June 10, 2009 – Need for Speed isn’t a series, it’s a brand. Since its debut on the 3DO in 1994, they’ve been re-imagined as arcade races, cops and robbers chase games, and open-world underground racing tournaments. Now it seems Need for Speed has come full circle, returning to the realism that was its original focus. This isn’t a retread, though, as quite a lot has changed in the driving sim world in the last 15 years, and Need for Speed: Shift hopes to advance the ball even further.
The most instantly noticeable difference is the return of the in-car view. This was a major feature of the original 3DO game, but now the concept has become more than just a dashboard and wheel at the bottom of the screen. The interior of the car is incredibly detailed, and the camera has been rethought to exploit this – a rarity in the racing genre. There’s a lot of subtlety to the view, which shakes and moves as you drive, and you can actually look around the car while you’re driving. A subtle, cinematic motion blur smoothes out the movements, and a bigger blur obscures your vision when you crash. It all looks eerily realistic, though I personally prefer third-person views because it gives me a better sense of the physical dimensions of my car and where it can fit.
Developed by London-based Slightly Mad Studios, Shift appears to be a hardcore simulation with an extreme attention to detail, in the vein of Codemasters games like TOCA or GRID. Everything has realistic physics simulation, from the grip of the tires to the wind resistance. The young developer really seems to understand things from a simulation perspective, but this is a game that will seriously alienate the series’ more casual fans. EA seems to be going after Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport more than they are Project Gotham Racing or Midnight Club.
There are some elements of the more challenge-oriented approach of games like PGR and GRID, though. Each race has different goals you can achieve, which reward you with Stars and Badges. Each of these can be anything from a very specific challenge to just meeting a certain time or point quota. The career mode also has a few twists of its own. You progress through the game by earning Precisions and Aggression points. You can get Precision points for making it through clean – turning smoothly and passing without hitting an opponent. You’ll be rewarded with Aggression points for taking the opposite approach – trading paint with rival cars or cutting them off. These points can be used to upgrade your car, but the upgrades are tailored to whichever kinds of points you’re racking up. This forces players to think about how they’re driving and balance their approach. It’s a thoughtful angle that plays to the game’s incredible depth.
EA is going to have a lot of competition in the racing market this fall, but the Need for Speed franchise has weathered worse and survived. It seems like they’re targeting a narrower, more hardcore market during a time when the rest of the industry is scrambling for the casual gamer’s dollar. It could work for them – hardcore gamers didn’t just go away the day the Wii launched. We have little doubt that this game will do great with race fans in Europe, but in the US, it might be a little hard to convert gamers to the pure simulation approach.
Out with the Old
April 3, 2009 – One of the biggest challenges for long-running titles, especially those that fall into the competitive sports genre is keeping the experience fresh. While the Need for Speed franchise isn’t exactly an annual sports title, it has definitely suffered in recent years from falling into the same trap, becoming a little bit too predictable. This was most painfully apparent in last year’s Need for Speed: Undercover, which was panned for its lack of modes and shallow arcade-style controls. Fortunately, it looks like the Need for Speed franchise is going back to the drawing board in a big way for this year’s iteration, Need for Speed SHIFT.
The biggest change for SHIFT will be the control scheme. While the Need for Speed franchise has been known as an arcade-style racer, SHIFT will begin progressing the game toward a more advanced, sim-style control. Although it won’t be as demanding as the Gran Turismo or Forza series, it looks like it will feature deeper, more precision-driven mechanics than previous titles.
Need for Speed SHIFT’s driving mechanics will also introduce a new environmental component to the controls. Instead of just zooming along down an even-textured track, SHIFT will introduce textured tracks that will force you to adapt your driving to changing surfaces as well as even the slightest impact.
Another area where Need for Speed SHIFT is making some major changes is in the crash area. Although no professional driver likes the feeling of an out of control car, crashes are one of the biggest features in any car-focused title, as evidenced by the popularity of the Burnout franchise. Although the crashes in Burnout help convey the damage and destruction involved when a car impacts something else at a high velocity, Need for Speed SHIFT will channel the fear and danger involved in a high-speed crash.
When your car hits something, you will see a brutal crash animation, and the first-person camera will shake violently. You will also hear sound effects like a speeding heartbeat during and after the crash, and you will have blurry vision while your driver is recovering. The new crash mechanic really sounds like it is going to amp up the terror factor, which is a good thing for a series that is trying to reinvent itself as a more realistic title.
The format of the races will also be different in SHIFT as well, and will actually herald a return to focus for the series. Instead of dabbling in an open-world or focusing on underground street racing, SHIFT will feature a straight-up tournament system that will give this title much better focus than before.
The tournament will feature several real-world and game-world tracks from all over the world, which basically rules out any open-world track selection. Although some might decry the absence of the open-world this time around, I think this change is necessary and will help the game feel like a more “serious” title than ever before. The format is probably also more conducive to quick replays as well as taking on individual challenges which might be associated with each track.
However, even though a lot is changing in Need for Speed SHIFT, a lot of things look like they will be staying the same. There will still be a grudge system that works to amp up competitiveness with both A.I. and human racers and will probably drive some of the game’s early objectives. Although it is not known if this will be a factor in the new Tournament format, I can’t see this feature being abandoned completely, even though it might play a lesser role.
Although there is a lot of information floating around about the gameplay, there still is a lot that we don’t know. For instance, there have been no confirmed details released about possible online play or even which vehicles will be included in this title. However, from what we have seen so far, Need for Speed SHIFT is going to be a “grown up” version of the title and will be the most sophisticated of the three planned Need for Speed releases for this year (Nintendo-exclusive Need for Speed: Nitro and Free-to-play MMO title Need for Speed: World Online comprising the other two.) Although it looks like it will be a big year for the franchise, my money is on Need for Speed SHIFT being the best of the three, and I can’t wait to try it out when it is released this September.