With a new Forza still to be announced,, Gran Turismo 5 due out whenever it's ready and Codemasters' next-gen F1 game not due until Spring 2010, the sim racing genre isn't exactly awash with titles at the moment. Thankfully EA and UK-based Slightly Mad Studios look set to give racing fans something to get excited about this September, when Need for Speed SHIFT on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and PSP arrives in stores. At EA's recent EA Games Label and EA Sports EU Showcase event I got hands-on time with the 360 and PS3 builds of the game and came away somewhat concerned for the opposition.
Let's get something out of the way first. This is a sim. While the Need for Speed franchise has been something of an arcade, thrill-ride racing series for some time (save for the disappointing ProStreet), complete with open-world elements, cop chases and weaving in and out of traffic, this is circuit based racing with real cars that perform like they do in real life. You're not going to mount the pavement and then have four police cars chasing you across the city, and you're not going to have models and movie stars appearing in cheesy cutscenes. SHIFT is all about delivering a realistic driving experience.
With that being said, EA knows a lot of gamers are going to find a no-nonsense sim a bit of a step up from what they're used to from the series, so has implemented numerous tweaks to enable even novices to drive super-fast sports cars around tough courses. While I wasn't able to see any of this myself, EA also claims to have included various teaching mechanics that gradually build up your confidence around the tracks - something that will be essential if you're at all interested in taking the game seriously.
I got to drive around a beautifully modelled Road America track in a high performance sports car, yet found it to be a perfectly achievable. While a fan of racers like PGR and Forza, I'm by no means an expert, so for a moment it seemed as though I'd found our true calling in life as a race car driver. EA was quick to point out, however, that the car had been set up with all assists on, a massive breaking and racing line visual aid was painted on the track and that in fact this was the easiest the game could be. It was good news though really, seeing as a sim shouldn't be easy. With all the aids on the game will still be a tricky proposition for novices, but with them off even the most hardcore sim fans will find a game that won't be easily mastered.
A key part of EA's overall vision for SHIFT is to remove the grind often associated with sim racers. The publisher wouldn't go into too much detail on the career mode (with that to be revealed properly at E3 in June), but did say that players will be rewarded for playing the game, even if they're not winning. So, presumably there won't be any need to hit restart in the pause menu when you crash on the first corner of the last lap and lose all hope of getting a podium finish. Exactly what these rewards are remains to be seen, but presumably cash will be part of it.