive, the only true difference between tiers is that the cars get faster and more pricey-looking. When you finally reach the vaunted “NFS World Championships”, the same championships that Brit Man spends the entire game hyping up like they’re the freaking Mecca of car racing posers, you soon find yourself disappointed to see that you’re merely competing on the exact same race tracks against the same-named opponents. And once you place first in that final race, the Brit Dude congratulates you, tells you to keep racing to improve your rank and rolls the credits. That is your reward for all the hard work earning your way to the top, and investing over a million dollars in the process. Bite me, Shift, bite me.
The game’s online mode loses points immediately for asking me to register my e-mail address to Electronic Arts. People already have a PS3 or Xbox account, the latter of which is being paid for, so why must you make people enter in yet another separate account just to play your measly game? The online play itself runs smoothly with a small variety of race types and opponents that have all been battled-trained from the star system in career mode to do everything in their power to run you off course. Finally, and I consider this to be the deal-breaker, Need for Speed: Shift has no offline multiplayer. Big problem! Multiplayer is the crutch of which racing games have leaned their broken appendages on for decades. We should not be making an effort to phase them out, especially when the racing in this game is so fun to begin with.
I liked Shift more than similar sims like Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing, and on the surface that may come across as immaculately high praise. However, the game falters at key points and, in trying to earn a permanent position in one’s game collection, ultimately out-stays its welcome and makes one eager to return the game. In that regard, Shift makes a strong rental, and I would have said “strong purchase” had it come with the split-screen multiplayer. But alas, just like the Need for Speed franchise has been for over a decade, Shift is a follower of trends, and in obliging with every major gaming trend in 2009, winds up feeling more like a tired relic than a hip racing game.
3 ½ stars