Need for Speed: Shift review

When it comes to portable racing games, trouble is always nearby. It’s difficult to get a proper racing experience on a small screen – that’s just the nature of the beast. Even Gran Turismo, when it came to the PSP, failed to impress even with excellent graphics and a high number of tracks and cars to drive.

On the iPad, the experience is different. Need for Speed: Shift is one of the first racing titles available for the iPad, and it does a great job giving a fun, albeit kart racing, experience, while still giving players the ability to race seriously.

NFS:S does this in several ways. First, it uses the built-in accelerometers to make the whole iPad a steering wheel. That’s right, turn the iPad right, and that’s where your car turns. Sure, it’s not the most comfortable steering wheel, but even without a case it’s easy to adjust to in a short time.

The beautiful screen is blessed with high definition racing, the best we’ve ever seen on a mobile device. The graphics are about the same as we saw with Gran Turismo 4. The cars look great, though racetracks are empty of crowds and environments are scattered with cardboard-cutout trees and buildings. It doesn’t matter, of course. You’ll be far too focused on turning your iPad in the right direction and competing against up to three other drivers instead of going for a pleasure ride.

A four-tiered career mode includes seven races per tier, giving 28 career races total. Each tier plays on the same track, sometimes including only small portions of the track. Race types include three-lap free-for-all, one on one timed races where players must gain a 5-second head start, time trials and drift trials. Each race, like the console version of Shift, offers up to eight stars which open up new races and new tiers. Each race provides earned experience based on performance, namely driving aggression and precision.

Aggression is scored by, well, driving aggressively, meaning drafting, drifting, and generally driving in a fashion that would normally get you arrested. Precision is quite the opposite: follow the recommended driving line, stay on the track, make perfect turns, and only overtake other cars from a safe distance. While the difference between aggressive and precise drivers is clear on the home console version of Shift, the line is clearly blurred on the iPad.

This is for two reasons: first, playing this game is completely different from playing with a controller or a steering wheel. And second, it’s easy to cheat and win every time.
Because the iPad itself acts as the steering wheel, the screen is always turning. It’s not hard at all to keep up with the direction you’re driving because the screen remains relatively stable, but there is clearly a difference. It’s not the same, and it may never be.

Shift also includes customization, though much simpler than its console brother. The car’s paint job can be edited, although the system currently in place pales in comparison to what can be done on the Wii version of Shift, which is surprising and quite sad considering how much fun it would be to edit the car’s detailing with a touchscreen. In fact, most of the available visual upgrades are a waste because the money is better saved actually upgrading the car. Why? Chances are you won’t find anyone to show your car off to anyways (read on).

Performance upgrades are, for the most part, unnecessary only because they only slightly upgrade your current car, whereas purchasing a brand new car is much more beneficial. Until, that is, you look at nitro. Nitro is the biggest cheat the game has to offer, especially when completely upgraded. No turn can stand up to a millisecond blast of nitro, which will immediately rocket your car in the right direction with mediocre driving and a quick trigger thumb. Races which were once hard become very easy, especially time trials, when the laws of physics can be overcome with just a little nitromethane.

In total, 28 cars all offer something slightly different, though good luck unlocking all of them. One requires getting first place in every race, another requires collecting all of the stars, and yet another demands reaching the 20th experience level. After 12 solid hours of gameplay, I only managed to reach level 13. Of course, I didn’t play any games online. I would have, except that every attempt to do so left my iPad waiting in a lonely matchmaking room for 30 minutes at a time.

The odd control scheme the iPad offers gives players plenty of options, no one more realistic than the next. A steering assist and auto brake help new players, a racing line shows the best possible path, and auto acceleration allows racers to always floor it. Even the transmission can be set to automatic. However, to get the most enjoyment out of Shift I left the auto acceleration on and used an automatic shifter. Dealing with either of these, or both together, was difficult because it forced me to constantly press on the gas or shifter, thus making it hard to hold the iPad and turn it comfortably.

Need for Speed: Shift is more of an experiment than anything else: the first racing game from EA on the iPad. And it succeeds, greatly in fact, save for a few easy in-game hacks. They built a simple, intuitive game and it’s one of the first actually enjoyable portable racing games that have come out in years. At $15, we’re hard pressed to simply announce it an excellent buy, but a game this good would otherwise be $30-$40 on today’s other portable consoles, so realistically this is a great deal.