I've long held the opinion that it was just a matter of time before console-based racing games caught up with the sophistication of their PC-based brethren. Initially the console variants suffered from a lack of sufficient horsepower to deliver the real-world physics and high-end graphics available to cutting edge PC hardware, but that margin began narrowing quite dramatically with the release of the super-consoles like the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Yet even with those stellar capabilities now available to game developers, they seemed to find it difficult to break themselves away from the arcade style fare that they had been delivering for oh so long.
What do I mean by “arcade style?” Consider the Need for Speed series, if you will. The NFS games have been around for more than a decade and have a long history of innovation and evolution that they can be justifiably proud of, but no matter how detailed the graphics got or how many cars were available for the virtual driver, they always maintained at least some degree of fantasy elements. In early versions, it was traffic cops that would pull you over with extreme prejudice. In other words, they'd knock you off the road if they could. Races were, for the most part, point-to-point on open roads rather than formal racing events on sanctioned race tracks. This style of play was even carried into what until recently was arguably the most realistic of the NFS games, Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed.
The most recent development in the Need for Speed series, Need for Speed: SHIFT, makes a radical departure from the norm. With the development of SHIFT, the contribution of designers and developers that earned their chops developing hyper-realistic and extremely popular PC titles like GT Legends and GTR 2 becomes readily apparent. SHIFT concentrates on providing the player with a realistic style of game play, offering the opportunity to pursue a career in officially sanctioned races on both real-world and fictional tracks. While there may be a few fictional race circuits, the cars themselves are all highly detailed models of cars that are available in showrooms across the world.
Beyond the eye candy of gorgeously rendered cars and tracks, the developers have attempted to create a more immersive and believable driving experience by also raising the bar in the areas of car/driving physics as well as the 3D physics that apply to the driver as sometimes violent forces are applied to their body. As an example, consider what happens to the driver when a car slams against either another car, an immovable object, or both. The G forces in these types of racing incidents can be quite extreme, and at a minimum can cause the driver's head to move around quite a bit. SHIFT models this head movement by shifting the players view from inside the car, but that's just the beginning. SHIFT also models the driver's reaction to extreme hits by blurring the player's vision and, if the hit is hard enough, even graying out the driver's vision to a faded black and white. You know it's a pretty hard hit when the cones of your retinas fall off!
In these aspects, it's fair to say that SHIFT for the Xbox 360 has met, and in some aspects exceeded, the standard set by PC racing games. That having been said, there are still some remaining issues that for better or worse demonstrate the console roots of Need for Speed. The first issue is, of course, the controller. While steering wheel controllers are now available for the Xbox, the large majority of players will be using the standard controllers. Note that this situation is by no means unique to consoles; anyone wanting to play a good racing game on the PC also will find a good wheel controller to be a fundamental necessity. In the interest of fairness to those that will be playing SHIFT with the standard controller, the perceptions shared in this review are completely based on experience playing with a controller, not a steering wheel.
The issue with controllers is mostly the short throw of the analog sticks. Because the range of motion is so tight, it is difficult to precisely control the steering. With enough practice a player can get good enough to race pretty well, but newer players will find that they tend to skid a lot, and when trying to catch a skid with opposite stick, get into a driver induced oscillation pattern. In other words, over controlling often leads to zig zagging down the track. SHIFT tries to alleviate that type of situation by providing the player with a highly tunable set of controller settings. The player can adjust the percentage of dead zone in the steering, for example, as well as the percent of control desensitization applied as the car is moving faster. The latter setting is what helps keep the player from driving off of the track on long straightaways. I found that the default settings worked pretty well for me, but that I tended to make turns by applying gentle nudges through a turn rather than try to hold a constant stick deflection. This often caused the car to skid through the turns, much like the cars in drift racing do.
SHIFT also exhibits its console game heritage by making the player unlock (or more charitably, earn) cars before being allowed to drive them. This more than anything else is what defines SHIFT as a game, rather than as a simulator. It's a bit of a bother, really. Slogging through race after race in cars you could go buy at a local dealership before being granted permission to race the more powerful and exotic models is somewhat of an irritation. You bought the game, after all. EA has your money; why won't they let you use the cool cars??
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