It can't be easy trying to come up with new ideas for racing games. I suppose there's a bit of leeway if you're making an arcade racer of some kind (not that anyone plays them, anymore), but if you're going down the super-serious route, it's hard to innovate. If a developer asked me to spruce up their buttoned-down racing sim, I'd be an absolute disaster. I'd probably end up giving the cars five wheels, or something equally stupid. Either that, or I'd turn it into a kart racer starring a gang of cartoon farm animals (I advise you to pick Miss Chicken; she lays explosive eggs on the track).
By the general standards of obsessive autophilia sims, Need For Speed: Shift seemed fairly progressive. It certainly didn't hurt that the game was such a departure from the series' usual Fast and the Furious shtick, but there was something quite fresh about the punishing style adopted by Slightly Mad Studios. Shift wasn't just strict; it forced you into a rubber gimp suit, whipped your buttocks, and forced you to clean the toilet with your tongue. I swear that on one occasion my car crashed before I even picked up the controller. The game was a demanding mistress, but she rewarded perseverance with a keen sense of satisfaction. At least, that's what I was told; I kept crashing, so I stopped playing and watched Chucklevision instead.
Aside from its demanding austerity, Shift was notable for its excellent cockpit views, and by extension for its efforts to recreate the feel of driving a real car. The first reveal of next year's sequel shows that verisimilitude will once again be at the forefront of Slightly Mad's goals. The detail-rich in-car view returns, but now there's also the option to use a Helmet Camera - an option that more directly simulates the driver's experience of a race. While the standard in-car perspective offers a fairly close-up view through the windscreen, the Helmet Cam makes you feel like you're further back in the vehicle. As you take corners at speed your vision will shift sideways, mimicking the effect of gravitational stress on your bonce. In addition to upping the immersion factor, your skewed viewpoint also guides you towards the correct racing line, acting as a subtle driving aid.
The other thing to note about this new camera is that it makes the action feel surprisingly claustrophobic - a touch which feeds into Slightly Mad's wider design aims. A major part of Shift 2: Unleashed is going to focus on night racing, and in particular on the dangers associated with speeding about in the dark. The developers on hand at EA's preview event even claimed they want the game to have a borderline survival horror-like feel; initially I thought that this suggestion sounded a bit daft, but when you see the game in action you begin to understand what they're going for. You sit in the gloom of your car's interior, peering though the windscreen at the shadowy track outside. As you approach a rival car, the rear of their vehicle shines white under the cold light of your headlamps, and as the two of you hit a corner you battle to stay in control, head tilting under the strain of the turn.
Sinister atmospherics aside, you can also expect AutoLog to get a lot more attention over the coming months. Following its debut in the recent Hot Pursuit, EA's stat-tracking tool will be built into every new Need for Speed from here on, gathering volumes of stats on every race you undertake. You can upload pics, post on people's walls and take part in recommended events based upon your track record. You'll also find that beating a mate's time will add XP to your single-player career, blurring the divide between the two halves of the game.
The primary aim of all this is to foster deep-rooted competition between (supposed) friends. Rivalry is a key ingredient for any online racer, after all - it's the thing that keeps players coming back for more. EA is far from the only developer exploring the use of networking tools in its games, but it's certainly noteworthy how heavily it's trying to push AutoLog. Given the vast quantities of data collected by the service, don't be surprised if Julian Assange sits up and takes notice; two years from now we'll be reading leaked reports about how Obama kicked Silvio Berlusconi's arse in a Vauxhall Nova, or something similar.
Okay, so that probably won't happen, but you might find yourself gloating over Hairy Dave from Clacton-on-Sea. Either way, it'll be interesting to see how the game fares next year. There's the small matter of DiRT 3 and Forza 4 on the horizon, but given that EA and Slightly Mad will be the first out of the starting block, there's a good chance that Shift 2 will lead the pack for at least some of 2011.
Shift 2: Unleashed will be released in the spring of 2011 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.