After a strong, but not quite Codemasters-troubling debut, EA’s Need for Speed: Shift really means it this time around. Again diverging from the series’ traditional model of simple handling and all-out acceleration, in favour of a more considered circuit-racing sim along the lines of Codies’ Grid, the sequel is out for blood. Yours, that of your car, that of your opponents, and most categorically of all, that of its rivals.
Its developers you see, make no bones about going after Gran Turismo 5 and Forza 3 this time. And having gone hands-on recently, we are very much listening.
Shift 2 is being designed around a philosophy its developers call ‘Drivers’ Battle’. It’s essentially a slightly ostentatious way of saying ‘this game is frigging brutal’, and it encompasses several elements. First up, driver AI has been improved. The idea, wisely aping the manifesto of Codemasters’ current batch of none-more-thrilling racing games, is to make them as human and aggressive as possible. The days of AI drivers as simple moving obstacles on set paths are long over, and Shift 2 aims to create a living, breathing race around you, full of real rivals fully intent of stuffing you right up.
Next up is the new camera mode. If you played the first Shift, you’ll remember the teeth-rattlingly kinetic cockpit cam. Rather than simply show you the view over your dashboard, it zoomed. retracted, twisted and banked in real-time as various g-forces took their toll on your driver’s seating position. It was brilliantly convincing, but Shift 2 has something better.
The upgraded headcam view is even more visceral. Shift developer Slightly Mad Studios say it’s like comparing a hardcore flight simulator to an FPS in reference to its difference from the first game’s in-car camera, and having taken it for a quick burst around the track, it’s hard to argue.
Hurtling through a night time race in inner-city Shanghai, the sense of being there was profound. Every acceleration and braking manoeuvre was like a mini set-piece in itself, my virtual head alternately yanked back into the seat or thrown towards the windscreen to a nose-scraping degree. Entering corners at speed, my driver’s pre-emptive peek around the bend coupled with his bodily shift to the side gave the experience an almost rollercoaster intensity.
Combined with the rapid shifts in velocity required to properly nail the apex, it was thrilling. And yet, despite all of these brutal visual spasms, I managed to remain in control, never losing track of where I was heading. A tricky balance to strike, but one that on current evidence, Slightly Mad seem to have deftly pulled off. And one that I’m really looking forward to playing around with some more.
The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed my reference to night driving up there. Night races were something that the first Shift lacked, but now they’re in. And like everything in Shift 2, they’re being implemented with puke-teasing adrenalin as their driving force.
The guys at Slightly Mad were eager to emphasise the difference between real night racing and video game night lighting. They don’t want to simply create the same tracks you’ve already seen, just a bit darker. Shift 2’s night racing is all about impenetrable inky blacks punctuated by small, merciful oasises of fleeting light. Your nerves and your headlights are your best and only friends in these events, and if your lights go out by way of a head-on bump, you can swap out that particular partner in favour of prayers.
Having enlisted professional drivers to help create a genuine sense of what real night driving is all about, Slightly Mad have concluded that it’s “scary as f*ck”. And their translation of that ethos is disturbingly convincing. Think of it as the John Carpenter’s Halloween of racing games.
The bar has been raised for racing games over recent years. Speed and sexy car models just aren’t enough any more. “Racing simulation” doesn’t just mean accurate braking distances and half an hour noodling around with engine tuning before each race. It means an affecting evocation of all the physical trauma, fear and excitement of rattling around at track at high speeds in a heavy chunk of explosive metal. The developers of Need for Speed: Shift 2 seem to be embracing that philosophy with borderline sadistic relish, and even after my relatively brief spin around the track with their new monster, I’m very very eager to find out just how big its teeth really are.