Come back, Need For Speed, all is forgiven. I know we cast you and your shiny wheels out into the wilderness because you lost the plot. But we love you again...
Forgive us for being a bit emotional but having grown up with the series (from the heady days of Hot Pursuit 2 and Most Wanted to the tired and dreary ProStreet and Undercover), our relationship with Need For Speed has been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.
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No doubt about it, drafting in British developers Slightly Mad Studios has revitalised the series and turned it into a serious contender. Of course, it helps that Need For Speed: Shift has clearly used last year's king of the road, Codemaster's brilliant Race Driver: Grid, as its benchmark.
Gone are the police. So too are the illegal street racing undertones, obsessions with extensive visual modifications (although bodykits, vinyls and paintjobs can still be tweaked) as well as any daft attempt at a storyline or bit-part glamour models squawking mission objectives at you through product-placement mobile phones.
Instead, we've been treated to a pretty damn excellent driving simulator that ticks all the right boxes: a wealth of cars bred for motorsport rather than pimping through LA; visceral engine noises; punishing vehicle damage; and handling that really starts to come alive the less you rely on driver assists. We'd happily admit it's far more realistic than Grid but without the staid and intimidating nature of Race Pro or straight-laced functionality of Forza Motorsport 2.
Any issues we had with the handling at preview stage have been ironed out and what remains gives masses of feedback without feeling unapproachably hardcore. We still have a couple of issues, though - placing manual gear shifts on the LB and RB buttons is a terrible idea (no controls customisation options either). And the drift mode requires such precision it's more an exercise in how gently you can feather the accelerator, rather than the fun, smoke-pluming lunacy of Race Driver.
Unlike Grid's scattershot career mode (throwing you from a Demolition Derby to a Formula 3 single-seater and so forth), Shift offers much more predictable progression. Working your way up through four tiers of races, from a VW Golf or tired old 1970's Skyline up to a Bugatti Veyron, McLaren F1 or Pagani Zonda is typically Need For Speed.
In fact, even with the new direction and serious motorsport intentions, its very clear that Shift is a Need For Speed product.
Although, being co-developed by EA Black Box (who've worked on NFS games for the last decade), this shouldn't come as a surprise. While EA has entrusted driving duties to Slightly Mad, Black Box have concentrated on placing their unmistakable stamp on Shift too.
Beyond the aforementioned modification sections and the glitzy presentation, this comes in the form of your driver profile. With the devil of Aggression and angel of Precision sat on either shoulder (the two key areas in which your driving skills are judged by), you'll be rewarded according to how you behave behind the wheel. With skill badges covering every aspect of racing (Drafting, Overtaking, Drifting, Podium finishes, etc) and specific Invitational events unlocked depending on your style, they act as pleasingly constant pats on the back. Plus, they can be used as a good indicator of an online opponent's skill. For the brief while before everyone has gold everything, that is...