The Need for Speed franchise is going in a new direction and new series developer - Slightly Mad Studios - is definitely on the right track. The game, which will be a sim-style racer with arcade elements, seeks to do some things never-before-seen in a racing game. The team making the game features members from SimBin, which was responsible for the critically acclaimed GTR2 and RACE on the PC.
With EA Black Box no longer holding the reigns to the series, Slightly Mad Studios is free to re-invent itself and step up to the big leagues with Gran Turismo and Forza. The developers recognize that they probably can't compete with those two franchises in terms of pure physics-based realism, but they can focus on other aspects to make their game stand out - AI racers and the driver experience.
EA believes that Shift will feature the most realistic racer AI ever and my brief time with the game seems to confirm this claim. The AI won't just race the perfect line each time. They will be individually named and have their own personalities. They'll react to you and the other racers in different ways and most importantly: they will make mistakes.
Coming into the third turn a bit late, an AI racer had hit it a bit too fast and spun out the car ahead of him. I had to slam on my brakes and swerve to avoid the two cars while pushing through the corner. The fact that I had nothing to do with causing this collision, but had to quickly work to avoid it is a testament to the work being done on this game. It was completely unexpected (even after I was told that the AI would work this way) and exhilarating. The next race I ran had no such AI mistakes.
I'm also told that if you drive overly aggressive and attempt to spin out the AI racers, they might just look to retaliate and take you out of the race. Sure, other games have hyper-realistic tracks with imperfections in the road, but give me true AI racers any day of the week. If the groundbreaking AI isn't enough for you, Shift will feature a multiplayer component, but EA isn't ready to discuss those options yet.
As for driver experience, Slightly Mad Studios wants to capture the feel of being a race driver. This is best experienced in the cockpit view while driving. Each interior will be modeled according to the car's real world equivalent and some aspects of the dash can even be customized by the player. The driver's hands are modeled on the wheel, but it doesn't stop there. The camera is actually the driver's head, not a set camera inside the car where the driver's head would be. At the starting line, you're in place, but as soon as you slam on the gas the inertia brings your head back into your seat and your viewpoint changes. Slamming on the breaks will bring the driver's head forward. Drive fast enough and your view will begin to blur around the edges as you focus on the road ahead.
That's great, but here's where it goes beyond. Try hitting a wall. In other racing games, the car will spin out, but that's it. It's disorienting, but easy to find your bearings and race on. It completely ignores the fact that you just hit a wall or car going 90MPH. In Shift, you're going to feel that impact. Your view will blur, the color will drain from the world, and the camera will move where the driver's head would be, not just where the car is. It's extremely disorienting and really reinforces the fact that hitting things in a car is a bad thing.
These two features immediately seem like they set a new bar for all sim-style racers. So those are the innovations, but how does the game actually play? Concrete details were not revealed, but I was assured that the developers want to make sure that the player is rewarded for completing a race and not just for coming in first place. They recognized that many driving games put the player in the habit of restarting if they slip out of the perfect line. At some point during the career mode, you'll have to start pulling in those first place finishes, but it won't be required in every race.
Graphically, the game is impressive, but isn't quite up to the painstakingly crafted visuals of Gran Turismo 5. Shift will feature real world tracks as well as tracks based upon certain cities and other tracks. As for cars, they will be licensed and expect cars from mid-range to top-tier exotics. I've been assured that you won't be starting the game in a minivan or PT Cruiser.
I can't speak highly enough about how well that Shift makes you feel like you're actually racing on a track with other humans. It's immersive and I can't wait to play it with my racing wheel. Even though Gran Turismo 5 could be a huge competitor when ultimately launched, NFS Shift will keep me plenty busy when it hits the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC this Fall.