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Slightly Mad Studios takes on night racing in its second instalment of the Shift series...
It's hard for driving sim publishers. Good simulations are by their very nature iterative, slowly-evolving exercises in gameplay progression. The road to a sequel is built on hours of subtle handling refinement and careful re-balancing; how do you communicate such painstaking advancement in a couple of easily marketable bullet points without underwhelming consumers, appearing staid next to other games in the racing genre? Naturally, Shift 2 features a host of carefully tweaked cars, dramatically refined physics, AI, and a new rendering engine, but the new points EA stressed at its recent Winter Showcase were:
- A subtly improved first-person view,
- Night-time racing.
Don't be too underwhelmed. If you, like me, wrote off the Need for Speed games in the PS2 era as slightly dodgy imitations of the mediocre racing sections in GTA, you're in for a surprise with Shift 2. The Shift series has more in common with Forza or Gran Turismo than the arcadey police chases Need for Speed is known for, eschewing the EMP attacks and road spikes of Criterion's recently released NFS: Hot Pursuit in favour of realistic handling and obsessive physics simulation. It's no-doubt part of the reason why EA has decided to drop the Need For Speed brand altogether with this second instalment in the series, simply calling it Shift 2: Unleashed instead, and much of the tech underpinning the game has been overhauled for this sequel with the aim of producing a driving sim that can compete with the front-runners of the genre.
"We're very actively going after the sim racing genre to be out there and compete with GT5 and Forza," Executive Producer, Marcus Nilsson said at EA's recent event.
Battlefield creator, DICE is overseeing production of the game, which is being developed by Slightly Mad Studios. The London-based (Slightly Mad) team cut their teeth on the first Shift game, having previously earned their stripes working on SimBin's respected GTR series of PC racing simulations in a former life as Blimey! Games.
The conceptual conceit behind this latest title is the 'driver's battle': with the road, with the car, and against opponents. The aim is to replicate the tension of screaming into a hairpin turn at night-time, and communicate that sense of speed and terror to the player. Central to this is the evocatively titled 'helmet cam', which builds on the lauded 'cockpit view' of the first game in an attempt to mimic the real view a driver would experience during a race.
"If cockpit view was analogous to an FPS in the last game - it had disorientation effects, the g-forces, things like that - helmet cam is analogous to a flight sim; so you'll see that your head kind of turns into the corner, looks into the corner, and there's depth of field there to make sure that you focus on the apex all the time," Nilsson explained.
Racing through the dusky streets of a Shanghai cityscape demonstrated the subtle immersion offered by the improved 'helmet cam'; corners are naturally anticipated by the view, while little bumps and scrapes nudge the screen, and more serious collisions are rendered genuinely unpleasant by a jarring, blurry, black and white 'whiplash' effect. Crashing through corners results in abrupt deceleration in addition to the caustic visual penalty, discouraging the cheap racing tactics which occasionally blight some of Shift's more established competitors.
Somewhat twitchy steering enhances the sense of 'battle' with your vehicle, although the game's simulation credentials felt a tad compromised by the array of assisted driving options enabled by default in the demo; including a particularly irksome assisted braking system that overrode even my most vigorous attempts to accelerate into a 90 degree turn and total my car. The 'traffic light' racing line - which changes from red to yellow to green to indicate whether you need to brake or accelerate - felt more forgiving than the equivalent binary red/blue system in Gran Turismo 5, and more useful for judging corners as a result, especially in combination with the improved helmet cam. Purists can of course turn off the assisted driving features for a more challenging racing experience, but they might want to reinstate them when attempting a race in night-time conditions.
"We're not putting floodlights on the corners, we're not putting giant chevrons telling you which way to go - I mean this is proper scary night racing just like it should be," an EA rep demoing the night courses explained. "Obviously if your headlights then go out as well, then you're absolutely screwed."
The danger and excitement inherent in the night-time tracks is complemented by the full-throated roar of the engine sound effects which deserve special praise for their brutal, abrasive timbre. It certainly looked harder than the daytime racing I had experienced, with the rep on hand struggling to complete the course without crashing repeatedly.
"Other games may have 'night racing' but I really think that is night lighting - it's just the same environment but darker." he continued,
"This gives you a whole new reason to play it; you may think you know a course inside and out, but when you turn the lights out you probably don't know it as well as you think."
Hot Pursuit's popular Autolog feature returns in Shift 2, allowing you to engage with a pseudo social network at any time with the press of a button, viewing your friends' achievements and comparing them to your own. According to Nilsson, Autolog updates "down to the second you do something", posting new accolades to your wall and encouraging comment and competition from your online acquaintances.
"Throughout the game you can break down everything you do in your whole career into events; there's a meta-game of 'How many do you own; how many do your friends own?' and that's a big competition" he said.
"I fundamentally think that most people will play the game through that. You can earn XP from beating your friends in Autolog, so it ties straight into the concept of how you're progressing in the game as well."
Fans of the racing genre will be content with knowing that Shift 2: Unleashed is shaping up to be a thoroughly competent simulation with some smart progressive ideas at its core. Unfortunately, the smartest idea - a realistic first-person racing view - can't hope to feel as revolutionary the second time around. Nevertheless, a raft of upgrades to the underlying engine and a lean focus on core driving mechanics rather than flabby extras mark Shift 2 out as one to watch for its spring 2011 release window. EA wasn't revealing any of DICE's multiplayer at its Winter Showcase, but hopefully the offline split-screen option that was so missed in the original will be implemented in this sequel.
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