A look at Need For Speed: Shift – Part 3

In part 1 of this series, we looked at the progression aspects of Need For Speed: Shift. In part 2 we looked at the actual races. Today we’ll talk about controls and try to finish things up.

The truth is, Need For Speed: Shift did not make a good first impression on me. I started the game, jumped into career mode, started playing from my habitual behind and above the car view, and spun out all over the place for a few laps. Honestly if this had been a rental I would’ve returned it right there. Let me help you avoid this bad first experience.

First of all, play from the in-car view. It makes the game orders of magnitude more interesting (which is not to say easier, but more interesting). When you’re outside the car, the camera feels like it is bolted onto an invisible arm coming off the car. This makes everything feel stiff, and makes the car feel like it is pivoting around a central axis rather than turning.

The interior view doesn’t feel bolted on (whereas it does in most racing games). Your view will shift slightly as you drive. Slam on the breaks and the view will move forward a bit. Hit the accelerator and it moves back. It’s subtle, but it makes a lot of difference in the ‘feel’ of the game. When using the in-car view the game feels alive and real. From outside it feels like you’re steering a Matchbox car around the track.

Second, tweak the controls. The devs have done a great job of letting us adjust game controls to suit our needs. However the defaults felt awful to me; I was constantly over-steering.

To tweak the controls, hit Options from the Main Menu, then Gameplay, then Adjust Control down at the bottom. The options & their default settings are:

Steering Dead Zone: 29%
Accelerator Dead Zone: 10%
Break Dead Zone: 10%
Steering Sensitivity: 16%
Acceleration Sensitivity: 50%
Breaking Sensitivity: 50%
Speed Steering Sensitivity: 100%

Even after all the time I’ve been playing, I continue to tweak the controls, but the defaults had me way over-steering thanks to a too large dead zone and too sensitive steering. So I’d push the stick, nothing would happen, then too much would happen. Ditto acceleration: I was constantly over-accelerating coming out of corners and breaking the wheels free (btw I’m playing using a standard DualShock 3 controller).

My current setup is:

Steering Dead Zone: 12%
Accelerator Dead Zone: 10%
Break Dead Zone: 10%
Steering Sensitivity: 10%
Acceleration Sensitivity: 30%
Breaking Sensitivity: 50%
Speed Steering Sensitivity: 80%

This is another place where the in-car view helps. I’ve learned to watch the steering wheel rather than think about how far I’m pushing the stick.

Here’s a tip: there’s no “Practice Track” to learn the controls on. But you can fake it easily enough. Pick the Quick Race option, then set the number of opponents to zero and the number of laps as high as you like. Then you can practice driving with your tweaked controls without the outside influence of other racers bumping you off the track. Weirdly, you’ll even earn prize money for coming in first this way.

Third: learn to accept that this isn’t real life. The physics here are…otherworldly in some ways. Smash into another car and 9 times out of 10 you’ll wind up going *under* that car, with it flipping up and over your car. Also these cars handle worse at low speeds than real life cars do. You can spin out taking a banked turn at 40-50 MPH pretty easily: turns that you could probably take easily in whatever is sitting out in your driveway right now. You have to learn the rules of physics in this game if you’re going to get the most enjoyment out of it.

Pop-up cars:
Once you get the controls dialed in and get used to the physics, Need For Speed: Shift can be a very rewarding game.

Let’s wrap this series up with a look at some pros and cons. On the negative side, two things stand out. First, load times are long, even with a mandatory installation on the PS3 version. Ditto save times. The game saves after every race and you’ll spend too much time watching that Saving icon float in the middle of your screen.

Second, the replay system has one crucial flaw. There’s no good “TV view” (as I call it). No good camera setting that shows the race from a removed 3rd person view. You’ll want to watch the replay of some races to see what you did wrong, and theres no good way to do that consistently. There’s a cinematic camera that includes *some* good angles, but it also includes way, way too many “cool” shots of the front of your car from a foot in front of it, or a camera point of view right beside a tire, or something equally pointless. There’s also no way to connect the view to a car other than yours.

So please, for Need For Speed: Shift 2, cut loading and saving times, and give us a full-feature replay ability.

On the positive side. other than the basic fact that the game is fun and rewarding, there’s some neat extra features. You can take a screenshot from the replay feature and upload it directly to your NeedForSpeed.com page (the images in these articles are all taken via that feature). This is one thing the replay system does well (but a video clip would be even nicer!).

Second, this game has the best ‘death penalty’ (my MMO roots are showing) of any racing game I’ve played. When you crash badly, your vision dims or goes all blurry for a few seconds, making a second crash pretty damned likely if you’re still moving at speed. Plus even with damage turned to visual only, if you’re playing from inside the car, the windshield will crack, obscuring your view and making the rest of the race a real challenge. I love this ‘crash vision’ idea and hope other racing game devs borrow it.


And cracked windshield:

So should you buy Need For Speed: Shift? Hard to say. If you’re a PS3 owner, you don’t have a lot of options right now. Blur has been delayed to 2010, Gran Turismo 5 is still a ways off — if you’re hungry for a road racing game, NFS: Shift is probably a safe bet. For 360 owners, you’ve got Forza a few weeks away, so for you I think Shift is a much tougher sell. Forza is a bit more hard-core than Shift is, but you can tone that down by turning on various helper functions.

Again I should stress you shouldn’t take any of this as a definitive review: I haven’t ‘completed’ the game yet. I’m racing in Tier 3 (of 5) at driver level 20 (of 50) and have 135 or so races under my belt. I’m really enjoying myself, but the game could totally implode at Tier 5 and I wouldn’t know. But hopefully this series of posts will at least give you some idea of what you’re getting into if you consider purchasing Need For Speed:Shift.

Honest, I had nothing to do with this. I barely tapped him!

A look at Need For Speed: Shift – Part 2

In Part I of this look at Need For Speed: Shift, we took a look at the progression aspects of the game. Earning points and stars and money helps keep the player motivated to do better and/or retry races until they squeeze every drop of progress out of them.

Today I want to talk about the races themselves. Unlike most of the earlier Need For Speed games, Shift races all take place on closed courses. There’re no cops to chase you, no ‘civilian’ traffic to get in the way. The courses seem nicely varied, from basic Indy-style modified ovals to twisty narrow courses carved out of regular roads, Monaco-style. In all races, efficient cornering is the key to winning: this isn’t a game where you never touch your brakes.

The two main varieties of competitions are races and drifting. They’re almost like totally separate games. In fact, they’re so different that I’m more or less ignoring the Drifting while I work on my racing skills. Drifting feels ‘right’ to me (based on my mis-spent youth raising hell in cars), but that means it’s tricky; rather than hitting the emergency brake and steering while pouring on the gas, Drifting here is about much more subtle controls. At least that’s how it seems in my limited exposure to it (thus far).

Traditional races are broken down into several types. The basic race is you in one of your cars (which you’ve probably upgraded and tuned) against 9 other cars. That makes for crowded conditions on most of the tracks since they tend to be fairly narrow. Bumping and jostling is expected and inevitable (some courses reward a star for causing opponents to spin out). For this reason I suggest setting Damage to visual only, but I’ll talk more about options later.

In addition to the basic races, there are invitational events where you’re given a specific car to drive, as well as “Car Battle” races where you pick one of two offered cars and race against a single competitor in the car you didn’t choose. These battles are best 2 of 3 deals. First you start in the lead, then you star behind, and for a tie breaker you and your opponent start side-by-side. To win these Car Battles you have to pull 5 seconds ahead of your opponent or cross the finish line first.

Between the variety of race types, courses, and the general crowdedness of the tracks, Need For Speed: Shift hasn’t grown dull for me. I’m currently at 116 races and driver level 18 or 19.

Next time: Crashing, options and control.

A look at Need For Speed: Shift – Part 1

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Need For Speed: Shift all week, but I never find the time and stamina to write everything I have to say about it. So I’ve decided to break it up across several posts. Today I just want to give an overview of the game.

Need for Speed was born on the 3D0 system 15 years ago. It was one of the best racing games I remember for that platform. (The best? Road Rash…when is EA bringing that one back!?) Since then, the series has definitely had its ups and downs, but the last few years the franchise seems to have stumbled a bit.

This year EA decided to try something new. They’re doing two different Need For Speed games with different emphases and seeing which one sticks. Need For Speed: Nitro is their upcoming arcade racer for the Nintendo Wii and DS. Need For Speed: Shift is their “sim” game, out on PS3 & XBox 360. I’m playing the PS3 version.

When I say Shift is a “sim” I mean that relatively. It’s much closer to a simulation than previous Need For Speed games have been, but it isn’t as densely realistic as a Gran Turismo or a Forza Motorsport. In some ways, this ‘middle ground’ is a dangerous place for Shift to inhabit. Arcade racing fans will find it inaccessible and sim fans will find it too fluffy. Logic suggests that there are gamers looking for something in-between the two extremes, but getting them interested in Shift is going to be a challenge for EA.

Shift has a strong CaRPG factor going on. The basic structure of the “Career Mode” is that you have to progress through 4 Racing Tiers before you access the Need For Speed Championship. You progress through Tiers by accumulating Stars. Every race has a fixed number of possible Stars that you can earn. Generally you can earn 3 Stars for podium placement (3 for coming in 1st, 2 for coming in 2nd, 1 for coming in 3rd), 2 Stars for hitting points thresholds (more about points in a moment) and 1 Star for gaining some special objective, which varies from race to race. It might be hitting a specific top speed, or holding the proper racing line for a fixed distance, or even spinning out other racers.

You can participate in each race as often as you want, but you can only earn each Star once. You can earn cash and points over and over again in a given race. Cash is spent on purchasing upgrade parts and new cars.

Now let’s talk about Points. In addition to the Tier you’re racing in, you have a Driver Level, which caps out at 50. Every time you race you’ll earn points. You can earn 2 kinds of points: Precision and Aggression points. Precision points come from holding a racing line, coming off the starting line perfectly, clean overtakes and things of that nature. Aggression points come from bumping other cars off the road, drafting (drafting is aggressive?) and ‘dirty’ overtakes, where you scrape the sides of another car.

At the end of a race, both kinds of points are added to your accumulated total, and if you’ve hit a pre-set threshold, you’ll level up your driver level (basically these points are exp in RPG terms). While both kinds of points go into the same pool, you’ll be tagged as an Aggressive or Precision driver based on which kind of points you’re getting more of.

As you level up your Driver Level, you’ll earn cash prizes, garage slots (allowing you to own more cars) and invitations to special events.

So you’ve got Stars to earn to gain access to higher Tiers, cash to earn to buy cars and parts with, and Points to earn to level up your Driver Level. And yet there’s more! There’re in-game Badges to earn, too. All kinds of them. Badges for driving 10 miles in a Japanese car. For overtaking 25 cars. For trading paint with 100 cars. Etc, etc. Badges come in Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum (I think?) varieties, but you only seem to earn the Bronze ones. So if you earn 5 Bronze Badges for Trading Paint, they’ll get upgraded to a Silver Trading Paint Badge. Five Silver will be traded for a Gold, and so on. At least, I think that’s what’s going on.

As far as I can tell, these Badges are just for bragging rights (and aren’t directly connected to PSN Trophies or XBL Gamerscore).

Need For Speed: Shift ties in with your EA Account, and every player can have a page of his or her own at needforspeed.com. Here’s mine.

Point is, if you’re a progression fan like I am, Need For Speed:Shift will constantly scratch your itch. Even if you totally screw up a race, you’ll wind up finishing just to get the points and some cash. You gain *something* in just about every race, which makes the game pretty compelling for an old RPGer like me.

To give you an idea of how much I’ve played so far, I’ve done 90 races (I only know that from my NFS page). I believe my driver level is 16, and I’ve unlocked Tiers 2 & 3, though I haven’t done any Tier 3 races yet. I was a completionist in Tier 1 and got every Star. Tier 2 is much more challenging, so far.

I think that’s enough for Part 1 (ie, my lunch hour is over!). Next time I’ll talk about the types of races on offer and start looking at the good and bad aspects of Shift.