When it comes to racing games, I tend to go between enjoying pure sims (like Forza, and in the past, Gran Turismo) and arcade types (Burnout, Need for Speed). When I heard that the Need for Speed series was going "serious" I was a bit unsure what the end product would be like. Need for Speed:Shift (Shift from now on) is an interesting racer. It's certainly a simulation style game, but it has a smattering of arcade elements that work really well.

For example - one thing I've often done in sims, and I'm not ashamed to say it - is what I call the push. I'll be approaching a corner with a rival ahead of me. I'll hit the gas and ram them as they make the turn. This pushes them off the track and slows me down at the same time so I can make the turn. Obviously this only works with damage turned off, and yeah, it's a cheap move, but it works. Shift allows for moves like this, and rewards it. In fact, all kinds of "dirty" moves are allowed, if you want to play like that. If you would rather play it safe and serious, then that works as well.

Shift follows the typical formula of most sim games. You start off a low level racer doing easy races. As you play you earn experience (well, points) and stars that give you access to higher level races and events. What impresses me the most though are what Shift does differently. The more I play the more I appreciate these changes and the more I think the game improves the genre as a whole. So what changes do I mean?

First off - every race lets you earn both points and stars. Points improve your racer level, and while in general most of the rewards are cheap (new stickers for your cars), some give you great heaps of money. Stars are rewarded mainly for your final position in the race, but you can also earn stars based on the points you earn or by performing some task. What this means is - if you are kicking ass in a race and then screw up at the end (and how many of us have done that more than once?!?) you still end up earning something. You never feel like you've wasted five minutes racing and that I think is one of the biggest faults in most sims.

Second - there are multiple race types that allow you to use different cars. These cars are given to you. This helps with another common Sim complaint - car boredom. Maybe it's just how I play sims, but I typically end up with a "Beginner Car", a "Intermediate Car", and an "Advanced Car." So while the game may be include 200+ cars, I'll typically spend hours in just 3. Shift helps with this by giving you multiple opportunities to try races with other cars. One great example - there is one race that involves TVRs (google it- one of the coolest cars around). This is a car that I'd probably never be able to afford in the game. But the race let me use it for free. Awesome!

The game's audio and video are perfect. Ok, maybe not perfect, but they work really, really well. In fact, this is the only race where I've enjoyed playing "in the car". I normally do the "a bit behind and above" but I found it much more fun to stay within the car when I was racing. You feel every bump as you play. It is incredibly immersive. When you hit the really high speeds you will even seen things get a bit fuzzy as if your eyes can't physically handle the strain. It's a bit hard to describe. It kind of reminds me of how Burnout handled the higher speeds, but it's definitely more intense than what I remember of Forza.

I also liked how they simplified tuning. While I like cars, my knowledge of tuning and performance is pretty rudimentary. I know more horse power is good. I know that when I increase HP I should probably improve my brakes as well. Outside of that though its all greek to me. Every upgrade in the game comes with a nice audio description of the benefits. If I don't remember what a part does then the audio help is pretty useful.

All in all - highly recommended. I'd like to compare this to Forza 3 however. Anyone have that game and would like to comment?