Hear me out. All naysayers against games like Forza, Gran Turismo and the like need to give them another chance. I've been spending a lot of time with a very special TV show called Top Gear and inspired by that I went out and bought Need For Speed: Shift and played Gran Turismo 5 for a few hours, just a day after spending time knee deep in Burnout: Paradise. The results were interesting.
I'm a diehard Burnout fan, and have been for years. Most fans of the Arcade Racing genre are there for the speed, the crashes, the rush of flying through any corner in practically any car or using weapons and other chicanery to flummox the opposition. It's a way of things that stays away from the slow-in, fast-out turns and fine tuning of the Realistic Racing genre. I'd say Arcade Racing is for fighters. And if that's the case then Realistic Racing, most absolutely, is for lovers.
This is where Top Gear came into play. I started to watch the show on a whim, one rainy Netflix afternoon and was instantly hooked. The interplay between the hosts (Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond) turns a show about cars, into a show about three men's love for cars and the result is TV programming dipped in gold. I've always enjoyed driving, but I never knew much about cars per se and Top Gear opened my mind. With Wikipedia open next to me, Top Gear indoctrinated me. It made me want to learn more about this world of motoring, and that meant using my only lens: video games.
Need For Speed: Shift is available over Games On Demand on the Xbox, so I nabbed a demo. After my thorough schooling with Top Gear, I was ready.
Shift throws you into the cockpit view with reckless abandon. I wasn't ready at all for the inertial forces that I was immediately wrestling with in a car that was far above my abilities. I bumper-car'd around the track at first, but with some smoothing out I found footing and was off. I won the race and was immediately hooked. There was a deep thrill in timing corners, using my brakes and downshifting wisely to overtake and slingshot past other racers. It was the same kind of feeling that kept my wits razor sharp in games like Outrun Online Arcade, but formed and pressed into something different. Shift pushed me to focus on seven things at once, but the pay off was exactly proportional. After winning a race in Shift you feel like you've just written on a book on racing. After the race I could change the kits, finely tune things like spoiler and splitter angle, gear ratios...things I am only beginning to understand in the real world are at my fingertips.
I switched to Gran Turismo 5. My car of choice was naturally a Mini Cooper, Chili Red. My opponent John chose a Lotus Elise 111. I was absolutely tortured as he destroyed me on the straights, but I paced him in the corners. It was exhilarating. We switched off to the Indy Oval, and both drove the Zonda F. After readjusting to the controls I was just about as proficient in Gran Turismo as in Shift...but there was less romance in Gran Turismo. If it's a lover, it's the rough one.
Gran Turismo presents itself with clean lines and piano jazz. Compared to the in your face race team boss of Need For Speed, the slow pace of Gran Turismo's menu will remind you of a hotel lobby, instead of pit-side seats. It also has more relaxed modes: B-Spec (where you give commands to an AI driver from the pit) was unlike anything I'd ever played in a racing game, and I could race old, slow cars and even go-karts! Shift's got game modes, but Gran Turismo's 1,000+ cars, plethora of tracks and options completely dwarf the more focused presentation of Shift.
There is no game like Gran Turismo, and it owns the Car Simulation genre. But that spark, that special something that keeps you on the edge of your seat is missing. It's a simulation, but it's hardly a Racing Simulation. It lacks car damage, and there is very little sense of speed. I topped 200mph in the Zonda and it felt like I was riding on silk. Shift will blur your vision, go black and white, tunnel vision more when you go careening into barriers and other cars. Miss your line and the hood of your car will bend, snap and fly off. I took out the brake lights of a car in front of me, I scuffed my window. It felt like I was right there, trading paint and eeking out victories by the skin of my teeth.
The marriage of visceral feedback with a dazzling array of customization makes Shift feel more pertinent, more like I'm right there than Gran Turismo 5. Anyone who want to graduate (yes, graduate) from the world of Arcade to Realistic Racing should check out Need For Speed: Shift. The increased difficulty, the customization, and the time spent mastering the new set of concerns...It's worth the effort.
Now pardon me. I've a racing wheel to buy.