Need for Speed: Shift PC Review
The Need for Speed games started out on the PC, and after a grueling yearly cycle for the last five-plus years and sales starting to dwindle, EA decided it was time to change up one of their longest-running franchises. They've split everything up into three teams creating entirely distinct games under the NFS banner and decided that at least one of them should get away from the illegal street racing theme that's dominated arcade-style racing for almost the last decade. In EA's attempt return to what NFS started out as, they've hired PC developer Slightly Mad Studios to do Need for Speed: Shift on both PC and console platforms. I decided I'd try and review it on the PC since this is its original home.
With my trusty Logitech G25 fastened to my desk, I jumped into NFS Shift hoping for a return to the focus on racing that always had that edge of realism, but never pushed you off of it. Quickly I realized that while the developers spent a hell of a lot of time on the sense of speed, great audio, and solid visuals with plenty of real-world tracks, their work on the interface and controls was lacking. But the worst part is that it maintains a couple of bad habits of past games in the series, ones that should have been wiped clean when Slightly Mad was hired.
Shift starts you out on a test lap, and if you hadn't set your controls up exactly right, there's no way to change them without actually hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del, hitting End Task on shift.exe, and restarting the game. Same goes for the first actual race. This is not a huge deal once you have your controls set the way you want, but it is a symptom of how none of the game's interface or controls really work the way you expect. The pre-set for the G25 wheel isn't as good as setting it up yourself with similar custom controls, and the developers actually only just issued a patch to include LAN play as well as mouse support for the menus. Apparently, it hadn't occurred to the developers that getting those in before shipping the game might be a good idea.
I got through a few more races with the G25 steering wheel, hardly enjoying myself as I came to the realization that while Shift includes the illusion of being a serious racing game, it's still nowhere near the level of simulation seen in Forza, Gran Turismo 5, or a whole host of serious PC racing games - including ones Slightly Mad actually made. What's the point of using an expensive steering wheel and trying to play the game like a sim if it's going to reward me for bashing into my opponents, pit maneuvering them, and running them off the road? Sure, the selection of 60+ cars is nice and the ability to upgrade them and add custom paint jobs and decals are great features, but much of that seems kind of ruined by the destructive attitude the developers couldn't resist leaving in after the last several years' worth of games. And the drift events really annoyed me, as I still don't consider them anything like racing. That's the other element that Slightly Mad probably shouldn't have brought back.
With controls being such an issue for me and causing such a disconnect between what this game purported to be and what it actually was, I decided it was time for a change. It was when I set up an Xbox 360 controller, turned off the realism settings, and just played Shift a little more like Burnout that I actually started to have fun. That's when you realize that this fills a gap somewhere between pure arcade racer and pure sim where you're not running from the cops, not finishing a story, and not hearing rap-metal while you're behind the wheel. You're just racing, and while realism fanatics will want to have nothing to do with Shift, it does find a specific niche and does alright.
If you're the type of gamer who has to use a racing wheel to enjoy a game like this, I can say with some certainty that Need for Speed: Shift is not for you. And if you just want to bash into cars and force them to crash, well, I'm sure you've got Burnout Paradise sitting on your shelf; load that up instead. All the smooth visuals, great cockpit views, amazing sound, fantastic senses of speed, and interesting tracks can't stop Shift from being an arcade racer at heart. I know I'm trivializing the game's many features, multiplayer action, and high-end cars and races, some of which did wind up being pretty exciting, but none of that works if you can't get what you're looking for from the very first race.
Need for Speed: Shift fills an interesting niche for a gamer looking for a light-hearted action racer masquerading as something serious. It fits right in between Forza and Burnout, and it's got visuals that, for the most part, are just as good. But there's a fundamental disconnect between the sensations Slightly Mad has created in the game and the kind of driving you need to do to win. You almost need a racing wheel to truly enjoy the feel of each car, but it seems like a waste when you realize that in the world of Need for Speed, bumping most definitely is racing. If you can use your imagination instead of a steering wheel controller to feel what it's like being in a car and can enjoy this arcade racer for what it is, that'll go a long way towards keeping a smile on your face while playing Shift.