Tinted windows and shiny wheels may catch your eye, but when it comes to buying a car it's performance that matters.

Need for Speed: Shift is like putting a down payment on high performance ride – it may not have all the features of a cooler-looking racer, but it's got powerful gameplay under the hood.

Single-player is the focus, with a 28-stage Career mode paving the way. The game tracks your performance via a Driver Profile. Win-loss record, accomplishments on the asphalt, and your driving preferences are tagged to this profile. Career progress is tied to its development, too, with new events and vehicles made available based on your record.

Have it your way

Stars awarded for podium finishes, meeting point goals, and other skilled manoeuvres are what drive your career forward. Multiple stars can be won on any given stage, which provides leniency in terms of how you advance your career.

You don't have to win every race in order to advance –instead, accumulating enough stars to unlock the next stage is all that's necessary. If you're not great at drifting and only earn a single star in the London drift event, then perhaps you make up the deficit with an impressive time trial run in another stage.

In a way, Need for Speed: Shift has the appeal of a role-playing racer with progress tied to the decisions you make. Nothing supports this idea more than dual driver attributes and vehicle customisation.

Precision and aggression – every act behind the wheel falls into one of these categories. Your profile tracks this, so over time you may err toward precision or the brash tactics of an aggressive driver. These also factor into what stars you earn during an event. Precise driving may net you a star for maintaining a tight racing line, but might not earn you enough points for the high score star.

Economic engine

It's also a mechanism for fuelling replay because you're encouraged to go back to previously completed stages to tackle them with a different set of driving tactics. Local multiplayer for up to four via wi-fi further coaxes some replay out of Need for Speed: Shift, but without an online mode or time trial leaderboards it's not as compelling as it ought to be.

Customisation completes the game's suite of features. Tinkering with individual parts is wisely overlooked in favour of a much more accessible attributes system. Cash winnings allow you to purchase upgrades to a car's top speed, acceleration, suspension, tires, and nitrous. It's straightforward without being watered down.

Since cash has to be saved for ringing up new rides, strategic spending plays a pivotal role in Career mode. Spending it on upgrades for your current car could get you across the finish line in an event, but leave you without enough money to pick up a more powerful vehicle for later stages.

Get a grip

These are weighty decisions because you can feel the differences between each licensed car, not to mention the effect of upgrades.

That distinct sense of handling makes Need for Speed: Shift a fundamentally solid racing game. As much as credit should be given to the superior design of Career mode, the game's success truly stems from exemplary control and realistic handling. Options are limited, however, and the game requires use of the accelerometer for steering.

Minimal multiplayer and control options are reasonable complaints, yet these can be seen as evidence of an attempt to craft a very specific experience. Instead of trying to do everything and provide every imaginable option, Need for Speed: Shift hones in on the single-player experience. And the result is fantastic.