"Shift" is a pretty good name for the latest game in the Need for Speed franchise. After years of floundering around in a post- Most Wanted malaise, Need for Speed: Shift strikes out in an entirely different direction, shifting the game's target audience from the everyman who just wants to nail down the accelerator and hope for the best to something that... actually requires you to use the brakes and attempt to drive the car in a realistic fashion. Instead of of fitting in with games like Burnout or Ridge Racer, Shift is an attempt to move into simulation territory, placing the game a little closer to games like Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, or Project Gotham Racing. PGR is probably the most direct point of comparison for Shift, as this latest NFS release attempts to straddle the line between authenticity and accessibility. While it pulls that aspect off fairly well, other parts of Need for Speed: Shift don't stack up. So you're left with a game that feels like it can't make up its mind about what it wants to be, and it doesn't do any one thing especially well.
The first thing you'll do when you turn on Need for Speed: Shift is quickly race a short track. During this, the game gauges your performance and decides which level of difficulty and assistance you'll probably require to enjoy the game. After that race, it'll recommend an AI difficulty setting (easy, medium, or hard) and a handling model (casual, normal, experienced, or pro). From there, you can tweak the settings to your liking. The handling model setting governs the level of automated assistance you'll receive from the game. There are assists for steering and braking, as well as more real-world things like anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control. You can also decide if you want damage to impact your car's performance and, of course, you can switch to manual transmission. With everything turned on and set as casually as it gets, the game practically plays itself. The auto-brake slows you down for corners in a pretty conservative way, and all you really need to do is point the nose of your car at the game's dynamic driving line to stay on course. With everything turned off, obviously, the game gets more serious, but even when it's set as seriously as it can get, NFS doesn't quite feel like it matches up too favorably with the heavyweights of the console racing simulation world.
A big part of that is due to the way the game's rewards are structured. Early on, the game makes a big deal about your driving style and presents it as precision versus aggression. On the track, this means that certain things you do will earn you precision points, while others earn aggression. Both of these end up fueling your driving level, which gives you additional cash and other bonuses as you level up. But the differences are minor. If you bump a guy while you're passing him, you get points for a "dirty overtake." If you don't bump him, you get points for a "clean overtake." The real issue is that even if you stomp around the track with no regard for your opponents and pass with as much brute force as possible, it becomes incredibly difficult to earn aggression points once you're at the front of the pack. But precision points are easier to stack, since you get those for things like sticking to the driving line and taking corners skillfully. Even in races where I spun out most of the competition on my way to the front of the pack, I'd usually end up with two or three times as many precision points by the end of a race. Plus, by rewarding players for colliding with other cars, the game doesn't really encourage you to drive with much skill.
There are also a few cases where the physics just feel off. Take, for example, my fully upgraded Nissan GT-R. For the last segment of the game, you'll be able to race in cars like this one, and with the way I can drive it, it feels like I've smuggled a very fast forklift onto the track. Whenever I rear end another vehicle in the upgraded GT-R, it pops up into the air, letting me drive right underneath it. Obviously, this has a more negative impact when damage is enabled, but it's completely ridiculous and makes the last tier of races easier than they probably should be.
The game is structured into tiers that are filled with different events, like standard races, lap time challenges, drift events, and so on. Each event lets you earn stars based on your performance, and you need more stars to unlock the higher tiers. Each of the four tiers has its own set of cars, though you can buy upgrades to keep lower-tiered cars competitive in the later races. Once you've earned 280 stars, you can take on the final set of races, the NFS Live World Tour. There isn't much to tie the different races together. Unlike previous NFS games, there's no storyline here to keep things moving, and the closest thing you get to a "character" is the British guy who comes over an in-car radio to tell you that a race is about to start before half-heartedly shouting "have fun" as you drive off. The constant reminders to have fun just made me realize that, no, I wasn't really having much fun as I moved from one race track to the next.
So what's missing from Need for Speed: Shift that holds it back? That's a tougher question to answer. On paper, it sounds fine. The game has plenty of cars and tracks. The graphics are solid, with great-looking car models. It has a cool online driver duel mode that lets you work your way up a ladder to earn online racing championships. The car upgrades, though not named with actual part manufacturers, come in stages to let you keep working on a low-level car, if thats your desire. Or you can save up for a supercar. You can tune the cars with either an easy set of sliders or an advanced mode that lets you get in and adjust wing angles and so on. It even has a decent cockpit view, if you're into that sort of thing. But Shift is lacking in that it doesn't really inspire any reverence for the subject matter. The cars don't feel real, and the racing doesn't feel serious. The fetishization of cars and road racing that powers other console racing simulators doesn't exist in Shift's world. The game is perfectly competent, but a lot of it feels hollow.
Looking at it from the other side doesn't paint a prettier picture. If you don't like simulator-styled racing games, and you happened to enjoy the last few Need for Speed games, there's no slider in Shift that makes it feel like those games. At best, you can make it an easy game, but gliding through all of the races without challenging yourself doesn't make the game any more enjoyable. The game feels like it's stuck between two worlds, and it doesn't execute well enough on either side to fully satisfy any type of racing fan. That said, if you're a fan of racing sims and you're looking for something to tide you over until the next big thing comes along, Shift certainly isn't a bad game. But you'd probably be better off with some older, more serious racing sims.