Need for Speed Shift Review: Switching Gears

Need for Speed Shift is about an apt a title as you'll find, referring not only to, obviously, its auto-racing genre, but also to EA's efforts to take the series in a new direction – namely, toward more serious simulation-style fare and away from the cops-and-robbers, anything-goes attitude of the game's predecessors.

NFS Shift is the first of three NFS-branded games coming out this year – NFS Nitro for the Wii and NFS World Online for PCs are the other two – and marks EA's attempt to jump-start the series, which has suffered from disappointing sales. Convoluted plot lines have been replaced with one goal: to be the world champion of drivers. Players start off in Tier 1 and must earn stars – acquired by finishing in the top three or meeting certain other criteria in each race – to graduate to Tiers 2, 3, 4 and, eventually, the NFS Live World Tour. Event types include basic circuit races; driver duels, where you must beat a rival racer in a best-of-three event; time attack, where the fastest lap takes home the top prize; and drift, where your mettle is measured by how fast and controlled you can slide around curves.

So is it worth a shot, or should you save your cash for the next Forza or Gran Turismo instead?

Loved
Track selection: The game has a variety of authentic tracks, and, despite racing each of them for what seemed like dozens of times, they didn't bore me. I also appreciated the inclusion of the colored racing lines found in the Forza series (a green line signals you're OK; yellow means slow down; red is for when you're about to fly off the track). Yes, that likely will piss off racing purists, but I felt the addition made the game more accessible, and players always have the option of turning the racing lines off.

Cash money: With more than 65 cars available in NFS Shift, it's nice that the game is fairly liberal when doling out the prize money. Of course, once you buy the car, there are all sorts of upgrades for purchase – and once you get all those, certain models will let you perform a "works conversion," for maximum performance. Still, by the time I reached the last tier, I had nearly $2 million in cash, way more than I needed.

Extras: EA boasts of a driver POV that takes players "inside the helmet," and while the description may be a bit overdramatic, the view does give a fleeting impression of being in the driver's seat (because, you know, I've been in a Lamborghini Reventon so many times, I practically have the dashboard memorized). Other touches include a gasp from the driver before a nasty crash and momentary blurred vision afterward, plus the option of adding nitro to your ride, for those who crave a taste of street-racing flavor.

Hated
Drifting: I tried, OK? Oh, how I tried. I tapped the parking brake, turned into the corner, then turned the opposite way when my car started sliding, all while "feathering" the gas pedal, and I still sucked at it. Sure, I was probably doing it all wrong. The point is, aside from some "tips" EA throws up on the screen during loading screens, there's no instructions on how to drift – you're just supposed to keep doing it, over and over, until you get it. Sometimes I'd luck out and earn enough points to qualify for stars. But most times I would weep silently and shake my fist at yet another last-place finish. Thankfully, you can earn enough stars in other events that you don't have to compete in drift races in order to finish the game.

The driver's seat: Yes, I know I praised this same feature in the above section. Truth is, I like how it looked, but I hated how it felt. It's nice that you can see the dashboard, the steering wheel, the driver's hands move as he steers and shifts, but it all obscures what I really want to see: the damn road. I suppose that, for those who want an extra challenge, the driver point of view may provide it, but I'll stick with the third-person view, thanks.

Back of the line, pal: It seemed that, without fail, in any race that required a standing start, I would begin toward the back of the pack. Even in series events, when I was the overall leader after the first or second race, I would still start toward the back. What gives? In early-tier races, it's not a big deal, but in later stages – particularly the World Tour, which has two series events – it's a huge advantage to start near the front.

Ties: I was cheated out of a first-place finish when, even though I tied for the best time, I was given second place and the corresponding rewards. This happened more than once. No idea why.

If EA's goal was to gives the series a facelift, it accomplished it. If the goal was to put the series back on the road to video-game glory – well, uh … hmm. Like a lot of the company's games, I enjoyed NFS Shift while I was playing it, but I didn't miss it when I wasn't. There's enough variety of cars and tracks to hold your interest, and the online portion is definitely more satisfying once you've completed most or all of the single-player mode. But after about a week of playing the game, I'm not anxious for more.

The bottom line is that, for those who enjoy racing sims just for the racing, NFS Shift is probably a good fit, but the hard-core fans will likely be disappointed.

Need for Speed Shift was developed by Slightly Mad Studios and published by Electronic Arts, released in North America on Sept. 15 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PSP, Windows PC, and iPhone. Retails for $59.99 USD on Xbox 360, and PS3, $49.99 on PC, $39.99 on PSP. Reviewed on Xbox 360. Completed single-player mode; raced numerous times online.

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