After a long stint as an arcade racer, Need for Speed is heading into simulation territory with Need for Speed: Shift. Announced in January as part of a three-game announcement that includes Need for Speed: Nitro and Need for Speed World Online, Shift takes a new, more realistic approach to racing and will be going head-to-head against seasoned pros Gran Turismo and Forza for the attention of serious racing fans.
Thankfully it looks like the franchise is in good hands, with London-based Slightly Mad Studios (formerly Blimey Games) heading up development duties. According to Shift's producer, Suzy Wallace, Slightly Mad is SimBin--the team behind the high-scoring GTR FIA Racing, GTR 2, and GT Legends games--in everything but name after most of the original team left to form their new studio, and the team is working closely with EA Black Box executive producer Michael Mann and EA Games Europe senior vice president Patrick Soderlund (cofounder of DICE) to ensure that Shift, currently in a pre-alpha build, meets the franchise's standards.
One of the immediately obvious innovations in Shift is the way it tries to simulate crashes; the development team is trying to re-create the jarring, often fear-filled experience. In addition to motion blur, you'll experience some violent camera shake--not too dissimilar to an onboard camera during crash replays--and you'll also experience temporary vision blur after crashes. This is accompanied by the typical audio effects involved in a high-speed collision, but also additional sound effects from your driver, such as a stress-induced spike in heart rate and even a sharp gasp of breath before impact. Lots of other small effects have gone into making Shift feel as realistic as possible, including tunnel vision at high speeds, subtle reflections coming off the windshield, and heat haze emitted from engines.
Shift is all about your experience as a race driver. The action will take place on existing, licensed racetracks, on new racetracks created for Shift, and on street circuits. There is no open-road racing this time around, and we were promised you won't be pursued by the police or have to take part in old-fashioned street races. Instead, Shift will feature 15 real-world locations in addition to fictitious tracks. We got a chance to see the Brands Hatch Race Circuit in Kent and a new London street circuit. The Brands Hatch course looks to be a faithful re-creation of the ex-Formula One racetrack, with a mix of long straights, sweeping curves, sharp corners, and hairpin turns offering variety throughout. Zipping around it with an Audi RS4 was a great introduction.
The London circuit is even more formidable than the purpose-built track, with the streets throwing in some particularly tight turns, all re-created in impressive detail. The location is instantly recognisable for anyone who has visited London. The circuit runs through the Thames' South Bank and the Victoria Embankment to the north, with dozens of famous landmarks flying past you, including the London Eye, County Hall, Houses of Parliament, and the Blackfriars and Westminster bridges. Shift has a dynamic weather condition, and this course looked brilliant at sunset. However, there's no word on whether you will be able to change the time of day manually or if there will be night races.
Unlike in some simulation racers, in Shift the focus is more on the driving experience than on amassing a sizable car collection, although it's unconfirmed if all of the vehicles in the game will be unlocked from the beginning. What is certain is that Shift will offer some exotic and highly tuned models, including the Porsche 997 GT 2, the Audi RS4, the Lotus Elise 111R, the Shelby Terlingua (a highly modified Ford Mustang made specifically for the Need for Speed series), the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, and the Pagani Zonda F. The game will feature more than 70 different cars in total, including hatches, classics, and exotic imports, and while we didn't get to see all of these, we did manage to get behind the wheel of the RS4 and the Terlingua and found them to look, sound, and feel incredibly authentic and true to life, complete with full race-day liveries. In fact, the car models looked so good that we almost found ourselves wanting to look more at the cars than at the road in front of us. In addition to creating realistic visuals, Slightly Mad is going for realistically performing cars, forgoing the rubber-band catch-up of arcade racers for damage modelling, with penalties to your car's physics, performance, and appearance should you hit too many obstacles in your way. The environments are also promised to be realistic, with animated crowds, race marshals, and LCD screens helping to re-create the race-day atmosphere.
If you fancy an in-cockpit, first-person view, you'll be pleased to know that the insides of the cars look as meticulous as the outsides, with highly detailed dashboards, driver animations, and even full working instruments. In fact, you can get rid of the heads-up display entirely and rely solely on the car's gauges if you so desire, and you can peer around the cockpit or even out of the window. The team has also tried to make you feel like you're connected with the car in external camera views by having the camera jerk back when you accelerate and shunt forward when you're braking. Additionally, the HUD shakes when in bumper view to give you a feeling of speed and vibration.
Shift's AI drivers will range from aggressive hotheads to cool, calm, and collected drivers, and the game's grudge system will ensure that aggravated drivers with a personal vendetta will seek out their revenge. Despite this, you won't have to worry about the marshals getting in the way with drive-through penalties or yellow flags. You'll also be able to compete against other humans. Though we didn't get to experience Shift's multiplayer, the game will support 16 players in online races. Need for Speed: Shift combines impressive real-world locations and cars, solid simulation gameplay, and some interesting additions to help immerse you in the racing experience. It's currently set for an autumn 2009 release on the PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PSP. In the meantime, stay tuned to GameSpot for more on Shift as it approaches.