Games 9/15/09: Need for Speed: Shift, IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, Defense Grid: The Awakening (XBLA)

Need for Speed: Shift
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Sony PSP, Windows PC
From: Slightly Mad Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

EA’s annual “Need for Speed” releases have sputtered since roughly 2006 — so much so that a reasoned, prudent publisher would bench the franchise for a year, retool, and start fresh in 2010.

EA, on the other hand, decided instead to not only double the dose — an entirely different “NFS” game arrives on the Wii in November — but also, with “Need for Speed: Shift,” take a second crack at the legitimized track racing approach that made 2007’s “Need for Speed: ProStreet” the franchise’s all-time low point.

Good for them, too. “Shift” sidesteps all the pitfalls that dragged “ProStreet” down, but it also rather masterfully nourishes the famished middle between the glut of arcade racers and super-simulative likes of “Forza” and “Gran Turismo.”

That’s largely because “Shift,” despite trading in fictional street races for real-world tracks, never actually abandons the fundamental thrills that made past games so exciting. The surface ingredients of a serious driving sim are there, and winning races is a demanding endeavor when the artificial driver intelligence is maxed out and the brake lines and various driving assists are deactivated. But Slightly Mad Studios has developed an all-encompassing difficulty curve that’s as inviting to those who fear “Forza” as it is to those who’ve mastered it, and at no point — on any setting — is the sensation of the ride anything less than the first priority.

It’s here where “Shift” absolutely sparkles despite doing nothing more than small things. The camera shakes violently at high speeds, loses color during paint trades, and crumples into a mess of blurred, offset images when you nail the guardrail. “Shift” consistently impresses in motion, but it takes things to a separate plane of excitement during a race’s most exciting moments. That, along with all that accessibility, makes it a racing sim anyone can play and love.

In terms of features, “Shift” feels like a prototypical “NFS” game, albeit without the open-world approach most recent entries took. The career mode is dense with races of different configurations, time trials and the always-fun drift competitions. There’s a nice array of exotic licensed vehicles you’ll never drive in real life, and the degree of visual and performance enhancements is plenty sufficient for most players. “Shift” doesn’t offer nearly as many options or gameplay hours as the super sims, but not everyone will see that as bad news.

Where “Shift” surprises a bit is in its meta content. An in-race points system, which awards gutsy and skilled driving, looks like a knock-off of “Project Gotham Racing’s” kudos system until you realize it’s attached to a 50-tier leveling system that dishes rewards each time you level up. A mountain of winnable badges gives “Shift” an additional layer of achievements to strive for, and players with healthy friend lists will appreciate a subtle interface tweak that shows whether you or a friend has the best time on any given track. (Naturally, “Shift” also includes traditional multiplayer for up to eight players. Split-screen, unfortunately, gets shafted again.)

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IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS
From: 1C Company/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

A game’s ability to carry a player through its main menu and opening cut scene isn’t necessarily a harbinger for its ability to entertain the player from there. That’s good news for “IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey,” a versatile World War II dogfighter which enjoys the odd distinction of being a game that has more trouble when the action is paused than when it reaches a crescendo.

The problems are fleeting, insignificant but, at least initially, also a little unsettling. The background music stutters like a skipping CD when the game loads its opening cinema. The video, which packages real World War II footage to introduce the game’s campaign, looks nice but also stutters and even freezes before kicking back into gear. Some more stuttering, a so-so menu interface and a long load screen later, we’re into the tutorial mission.

Fortunately, and appropriately, this is where “Prey” starts to deliver. Not only do the weird glitches fade away once the action takes to the skies, but that action looks great, moves authentically and proves surprisingly capable at presenting the same storyline and missions to gamers of dramatically different disciplines.

The flexibility starts and ends with the game’s three control schemes, and the names pretty much tell the story. “Prey’s” arcade scheme enables multiple aiming and airspeed assists and disables most spot damage, making it easier to just dive into battle with reckless abandon. The simulation scheme, on the other extreme, strips out all assists and reduces visibility to only what a real pilot would see. The realistic scheme, meanwhile, makes concessions in both directions for a flexible but challenging middle ground.

What “Prey” doesn’t change throughout these settings is the pace of the action. Even on the arcade setting, it’s truer to the speed of a serious flight simulator than the arcadey likes of an “Ace Combat” or “HAWX.” Players who have trouble getting into the genre won’t find “Prey,” even on its friendliest setting, to be the game that changes their mind. But console gamers aching for the kind of flight sim typically reserved for PC gamers should embrace this without hesitation, while those on the fence at least can get their feet wet under the game’s more accessible settings.

“Prey’s” single-player component is decent enough in terms of length, though it also suffers from the same glut of mission repetition that hampers most every other dogfighter. There are only so many objectives one can complete from the cockpit of a WWII fighter, and most involve shooting down similar squadrons of enemy planes. Such is how it is. At least the game drops you into different aircraft during different chapters of the campaign, which does make a difference.

On the multiplayer side (16 players, online only), the mode offerings — deathmatch, team deathmatch, two forms of territorial battles — are standard but sufficient. The greatest concern here, as always with this genre, is whether “Prey” can accumulate a community large enough to provide round-the-clock competition. Time will tell.

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Defense Grid: The Awakening
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Hidden Path Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language)
Price: $10

The world needs another tower defense game like a turkey needs Thanksgiving, and “Defense Grid: The Awakening” does itself no favors with that vanilla title and reasonably pedestrian art direction. But “Awakening” isn’t just another also-ran: It circled the block last year as a stellar $20 PC game, and the only thing it loses in its migration to Xbox Live is half its original price. “Awakening” doesn’t bend rules or do any fundamental things other tower defense games don’t also do. Rather, the not-quite secret to its success lies simply in how carefully and skillfully it does it. There’s a balance in the tech the game provides versus the enemies it throws at you, and there’s a similar balance in the rhythm of the checkpoint-laden missions, which consistently lift the action to a satisfying zenith without tossing story overboard and carelessly dumping enemies on your head. That story isn’t anything special in its own right, but it’s serviceable, and the charming sentient computer that aids your defense planning provides the game with personality almost immediately. Like most tower defense games, “Awakening” is a solo-only affair. But for all $10 gets you — a surprisingly lengthy story mode and more than 100 challenge levels on the side — the game’s value isn’t even questionable.