Need For Speed: Shift Hands-On Preview

When we originally heard that the latest game in the Need For Speed franchise was coming to the iPhone, we were pumped for a couple of reasons. One, Need For Speed: Shift was a great kick in the pants that the brand really needed on traditional consoles. Besides bringing that trademark style and speed you’d expect, there were several simulation ingredients that gave the game a more measured and less extreme feel.

Our other cause for excitement was based on the excellent, yet too short, Need For Speed Undercover, which significantly raised the bar for all other racers on the iPhone. EA could have easily reskinned Undercover to match Shift’s branding and called it a day, but after our visit to EA’s Playa Vista campus, it was immediately clear that the status quo isn’t an option.

To start, EA is promising a gaudy set of features that any racing fan should be excited about. Not only are there 20 licensed cars that are usable on 18 different courses across locales like Chicago, Tokyo, and London, there’s a ton of customization that permeates nearly every aspect of the game. Whether you’re buying cosmetic or performance enhancements for your vehicles, or selecting unique racing constraints, there’s a lot of leeway to play how you want.

Shift follows the excellent blueprint that made the console editions so addictive and replayable. Using a ubiquitous persistent user profile, everything you do earns you cash and stars to unlock cars and tracks. If driving with restraint by following racing lines and avoid vehicular contact is your preference, you can have success doing that. On the flip side, if driving like an tool by cutting off vehicles and causing crashes is more desirable, you can earn points with that driving style as well. No matter how you win, the game rewards you and labels you as either a ‘Precision’ or ‘Aggressive’ driver, with a badass emblem to match.

Actual gameplay feels very different from the unapologetic arcade oriented Undercover. Shift infuses some realism by really requiring you to brake to consistently grab the checkered flag. Driving like a bat out of hell will get you nowhere, and it’s a refreshing change of pace to have to think about approach and racing lines.

Also new are difficulty levels which determine how many elements of the vehicle you have to control. So while the cars essentially drive themselves on the easiest level thanks to driving assists, you’ll have to manually control gear shifts and the full range of braking on the highest level. Playing on the highest difficulty level using the new cockpit view was quite a challenge, even for enthusiasts like us.

The real focus of Shift lies in its Career Mode. Like the console game, the goal is to work towards winning the big championship racing event. Winning in tiers featuring race events like Circuit Race, Sprint, Driver Duel, Eliminator, Time Trial, and Drift are designed to keep things from getting monotonous. We didn’t get much time to really dive in here, but expect a full synopsis on this aspect in the full review.

EA is very proud of the multiplayer options that are included as well. Shift will have multiplayer that supports Bluetooth and local wi-fi. Many of the single player racing types are selectable, and from our short demo of a head to head Bluetooth race, there wasn’t any meaningful lag that got in the way. Local wi-fi supports up to four players, and we’re looking forward to seeing how things hold up there.

The sweetest music to our ears was hearing about the 3GS enhancements that made the cut. Put simply, if you have an iPhone 3GS or the latest iPod Touch, the game will detect it and give you a graphical upgrade. What that means is better textures, more effects, smoother performance, and what is arguably one of the best looking games on the iPhone. We hear that folks stuck on the older hardware will have a great experience as well, but it just won’t be the best one.

Obviously we need to really dig in to see if our glowing first impression holds up over the long haul, but we’re very excited by the sneak peek we saw. Assuming it all comes together as planned, this will be an essential purchase for racing fans of every ilk.

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