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.
To ensure races don't turn into glorified procession laps, with AI drivers sticking rigidly to their ideal racing lines, Slightly Mad has created 12 unique AI personalities that will each behave differently on the track and react in various ways to how you're driving. While I only got to drive a single race on two circuits, that was enough time to see some pretty brutal racing, with the AI drivers really going at each other. At one point I accidentally clipped the driver ahead, forcing him to try and regain traction, but in doing so he span into the side of my car and forced in into a spin. Later on I came across a car that had spun and sat all alone in the middle of the road, presumably after getting into some trouble with another driver.
All this is well and good, but what makes SHIFT so exciting is the feeling of driving it gives. A lot of work has gone into modelling the G-Forces real race car drivers experience, and it's something that makes a hell of a difference when you actually get to play the game for yourself. Simple things like your perspective moving forwards when you break and edging back slightly as you accelerate are subtle, but work brilliantly. There's some slightly but noticeable head-bob when you're tearing along at top speed, and crashes cause mayhem with the camera as your head is flung all over the place and your vision blurs. It's extremely impressive stuff, especially when played using the cockpit view, although some may find the bonnet cam to be the easier option.
SHIFT is out in September so there's time for plenty of tweaking of the visuals, but the game already looks brilliant. SHIFT only runs at 30fps, but combined with some stunning motion blur it's hard to tell that it's not the much heralded 60fps. Cars look superb, 16 can take part in races and they can all be procedurally damaged. Even dirt that gathers on your windscreen can be wiped off using your wipers.
Shrouded in as much mystery as the career mode is the online functionality. EA said that it's aiming to compete with the best in the genre, including the likes of PGR and Forza, so you can expect very good things. DLC is also said to be a big part of Slightly Mad's plans, with future updates and content already being planned to ensure the game receives regular hits of new content post release. Something else being planned is a pre-release demo - so look for an announcement over the coming months.
SHIFT is clearly a big departure for EA and the Need for Speed series, having built the brand up over the last two console generations to represent arcade racing at its most exhilarating, but it's almost certainly onto a winner. Slightly Mad Studios has a great pedigree (its staff formed the core development team on the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning GTR - FIA GT Racing Game, its successor GTR2, and the classic sports car racing game, GT Legends), so SHIFT will undoubtedly be fighting for first place on the podium come its September release.
Need for Speed: SHIFT is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and PSP on September 17.