EA has been missing more than hitting with Need for Speed the last few years. After a strong next-gen launch with Most Wanted, the quality of the series' subsequent games--Carbon, then ProStreet, then last year's middling Undercover--has been steadily on the wane. Rather than go back to the drawing board and retool the series with a single new game, EA has taken a spitball approach to revitalizing Need for Speed, throwing all kinds of ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Those ideas include a hardcore racing simulation, an over-the-top Wii action racer, and an online, free-to-play racer to be released only in Asia. (We're scratching our heads a bit on all this, too.)
SHIFT, the sim, is the first of the new Need for Speeds EA is ready to show to the press. The game is in development at UK-based Slightly Mad Studios, a company made up partially of former employees from SimBin, the studio behind the popular and extremely hardcore simulation-style GT Legends series. Slightly Mad is bringing its experience in that subset of the racing genre over to SHIFT, which has a lot more in common with the Forzas and Gran Turismos of the world than it does with games like Most Wanted.
I'll be honest: I'm not much of a racing sim guy. Burnout is about as serious as I get with my driving games, so I can't tell you too much about the torque or handling of individual cars here. But I can at least say SHIFT made a reasonably approachable first impression, all things considered. Sitting down and grabbing an Xbox 360 controller to play a PC build of the game, I was able to follow the game's racing line and make my way around a fictionalized London course without wrecking my expensive racing car too many times.
That guide line certainly takes its cues from Forza, dynamically changing color based on how you're driving to let you know whether you should be accelerating or braking at any given time to handle the next turn. But while Forza only had three colors--green, yellow, and red--SHIFT adds in blue. See, innovation! Blue lets you know that you have room to accelerate; green means you're doing OK; yellow and red are various degrees of "Hey, you should think about braking now."
SHIFT certainly looked quite nice (though EA wouldn't disclose the specs and resolution of the PC running the game). They used a developer toggle to cycle through different times of day, switching from noontime to dusk to evening in a matter of seconds, casting the scenery in a really attractive range of lighting. The sense of speed is one area the team is focusing on in an effort to set SHIFT apart from Forza and Gran Turismo, going as far as to coin the phrase "driver experience" as an inevitable marketing point. Creating that experience entails little visual elements like mounting the in-car camera to the driver's head, rather than the roof of the car, so you get camera movement independent of the car frame's jitter and jostling. Other touches include a blurring around the edges of the screen to increase the sense of speed, and blurring and desaturating the screen when you hit a wall too hard, to simulate the concussive effect a driver experiences when his head gets knocked sharply around.
No info on the game's career format yet; EA isn't ready to talk specifics in that department, though it did say there will be 40 to 60 licensed cars in the final version. Presumably, the career mode will tie into that "driver experience" business that makes for such catchy marketing copy.
Of course, I couldn't sit in on a Need for Speed demo without asking when we'll see another Most Wanted-style game, especially given the recent rumors of a secret fourth NFS game being in development. "You haven't seen the last [Need for Speed] action game on consoles," said the series' PR rep, adding that there are certainly other games in the series being worked on in some capacity right now. But one thing EA will confirm: you won't see any more new, unannounced Need for Speed games in 2009.
Since I'm not the biggest fan of this genre, I put the question to you racing sim fans: Is there room for SHIFT in your life, or are you too hung up on waiting for Gran Turismo 5 and/or whatever Turn 10 ends up doing next?