Given budgetary woes and climate change angst, Need for Speed: SHIFT is probably the closest I’ll ever get to piloting a real car, and for that the pedestrian world should breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief. If anything, Slightly Mad’s sleek, supple reinvention of the clapped-out franchise has tipped me even further the other way.
Why? Because the idea of real driving scares me to death, and SHIFT is painfully true to life. Make a hard turn and your head-mounted camera will bounce off the door frame; spin out and the car will convulse over the gravel like a three-legged hippo. Long straights offer little respite from the developer’s audio-visual tomfoolery: the speedometer blurs and elongates as you accelerate, the (optional) HUD sinks back under the G-forces and colours fuse into one, dizzyingly kaleidoscopic jet stream. After a few hours of this, I was actually looking forward to my next trip on London Underground.
That’s the “terrorist” angle on SHIFT’s faithfulness to subject matter, anyway; the “freedom fighter” view is that this is one fine-looking, ferociously immersive simulation, and any wussy tree-huggers should ponder their essential worthlessness before sticking their recycled plastic oars in.
SHIFT is quite a good pick for wussy tree-huggers, actually, despite its punishing level of cockpit realism. The handling model, though a little fretful, comes easily enough if you heed the colour-coded racing guide which stretches before your car, and the game courteously profiles your performance at the campaign’s outset and toggles settings like automatic gear changing to suit.
As brutal a roadster as it can be, it’s also fairly scraping sparks under the weight of its own reward systems, jotting down every scratch of the paint and turn of the wheel mid-race and ladling a proportionate amount of cash, experience points, gold stars and badges into your driver profile. Cash is for new cars, points and stars equal progress to the next “Tier” of racing events, badges are for bragging rights, and all four are of service in making you feel like a champion despite considerable contrary evidence.
Event types are numerous and reasonably diverse. Open tournaments, speed laps and time trials are the bread and butter, but funkier invitation-only showdowns crop up as your successes multiply.