Need for Speed: Shift is somewhat of a return to form for the NFS series. Unlike the last few games that had you open-world cruising the city while running from cops in your nitrous-infused, mostly illegal street racer, Shift is all about real racing on actual tracks and stuff. You know, the kind of racing that doesn’t involve any slutty girlfriends.

The racing itself is fantastic, and it’s not brought down by the stupid storylines of the last few titles (though I do miss some of the eye candy). The career is pretty straightforward — you race, you win points, you move up to the next tier, repeat. It’s not as good as the career mode in Forza, but it gets the job done.

Speaking of Forza, Shift reminds me a lot of that series. The driving mechanics are much more on the simulation side than previous Need for Speeds, but there’s just enough of an arcade feel to prevent you from throwing controllers the way I always used to when I played Gran Turismo and spun out all the time. You will also find the racing line indicator with green-to-red colored arrows telling you to speed up or slow down, a feature that seems to be making its way into a lot of racing games these days.

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Whether playing through career mode or online, you’ll be earning performance points for your profile. Though similar to Kudos in the Project Gotham games, this actually reminded me more of the system found in Rainbow Six Vegas. Pretty much everything you do earns you some kind of points: bump a car or pass it cleanly, stick to the racing line, drift, etc. Even if you don’t win the race, you generally earn yourself plenty of points and rise through the ranks anyway.

As you level up, you’ll unlock higher racing tiers, more cars (sometimes you even get some free ones), upgrade parts — you get the idea. The points system is completely separate from the cash you earn to buy the things you unlock, but I never really found myself needing much more cash than what I had. If you’re the type of person that wants to see and do it all before moving on, you’ll either waste a lot of time upgrading cars instead of just buying a better one, or you’ll have more money than you need when you move to the next tier if you just purchase the best car to start with.

All of that doesn’t really matter, though, because the real star of the game is the driving experience itself. The engines scream in your ears and the cockpit view will have your vision shaking and blurring. Even though a game like Burnout will have you squeezing your controller because of the speed, never before have I really respected the speed the way Shift forces me to. I actually felt somewhat fearful of the raw power of the top-tier cars, simply because I knew that I could be thrown into a wall at any time if I wasn’t gentle with the gas pedal. If you saw the commercial on television and thought “There’s no effing way that’s actual gameplay footage,” well, believe it.

Any racing or driving fan should check out Need for Speed: Shift simply to experience what it would feel like to be behind the wheel of a 600-horsepower beast. There are plenty of games that do plenty of other things better, but the driving experience itself is the best I’ve ever played… except for the drift events. You might want to just skip those (you’ll earn enough points elsewhere that you really can just skip them if you don’t like them).

My only other gripe is that the car selection is fairly small compared to the other big-name racers out there. While it might be par for a Need for Speed game, there are only about 60 different cars in Shift. There is also a clearly dominant car in each tier, and with the amount of money you’ll be making, there really is no reason not to just buy it as soon as you unlock that tier (which I mentioned earlier).

All things considered, Shift doesn’t quite have the lasting appeal of some other racers, but in this instant gratification world we live in today, some players might prefer Shift’s low time investment to the grind of Gran Turismo. Regardless, Need for Speed: Shift contains an experience behind the virtual wheel that no gamer should miss.

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