I grew up with NFS, right from when I first bought my copy on the PC and it was a totally different experience to the console of the time (3DO). I was never really into consoles though until much later on. I got my hands on NFS Shift recently and I can tell you, right now, it's a pretty good game.
It's perched somewhere between arcade and sim, comes with enough options to twiddle for the hardcore racer crowd to at least give it a go until Forza 3 comes out, and has some nice cars right from the start. Gone are the days of 'Homie Boy Racer' Street racing from Pro Street and we're now looking at a professional racing career ala GRID. In fact, Shift borrows quite a bit from GRID and manages to hold its own too.
There are a tonne of races to enter and thanks to your Driver Profile and the two different styles of racing, you can build the driver that you want to be as you take on Quick Races or even compete in the expansive career mode, featuring special Invitational Races and unique rewards. The Driver Profile tracks how you drive and gives you experience points based on your performance on the track, are you a Precision driver, do you take every corner cleanly and sail from behind the pack to the front making the other drivers look as though they're stuck in a traffic jam?
Or do you rudely clash metal to metal in an attempt to Pitt your opponents off the track, scrape valuable seconds by spinning them out and mangle your own car to win. Aggressive driving can score big points but has the downside of ticking off the AI who will respond in kind to a dangerous menace on the track. I got shunted off several times by someone who took umbrage to my car's attempt to spin him out.
Regardless of how you drive, you get points; you raise your Driver Level and unlock rewards, Invitational Events and sponsorships. All this adds to your cash balance and allows you to upgrade your ride, adding a tonne of parts and options to the car in a very slick and easy to use menu. It's the Driver Level that transforms the game from a good racing game to a very good one, one that's always fun to play since you're constantly transforming your driver's profile and changing the way you approach each race. Races are either circuit, drift or point to point on increasingly harder tracks.
It breaks down to you getting enough stars to enter bigger and better events with your eye on the final prize. This gives you something to strive for as you rock on through the various races, gaining access to bigger and better cars from tier 1 through to tier 4.
The frame-rate is rock solid and the graphics are pretty decent, the damage model is a little on the limited side but you can still get some metal-crunching fender-bending crashes out of it and thanks to the replay and photograph feature you can watch these again and take some good shots of the carnage. The game also features a pretty realistic cockpit view of the dashboard and provides a solid frame-rate throughout even when driving from this view as well. Lighting and texturing is good, a few niggles here and there but again, nothing that really spoils the game.
The use of sound is good, the engine sounds are particularly meaty and there's a nice atmosphere when you are involved in a heavy 15 opponent race.
The AI is fairly decent, it can often display rubber-band tactics and come from behind at the last moment out of nowhere, but it can also make credible mistakes and spend a lot of time battling between the other drivers allowing you to slip in. As far as I can tell though, the AI doesn't seem to remember your actions from race to race with the same driver but this could be because I'm a pretty clean driver and haven't tried to ram anyone off the road too many times.
Music in the game is fairly good and there's a nice track list.
You do have a dialogue from a mentor style figure, it rarely gets annoying.
There's a pretty solid multiplayer component that allows you and 15 other racers to complete in various game modes, quick races and so on. The games I managed to join were pretty good and there was a nice atmosphere in the community. A few decent races later and very little lag.
The downside though, NFS Shift even off HDD has long load times...it can also crash when it tries to connect to the PSN Store on the 360, yeah, that one had me baffled too. There are reported black screens at the start of a race, loss of drift points when you do a rolling start at the beginning of a drift race and many others. As always, your mileage might vary and you could be lucky and never experience a single one of these.
Not a bad game though, even through the bugs it is still FUN.