The direction that NFS has taken with Shift, whilst not certainly the new direction the franchise is expected to take permanently, has certainly raised a lot of eyebrows for what seem to be all the right reasons.
This game offers what I would consider to be the truest driving experience offered by any game to date. This is obviously a hugely bold statement, and this game is by no means perfect, but for the target market that this has been aimed at it really is something very special.
The re-inclusion of the in car/cockpit view has been pivotal. This is undoubtedly the way to play this game - and it is this view that truly conveys so much about track racing that you can expect. It is a truly immersive experience, making you feel everything and see everything the way you would given a racing situation. Whilst this might sound on face value like a forced situation you are placed in, in fact it is so intuitive and rational in its outcome that you are left truly feeling deep in the action at all time. Firstly, the graphics are stunning The cockpits are meticulously recreated, allowing you to see, when the racing is at its least chaotic, all of the detail from the dials to the gear knobs to the foot wells! The tracks look so polished; stands, walls and some battered wall-banners in certain places look excellent. The tracks are not barren and no detail is spared, unlike the graphically disappointing Race Pro. One of the most exemplary circuits is Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. Offering both areas of tight near-walled circuit and open, sweeping circuit you are thrown from the light parts of the circuit to the dark as you descent into Au Rouge and back up the hill again. It's just a brilliant piece of racing you simply must experience. Even the windscreens, slow dirtying, scratching through contact, cracking and almost smashing due to extreme contact are so well done.
Beyond this is the vision of you as the driver. As you increased speed along straights the dashboard and wheel start to blur slightly, as the computer simulates your eyes focusing on the road ahead, as the road ahead slightly zooms in, recreating the driver's desperate and crucial attempt to find the braking zone - it adds a massive tension to corners even when you're on the track by yourself. Hitting the brakes just right brings the vision back into focus and dropping back from the 5% zoom the high speed can induce. However, get that braking zone wrong and you will regret it - this game makes it genuinely unpleasant to get intimate with the walls at high speed. Every contact induces a de-saturisation of the colours of the world and your vision completely blurs; of course dependent upon the speed and strength of the collision. Hit the walls at high speed and your driver breathes heavily as your car is thrown into harsh spins as you come back off the walls. It gives you a sense of disorientation that, in the most high speed crashes, is almost nauseating - you genuinely fear for your senses when you suddenly realise you've gotten that hairpin so wrong and the wall is about to become your personal-space intruding friend! It is this sensory assault against the sensory immersion that makes such a compelling racing environment.
The sounds of the cars is again so striking. The cars inside are noisy, as they are in real life. As standard there is no music in car (although this can be changed) and the sense of chaos in the heat of a tight pack of cars is impressive and the sounds of the wheels protesting as you put too much throttle through the rear wheels and start to slide is in some cases quite alarming. The deafening silence following a heavy knock with an opponent or the track is a nice touch too. The menu's and music are well done, although it is a scored soundtrack and not full of the usually licensed tracks you would expect from an EA game from the NFS franchise.
The other important element of the game is the handling. This, it has to be said, is quite sensitive and takes some getting used to. I may well have missed further areas that you can reduce the sensitivity of the steering in, but it seems that even cranking the sensitivity all the way down reduces this edgy handling only a small amount. Whilst it does make your first few races quite edgy and error-full affairs, if you persist, adapt and stick with it until you can improve the down force or tyres on your car to increase grip, you will then realise that further up the vehicle and upgrades ladder, the inherent slide in corners in the early stage career are less prevalent. You can feel the car under breaking squirming as you squeeze to hard on the brakes, although all corners force you to feel the slight discomfort when under breaking and under pressure at high speed. It does certainly take some getting used to but it can be quite forgiving and you are quite capable of producing a difficult-to-maintain power slide through almost any turn (hairpins exempt for the most-part). However, the handling and perseverance in the early stage might be the thing that casts doubt on the game. I can imagine some people getting frustrated and losing their minds but it's really not that hard once you get your head around it and do several laps by yourself and get used to the lower-end cars and how they can be slide happy.
I recommend this game. I know the stalwart like Forza 3 is around the corner and whilst Shift certainly offers you a wide variety of cars and tracks, as well as differing routes for vehicle customisation; Forza 3 will always outstrip this offering. However, Forza 3 will struggle and almost certainly not quite offer the extremely immersive and intense driving experience that Shift offers you. These are two games offering you slightly different things with a great deal of overlap. Real petrol heads will get both and appreciate them for what they are - and dream that maybe someday the two could be combined. But make no mistake, this is certainly a game designed by racers for racers - if you're new or fairly casual to racing, you may want to try a demo before you jump in completely...but if you persevere and learn to ride the beast that is NFS:Shift, you will earn bragging rights and hours of driving fun and intensity that are, up until now, absolutely unparalleled.