Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit may have only just hit store shelves, but publisher EA is already hard at work on the next instalment in the series. Shift 2 Unleashed comes from the same team that brought us 2009's original Need for Speed: Shift. The Need for Speed name will be a more subdued feature of the box art, but this game signifies EA splitting its uber-successful racing franchise into distinct arcade and sim categories, with Shift 2 squarely aiming its sights on the Forza and Gran Turismo series. Has it got what it takes to compete with such heavyweight critical and commercial successes? We went hands-on with the game to find out.
Our guide for the demo session was DICE's Marcus Nilsson, Shift 2 Unleashed's executive producer and the man who's overseeing the whole project. DICE may now be best known for the Battlefield series, but at one time it was also the force behind Microsoft's critically acclaimed driving series Rallisport Challenge. Eagle-eyed fans will have also spotted the Swedish studio's involvement in a number of other EA games recently, including Medal of Honor and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Nilsson's role here is to lead London's Slightly Mad Studios through development of the game, under the watchful eye of Electronic Arts senior VP Patrick Soderlund.
It's a bold claim that the game will take on both Forza and Gran Turismo--Forza 3 won our driving game of the year award in 2009, while Gran Turismo 5 had the luxury of more than five years of development time. That said, Nilsson is bullish about the game's sim credentials, even if reaching a high number of cars isn't his main aim. Instead, his focus is on what he calls "the driver's battle"--heading into a corner at night at 150mph should induce pure terror, according to the Swede.
As a result, the original Shift's distinctive visual style has been amplified for the sequel. Those who played the last game in the default in-car view will remember how bombastic the presentation was--knocks to your car would result in the camera being shaken, while more serious crashes would blur your vision. This time around, the helmet cam will also aid your driving, moving automatically to look into a corner as you approach, mimicking the behaviour of real drivers. The crashes will also be even more realistic this time around, with Nilsson claiming that the team has innovated at the core of the game, resulting in an improved physics engine this time around.
Anyone who has played Hot Pursuit should be pleased to hear that Autolog, the social engine that we said "does a great job of constantly comparing you to your friends and compelling you to compete with them" in our review, is a big part of Shift 2 Unleashed as well. You'll be given a profile, a gallery, friends, and a wall, and Autolog will constantly update to feed you with friend activity that you can compete against. You'll also be able to upload pictures for your friends to see, as well as comment on their achievements, or taunt them when you've beaten them, and the Autolog system will stretch its tentacles online so you can see what's happening from your Web browser even when you're away from the game. Like Hot Pursuit, Shift 2 Unleashed will also feature a point-based experience system that will see your driver levelling up as you progress.
The highlight of our preview was getting to sit down in a force feedback D-Box gaming chair, which was rigged up to a high-end PC running a preview build of the game. Our demo offered us a range of tracks in locations such as Shanghai, Australia's Bathurst track at dusk, and the daunting prospect of Belgium's Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps at night. It was a challenge to race around the latter in a chair programmed to make you feel every bump and corner, especially because the number of driving aids was limited. Slightly easier was jumping on one of the PCs set up around the demo room, which were equipped with Xbox 360 pads, but in each setup, we had a lot of fun with what seemed to be a fairly advanced build of the game.
Our hands-on with the preview build was encouraging--there was a lot to play around with, bugs were rare, and it seemed polished overall. Since our preview event, EA has announced that Shift 2 Unleashed will be released in the second quarter of 2011, so it's likely that the build we looked at was in a fairly advanced state. With EA being so bullish about its simulation credentials, it will be interesting to see how Slightly Mad Studio steps up to the plate to compete with Polyphony Digital and Turn 10 Studios. Expect to see more on the game from GameSpot in the run up to release.