Format: Xbox 360 (also available for PS3)
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Expect to pay: £20 - £25
Graphics: 9 out of 10
As you would hope and expect from a game with the word Speed in the title, Need for Speed: Shift feels convincingly fast, more so that Forza Motorsport 3 in fact. When you first get into some of the more powerful cars in the game, you may (or at least I did) struggle to stay on the track as the corners leap up on you with alarming velocity. The game also looks very pretty all round, with a stable frame rate, excellent in car view and well designed user interface. You are constantly getting feedback from the game as you earn stars, unlock badges and gain levels (more on this later), enticing you to play on just a bit more. There are also some great tracks in the game, based on real world circuits and cities, such as Spa, Brands Hatch, Road America and a London River track.
Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
I'm no expert on how one car should sound compared to another but the engine noises all sounded distinct and convincing to me. By default, the licenced soundtrack is turned off but after a while I decided to switch it on and give it a listen. Firstly, the choice of music isn't really to my tastes (it's quite hippity hop orientated), and secondly there isn't really a lot of it, so you'll be hearing the same tracks over and over again very frequently. In the end I preferred to play my own music that I'd ripped to the hard drive of my 360.
Racing around the London track, one of my favourites.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Firstly, how does the game feel? It's not quite as realistic as the Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo series, yet not as arcadey as PGR. The closest comparison I can make is Race Driver: GRID - you can't just throw the cars around the corner, but things feels ever so slightly exaggerated.
The main career mode of the game is split into 4 Tiers of events, followed by the World Championship. There are quite a lot sub events within each tier, which fall under various types: standard races, hot lap events (beating set times), time attack (getting the fastest lap within a set time limit), knockout, drift (my least favourite), Endurance, and series of 3-5 events. In order to progress to the next tier, you must earn a certain amount of stars, which are given out for podium finishes, earning certain amounts of profile points during races, and various bonus objectives such as beating a certain lap time, staying on the racing line or for a clean race.
You earn these aforementioned profile points by carrying out certain manoeuvres during a race, split into two categories: precision and aggression. Precision includes such things as clean overtakes, driving on the racing line, etc, whereas aggression points are awarded for bumping into your opponents, drafting them and sliding around corners for example. These profile points also act as a form of experience, and as you reach certain totals you will level up. Levelling up brings with it various awards, such as extra sponsorship money, more garage slots or the ability to take part in many different Invitational Events. Whether you're a precise or aggressive driver will influence the order in which this Invitational Events are unlocked, so if you fall within the Precision category you will be more likely to be invited to time trial events, whereas if you fall under the Aggression banner you will get knockout and drift events.
Making you reach certain star thresholds in order to progress through the career is all well and good, but there are so many Invitational Events on offer that you will probably have unlocked access to the World Championship way before you've finished with the other tiers. This initially caused me to lose interest in the game but eventually I came back, and I'm glad I did because taking part in the events is fun in and of itself (apart from the Drift events which I detest - not because they're bad, but because I'm not very good at them and don't find them fun). Now, on top of all these things there are badges, awarded for achieving various milestones within the game - such as driving a certain distance in a European car, mastering all the corners of a track, or pulling off a particular number of perfect starts (when the shift indicator is green). The badges come in various flavours - Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Epic - you earn certain amounts of them you will also unlock achievements/trophies. I was still earning badges right towards the end of the game.
If you just play through the main game without going online, then you probably won't hit level 50 by the time you've done all the events. If you decide to purchase the two DLC packs though, there's plenty to see you through all the way to the level cap, and some nice achievement points for bothering to do so. As for the packs themselves, both of them offer decent value for money for 800 points apiece, and playing through them will take a fair old while. The Exotic pack is ever so slightly longer and offers a set of new tracks (one of them being a version of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit), but both packs feature a set of new cars.
Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out 10
While it is hard to truly innovate in a racing game these days, or one grounded in reality at least, the stars, experience and badges and attractive design of the interface help give Need for Speed: Shift a style and flavour of its own.
Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The career mode will take you a decent chunk of time - it took me many many hours of playing hit level 50 and get to the end of the game, and I haven't even done absolutely everything (I still need to go back and do most of the Endurance events, as I never seem to have the time to devote to them). Those who want to squeeze the game for all of its achievement points will have to earn every star on offer in the game, and get every single Epic badge - which is no small task let me tell you. Since the game was released the price has fallen quite a bit, so you can now pick up the Limited Edition version for £23. If you love your driving games, it's well worth the money.
Overall: 8 out of 10
Need of Speed: Shift is an extremely solid, highly polished game. For petrol heads, it's not quite in the same league as Forza Motorsport 3, but it's a pretty close call. If you have already finished Turn 10/Microsoft's game and you want some more racing action, then definitely give this one a look.