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Leaving behind a chequered past

Need for Speed 1

Games publisher Electronic Arts (EA) has brought Need for Speed games out at the rate of one a year since 1997, with the result that franchise fatigue has set in. Following lukewarm reviews for the last three Need for Speed games, EA called in Slightly Mad Studios to reinvent the series.

The end result is Need for Speed: Shift, which marks a massive departure from the franchise’s arcade-like underground street-racing in favour of a more realistic track-driving experience. Slightly Mad, which helped to develop the highly regarded PC driving simulations GT Legends and GTR 2, has created a game that offers depth to those looking for it and accessibility to more casual players.

The single-player career mode is the heart of the game. It’s fairly standard in its structure — you simply earn points by winning races to advance to tougher racing events and to build up cash to buy faster and better cars. But like Race Driver: Grid and the Project Gotham Racing games, Shift manages to blend an air of realism with an arcade racer’s sense of fun.

The realistic physics and presentation never stand in the way of a casual player’s enjoyment of the game. Petrol heads can get a challenge by setting up full damage modelling, competing against more ruthless AI drivers, and tinkering under the hoods of their cars to fine-tune performance.

One enjoyable aspect of the game is the way it caters for a range of driving styles rather than penalising all but the most conservative and careful players. Precise drivers that focus on holding a smooth line throughout the track, avoiding collisions and overtaking cleanly are rewarded for their skill. If you’re an aggressive virtual driver, you’ll be rewarded for powersliding around corners and shunting opposition drivers out your way as you overtake.

Events include races against a field of drivers either in a field of identical cars or in a mixed field with a car of your choice, toe-to-toe races with one other driver, elimination races, drifting events, and time trials.

Need for Speed 2

Online multiplayer mode, though fun in small doses, is barebones with only a couple of game variants to choose from and community features that are primitive compared to the latest Forza and Project Gotham games.

Though a boon when playing single-player, the way that the game rewards aggressive play can be frustrating when you’re playing against human opponents. Many of them simply play dirty by shoving your car off the road rather than focusing on precise driving to win.

Shift isn’t as ambitious in the amount of content and depth of customisation it offers as some of its competitors. The game offers around 70 classic and modern sports cars to choose from, among them models from Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Porsche. Ferrari is one brand that is notable by its absence.

By way of comparison, Xbox 360 exclusive, Forza 3, will offer about 400 cars in its garage when it launches in late October, the recently launched PlayStation Portable version of Gran Turismo offers more than 800, and the upcoming PlayStation 3 flagship, Gran Turismo 5 will boast 1 000 or so.

The cars in Shift can all be tweaked by buying upgrades and tuning settings — and a useful help feature tells you what effect your adjustments will actually have on your car.

There’s a generous selection of real-world tracks like Nordschleife, Willow Springs and Laguna Seca as well as imaginary courses through locations such as London and Tokyo.

The carefully modelled driving physics, the roar of the car engines and the squealing brakes, the lovingly detailed cars, and the sensation of speed as you watch your vehicle eat up the track from the exquisite cockpit view all reflect the amount of attention that went into the creation of this game.

Despite the lacklustre multiplayer mode, the relatively small spread of cars, and a few quibbles over how some of the faster cars handle, Need for Speed: Shift is well worth a look for racing enthusiasts biding time until the release of Forza 3 or Gran Tursimo 5.  — Lance Harris, TechCentral

  • Reviewed on Xbox 360. Also available on PC, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3

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