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Need For Speed: SHIFT [PS3]

EA’s decision to reboot the Need for Speed series earlier this year took many in the industry – including IncGamers – by surprise. Given the lukewarm reception to the last few NFS titles and the fact that Criterion seemed to be beating NFS at its own arcade-racing game with Burnout, we suspected the franchise would soon find itself in the scrapyard, like a battered Yugo. However, by aiming the series away from Fast and the Furious fans and roping in Slightly Mad Studios (which worked on the GT Legends and GTR games), EA has pulled off quite a coup. Need for Speed: Shift, it turns out, is a damn good racing game that positions itself somewhere between arcade thrills and obsessive realism.All too often in gaming, when a developer widens its net in an attempt to please everyone, the result somehow manages to please nobody.  All credit to EA and Slightly Mad then, that Shift is not only accessible enough for inexperienced drivers, it also sports enough depth to please hardcore racing fans. This is largely due to a beautifully crafted and, more importantly, scalable driving model. At the beginning of the game you’ll be asked to complete a lap to ascertain your skill level and the game will adjust your racing settings according to the result. With handling and braking assists on (like traction control) the game affords you quite bit of breathing space – you’ll be able to keep control of hairy situations that, in real life, would probably result in you planting the vehicle in a concrete wall.However, that’s not to say the game is easy with the assists on. You’ll still have to keep a close eye on your speed and racing line when cornering and you can’t just sit back and let the game do all the work for you.  Turn off the driving assists (or even just a few of them) though and you’ll find a whole new racing experience. Like in Forza and GT, the biggest hurdle will be getting to grips with acceleration and braking. You can’t simply put the pedal to the metal (that’s your first cliché warning – Ed) when coming out of a corner, nor can you slam on the brakes when approaching one, at least not if you intend to be facing in the right direction afterwards. The key to success – when racing with assists off – is smooth driving. If your transitions are too severe, you’ll find your car snaking about all over the track as you wrestle with the wheel to keep control. Which, as I’m sure you can guess, does not tend to make for stellar lap times.  However, once you grasp the basics of driving with assists off, you’ll find an involving and satisfying racing experience. It may not hit the same nerdy heights of realism as Forza and GT, but Shift possesses something equally important to a driving game – fun – and that’s largely due to the focus on the first person driving experience. See, Shift’s gimmick – if we can really call it that – is the in-car view. It’s hardly a new concept by any means, but what Slightly Mad has managed to do (with no doubt crucial input from DICE man and real-life racer Patrick Soderlund) is make you feel like you’re in the cockpit, with your hands wrapped tight around the wheel and your heart in your mouth (second warning – Ed). As your view is tied to the driver’s head movements, you’ll feel every bump in the road, the forces in every corner and, should you be unlucky enough to collide with another car (or wall), you’re going to feel that too. Through a combination of clever animations, visual effects and stunning sound design, the in-car experience is better than any other we’ve seen in a racing game to date. Perhaps the greatest achievement with regards to this view is the way that it captures the sense of speed. The camera wobble, the screaming engines and the smooth framerate combine perfectly to the point where you’ll start to feel a bit jittery when you hit the top speeds in the top cars. Reach a certain speed and the in-car dials will start to blur, focusing your eyes on the track ahead as you know that one small twitch (at least with assists off) could result in a brutal crash. And they do feel brutal. Even after sinking a great many hours into the game, I still find myself physically wincing (he means mincing – Ed) when I see a wall approaching my bonnet at high speed.{PAGE TITLE=Need For Speed: Shift Review Page 2}The clever balance between arcade fun and realism is reflected in the way the single player game is structured in Shift. While the game’s tier system is hardly original, what Shift does very well is reward the player for the way they drive. In every event you’ll be awarded stars for finishing on the podium and achieving a certain amount of points, but you’ll also have secondary objectives to tackle if you so wish. These range from reaching a target speed within a certain distance to corner sliding for a set time to spinning off a number of opposition drivers. These extra objectives are by no means compulsory – in fact you can ignore them entirely and comfortably advance through the game – but they do add a little more depth to the events. You will also gain points for your driving style, which is separated into two categories: aggression and precision.Precision driving involves completing clean sections, overtaking without contact and sticking to the racing line while you’ll gain aggression points for moves like drifting around corners and colliding with opponents. The game provides aggression/precision feedback throughout each race and this determines your overall driving style. While aggressive driving is undoubtedly fun, the quickest lap times always come from precision and before you know it you’ll become obsessed with the corner mastering mini-game in each event. Every time you round a corner during an event, you’ll see a yellow exclamation mark on the minimap, which means your cornering is being evaluated. Approach at the right speed, take the right line through the corner, accelerate out and you’ll master the corner. However, stray from the line, or kick your tail out (that’s it, I’m fining for every cliché from now on – Ed) just a little bit and you’ll fail. It becomes ridiculously engrossing just trying to master all the corners on a track and you’ll find yourself listening out for that success sound effect. And, of course, every corner mastered means more points, increasing your driver level which consequently unlocks more customisation options, events and upgrades. It’s an extremely rewarding progression system and while purists might balk at these arcade leanings, they help to make the single player game more than just a slog through track after track.Indeed, while some hardcore racer fans will likely wait for Forza 3 and GT5, to overlook Need For Speed Shift as a less authentic driving experience would be a mistake. Sure, the cars may not be as accurately modelled as they are in Forza – if anything the cars in Shift, in general, lean too much towards oversteer – the driving experience is equally as engaging. What not so long ago looked like a series in terminal decline, bogged down in street racing culture and shonky FMV storylines has now become a big player in the simulation racing market. Welcome back, Need for Speed. 

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