We got our hands on EA's upcoming Need For Speed: Shift this week, and after spending the last few days playing through the game I'm confident in saying that EA has succeeded in bringing yet another amazing racing game to the platform. With in-game options to tune the difficulty to the point that your car is almost driving itself, Shift is not only an extremely accessible racing game, but also can be a very technical driving experience for veterans of the genre with all of the assists turned off and the manual transmission mode enabled.
Believe it or not, Need For Speed: Shift is the thirteenth in the Need For Speed series which originally debuted all the way back in 1994 with Road & Track magazine heavily advising on both the sound design and vehicle physics. Since then, the Need For Speed saga has been through many iterations covering everything from super cars to underground street racing to police chases.
With recent Need For Speed games taking sharp turns towards the arcade racing genre (Such as Need For Speed: Undercover [App Store] for the iPhone.) it's nice to see EA getting back on course with what feels much more like an actual racing simulation in Shift.
The 20 included real licensed cars can have both their visuals and performance upgraded. In the visuals department you can add a body kit, change paint colors, buy ridiculously huge spoilers, and change out your wheels. If you care more about your car actually going faster than looking cool, you can upgrade its top speed, acceleration, nitrous oxide system, as well as tires and suspension. Each of these upgrades come in multiple stages and once you've hit a car's limit to remain competitive in races you will need to buy new cars.
Cars in game must be bought with winnings from races, and available cars are slowly unlocked as you progress through the game. Initially, Chicago is the only locale you have access to, but both London and Tokyo are eventually unlocked granting access to all 18 different courses included in the game. In each locale you can participate in seven different types of events which range from standard races to drifting competitions, time trials, and the driver duel which pits you against a single AI opponent.
Each event has an associated set of stars that can be earned while racing to unlock additional events. You will always earn stars for being in the top three, with additional available stars for doing things like being in first place for an entire lap, never going off the track, and beating the track's lap record. These stars go hand in hand with the in-game score system which tallies points for both "precision" and "aggression" based on different actions.
Doing things like following a perfect racing line or taking a corner well will earn precision points, while actions like riding an opponent's tail or bumping them out of the way earns aggression points. At the end of each race, these points are totaled on your persistent driver profile that the game is constantly building along with a custom racing emblem which gets an additional component added to it as you level up.
While overall the whole aggression/precision system doesn't have much impact on anything in the game, it's still fairly cool that two people will likely never have the game build the same emblem based on their career. Currently I've been towards the precise side of the spectrum, and my emblem is a target with a pair of crossed spark plugs. If my racing style focused more on bumping in to people, my emblem would consist of things like crossed axes and other more aggression-oriented objects.
Aside from your driving style, "badges" also can be earned which act as Shift's achievement system. Badges come in multiple ranks, and are upgraded over time based on your performance. For instance, the Iron Man bronze badge is earned by placing first in three consecutive events, and can be upgraded to silver by placing first in five consecutive events.
Need For Speed: Shift features several different control options which should satisfy the needs of most racing fans, unless you prefer virtual joysticks to tilting to steer-- an option that is notably absent. In rookie mode, the game practically plays itself. Your car accelerates automatically, brakes automatically, and there is a racing line made of arrows on the track for your car to follow. In rookie mode, it also feels like it's difficult to not follow this racing line, almost like your car falls in to some kind of groove that is difficult to steer out of if you want to overtake an opponent.
The next control option is the professional mode, which turns off all the assist options and actually allows you to drive your car around where you want. Unless you are just really bad at racing games, I'd recommend just immediately turning on the professional mode before you even start your first race. The next step up is expert mode, which takes professional mode and adds a manual transmission and there's also a custom mode where you can enable/disable each control feature as you see fit.
Swiping up or swiping down on screen shifts the gears of your manual transmission, and while I'm sure there are people out there who will be in love with this game because of this functionality, I've never been one for changing gears in racing games. Regardless of which control mode you choose, acceleration is handled automatically and touching the screen applies the brakes. If you've upgraded your car to have a nitrous oxide system, tapping a button in the bottom right corner engages and disengages the nitrous. There's also a button on the top of the screen for changing the view from cockpit, hood, first person, and third person views.
With so few truly high quality 3D racing games on the App Store, comparisons are inevitable, and we've already had some heated debates on our forums regarding Need For Speed: Shift versus Real Racing [App Store]. In my opinion, both games are worth owning. Shift edges ahead of Real Racing due to the inclusion of real licensed cars instead of generic sports cars and Volkswagens as well as having a better career mode.
But, on the other hand, Real Racing seems to have better, more realistic, and much more aggressive AI opponents. Shift seems to fall victim to the same problem as many other racing games on the platform with opponents that just seem to want to follow their own little racing line and generally just ignore you entirely. Also, while I can't completely confirm the existence of irritating rubberband AI in Shift, I been in a few races where I've pulled very far ahead of my opponents only to see them zooming up behind me on the mini map from out of nowhere. I suppose it's always possible they decided to dump their nitrous tanks to catch up to me, but it does seem suspect.
Both games include local multiplayer, although I haven't been able to test this functionality in Shift. In the multiplayer mode, you're able to select both WiFi and bluetooth as connection options, as well as choose from many of the different tracks and included game modes. Online multiplayer would have been nice, although it's not unexpected to see EA preferring to stick with local multiplayer.
At the end of the day I think Need For Speed: Shift's greatest flaw is that it shares the same title and likely a lot of the same expectations of the XBOX 360 and PS3 console versions of the game. Having spent a great deal of time in the XBOX 360 game, what I was looking forward to most on the iPhone wasn't tons of cars or tracks, but only the insanely immersive sense of speed. On the 360, as you go faster and faster the edges of your screen slowly start to blur along with other visuals that make you feel like you're going very fast sitting on your couch-- Also, there are all kinds of great visual effects when you crash. Out of all this, the only thing that made it to the iPhone is a vaguely reminiscent red tinge to the screen when you hit something.
Regardless, Need For Speed: Shift is a remarkable iPhone racing game. With licensed cars, control options that should make most people happy, and a very cool yet mostly superfluous driver profile and performance tracking system, Shift is a must-have for fans of the genre. Looking to the future, and seeing how much EA has tweaked and refined the racing experience between Need For Speed: Undercover and Need For Speed: Shift, I doubt I'm alone in being very excited to see what's next in the Need For Speed series on the App Store.
Need For Speed: Shift is coming soon.