At the end of my Need for Speed: Undercover review from last year, I posed a question: "Why does a racing game need to be something other than a racing game?" I doubt EA read the review but they apparently asked themselves the same question. In making Need for Speed: Shift, Slightly Mad Studios tossed aside all of the clumsy action game/movie elements that mucked up previous installments and focused on making a pure racer. The result is a game enjoyable to hardcore and casual racing fans alike.

In case Undercover, Carbon, or ProStreet scared you off, let me reiterate: there's no live-action cut scenes. You're not racing to earn street cred, gather evidence on some illegal drug trade, or to get revenge on the criminal who - you get the point. You're a racer who races so he can earn money and get invited to more prestigious races where he'll earn even more money. There's the occasional cutscene with a pleasant British voiceover that outlines new types of races and tells you "Oh man, this next tier of racing is going to put you to the test" and that's all the story I need, really. I don't need a rehash of Fast and the Furious.

Also gone is the open-world environments and street racing from earlier NFS games. You're racing on closed tracks, most of them in the European or American countryside. Almost all of the tracks are based on real-world locations, too. There's a handful of fictional locations (downtown London, for example) to add some variety but you won't be racing on the surface of the Moon or anything too exotic. The scenery all looks decent and the spectators are a little less cardboard than in other racers (you'll see them taking pictures as you pass) but your eyes are going to be on the road the whole time so you probably won't care.

Well, okay, there's one thing you might spend some time admiring: your cockpit. Slightly Mad has recreated the cockpits of all 65+ cars in the game so that you can race from a first-person perspective. This is the default camera setting and while you may find the third-person camera to be more comfortable, I urge you to give the cockpit a shot. Your vision narrows as you speed up and your perspective rocks back and forth as you hit bumps, make sharp turns, or slam on the brakes. Hitting a wall causes you to lurch in your seat and blurs your vision momentarily. While you'll experience some of the game's visual effects with the other camera perspectives, the cockpit view is colored by so many subtle touches that it's worth at least toying with it a bit. Seeing opposing cars pop in and out of my rear-view and side mirrors just added a little extra tension to each race.

Ultimately, though, I ended up ditching the cockpit in favor of the traditional third-person perspective because it's a tad nicer for making turns. No big loss there though because this view allowed me to admire my car. Even the bad installments of NFS have featured nice-looking cars and Shift is no exception. The wide range of vehicles can all be tuned to your heart's content as well. The subtleties of tuning might be lost on the average gamer but there's plenty of very straightforward upgrades you can purchase and you're shown with little colored bars how each upgrade will affect the attributes of your car.

I like the cars but there are a couple issues with the car shop. The shop menu kind of drags, for starters. You can't quickly flip through it until something catches your eye because it seems like the picture of each car takes 4-5 seconds to load up. Also, you never seem to earn enough money to buy more than one car per tier. When you enter the next tier of competition, you'll buy one of the best in class, upgrade it a bit, and then save up for the next tier's vehicle. However, the small amount of cars you'll own is balanced out by the game's inclusion of Manufacturer Competitions, a race in which a company provides the same model car to every competitor.

Though Need for Speed: Shift is billed as a simulation racer (its arcade-like counterpart, Need for Speed: Nitro, hits the Wii and DS in a couple months), the game isn't merely for racing game vets. Once you start Career mode, Shift will provide suggested settings based on how well you perform in a test lap. Neophytes can turn down the A.I.'s difficulty, make gear shifting automatic, get a little help with handling, and so on. Many players will also want to make use of the optional driving line, a colored guideline that appears on the track to show you the correct path. The turns yellow when you need to slow down and red when you really, really need to slow down and it's a must for learning to navigate turns.

The structure for Shift's Career mode is a familiar one: you start on a tier with fairly easy tracks and so-so cars and gradually work your way up into more competitive tiers with faster cars and longer, tougher courses. The way you unlock the next tier is by accruing Stars, which can be earned in a few ways. You'll get one to three Stars by finishing first, second, or third in a race but there are bonus goals that can earn you a Star, such as driving five cars off the road throughout the event. Subsequently, you can make progress toward the next tier even if you're not getting podium finishes (though that certainly speeds things up). There's over 200 events in the game so you're never going to be forced to eke out a win on one specific race in order to proceed in the game. You can repeat races as much as you like to get missed Stars or extra cash for upgrades or new cars, too.

One other method of earning Stars that I didn't mention is by racking up points throughout the race. Points are doled out for successful turns, overtaking other cars, and so forth. Each action rewarded by points is split into two categories: Aggressive and Precision. Precision drivers are clean and cautious while Aggressive drivers try to run opponents off the road, slide through turns at full speed, and tailgate opponents. The game keeps a tally of how many points you have in each category and you're branded an Aggressive/Precision driver based on which category has a higher point total.

The type of racer you are determines what type of Invitationals (standalone events that exist outside the tiers) you'll receive and factors into online match-making as well so it's not a huge factor in the game. It's good that its effect is limited because the system's a bit flawed. First, it seems a bit simplistic to simply brand someone a "Precision" driver because they've got 99 Precision Points and 98 Aggressive Points. It's pretty tough to rack up Aggressive points if you're way behind or way in front, too, because there's no nearby cars to trade paint with. I understand why they'd want to implement such a feature for online matches, because serious drivers probably don't want assholes like me trying to ram them at every opportunity. Still, aren't real world races filled with aggressive and precision drivers alike? Furthermore, most people act a bit differently when they're playing off-line and online. Knocking cars off the road is a lot more enjoyable to me when I know there's a human driving it.

Though I don't completely get the point of the Precision/Aggressive thing, I do like that the game is constantly boosting your self-esteem by handing you these points. The points boost your Driver Level over time, and each level adds invitationals, sponsorship money, extra garage space, and other perks to assist your climb to the top of the racing world. The game also gives you badges for your various mini-achievements throughout your Career (50 cars passed, 100 cars passed, etc) and keeps track of your win/loss record so you've got a complete profile of your Shift accomplishments.

In addition to the Manufacturer Competitions mentioned earlier, the Career mode is also stocked with a bunch of time attacks (in which you compete for the best lap time) and standard mixed races. Car Battles make a return as well: you and a single opponent are given pre-selected cars and try to either finish the race in the lead or get five seconds ahead of them. Precision drivers are allowed to do Hot Laps (essentially time trials with a sponsored car) while Aggressives get Eliminator races that periodically remove the last place driver until only one remains. Finally, there's Drift competitions in which you're graded on how well you slide through turns. You're awarded points based on the angle and speed of your turns, as well as how close you get your car's nose to the inner edge of the corner. Drifting takes a lot of random flailing and experimentation to master but, as I said, you don't need to do every event to progress through tiers so you're free to skip this glorified mini-game.

You can do all of these events through the game's multiplayer mode as well. You can race with up to 7 other players at a time (depending on the event) and races ran smoothly for me even at max capacity. The only really unique multiplayer mode is the Driver Duel Championship, a series of Driver Duels in which a group of players work their way up the ladder to more trying events with higher-powered cars. You'll earn money for multiplayer events at a seemingly greater rate than off-line events so there's some definite incentive to hopping online. Even if you're playing normal Career mode, though, you can see your friend's best scores and lap times for each event. It's a little more noob-friendly than the standard global leaderboard also included with the game. I know damn well that I'm never going to be the best in the world on a given track but hey, at least I can beat my friend's time.

Let's address the elephant(s) in the room: Gran Turismo 5 and Forza Motorsport 3 are both coming out this year too. I don't doubt some of you PS3/Xbox 360 owners will bypass this game in anticipation of those other ones. Shift really shouldn't be overlooked, though. It's a well-executed game that provides enough realism for the racing purists while still remaining accessible to schlubs who can't drive stick. With this game, Slightly Mad's not only lifted the Need for Speed franchise out of a deep funk but managed to create a viable competitor to some of the best games in the genre.

Players: 1-8 Players
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PC, PS3
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB: Everyone
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