The Need for Speed series from EA has rarely been known for innovation. The early titles were distinctive affairs with rolling point to point countryside tracks featuring supercars and police chases. At that time they set something of a standard for others to follow, but in recent times the series has dug itself into a hole. The corporate machine churning out yearly titles across multiple platforms which have sold well but were rarely well received critically and didn’t excite.
Now EA has taken some bold steps to spice up the series. Splitting the focus across two European development teams and the franchise in two we have Need for Speed:Shift from Slightly Mad Studios and a future title from Criterion to follow in 2010. Need for Speed Shift is the title I want to discuss here. Not as a review or critique of the end product, but to talk about an element it gets so very right that it deserves some examination and recognition – the steps it takes to immerse the player and stimulate their senses.
Need for Speed Shift breaks new ground for the series by being targeted as more of a simulation than previous iterations. Slightly Mad Studios have a good pedigree in this area and it is clear EA are trying to take this part of the franchise in a distinct direction. The result is not an all encompassing simulation to the levels of the Forza or Gran Turismo series, but there is a lot more under the bonnet than first meets the eye. It has a multitude of upgrade options, adjustable settings and a welcome set of control options to tweak. The end result can feel like a successor to the Project Gotham series, and whilst it does fill that recently vacated gap I think that comparison does some disservice to the simulation credentials of Shift.
What really separates Shift from Forza and Gran Turismo is that Shift takes a stronger look at all facets of simulation and has some interesting takes on where simulation lines can be drawn. A strong physics model and the sheen of graphical realism are not the only areas they explore. A key part of Shift is the graphical and sonic effects which get turned up a notch to really put you in the driving seat. Where in other simulations driving a standard car versus driving a supercar can at times be little more than the scenery going past you at a faster rate, in Shift you feel the thrill, you feel the danger and you get a greater a sense of driving on the edge.
The first key area of immersion you’ll notice in Shift is the way that movement is handled. The camera or view you chose to play from is not fixed, it doesn’t just represent game movement, it is an active participant in the game. Corners feel leant in to, jostles move you and kerbs can be felt. The in-car view is a wonder to behold, not just because it should be more immersive, because it just works so well with the movement. I’m not usually a fan of an in-car view, why reduce the valuable information you can see ahead of you? Here is where the subtle shift in movement is more pronounced and effective though. The dashboard gives you reference and perspective on the camera shifts, so even the most subtle movement is not simply an effect – it’s feedback.
A more interesting and controversial effect is the focus or depth of field effects which occur at high speed. In most racing games there will be an element of motion blur. As you get faster the objects moving closest to you are blurred to create a better sensation of speed. This is not the only thing Shift does though. As you reach very high speeds the focal point of the camera moves toward the distance – where your eye would naturally focus at such speeds – so closer objects become out of focus. You shouldn’t care about the scenery close by – that is already upon you – you need to focus on what is rapidly approaching and this is what the camera simulates. Elements close to you blur – not due just to speed, but also focus. Again this is more pronounced in the in-car view, as the dash goes out of focus due to the effect. This is a key example which differentiates this effect from motion blur too. When described it sounds like it shouldn’t really work, and indeed watch a video or someone else playing and it seems strange. The effect also doesn’t always work and can be broken if closely following another car as it is out of focus. If you are the player though, for the most part it feels natural and comfortable. It helps you focus and heightens the thrill and intensity of high speeds.
The way Shift handles crashes is also worth some discussion. There is normally a mechanism in games to stop players gaining an advantage through barging and slamming their way round a course, and often this comes as a compromise between realism and game requirements. In Shift a major crash will cause you to white-out – screen goes white and slowly fades back in to focus. This does a very good job of simulating the disorientation you would feel in this situation. It may not be what happens in real life, but the key to this and other effects used in Shift, is that it feels like it is.
Reviews mentioning the sound in Shift tend to cover it with a single word – loud. This is true to an extent, it does feel like someone has turned the game up to eleven, but there are more subtle things going on here too. The sound effects are married well to complement the visual effects, changes and distortion in the sound are there to provide feedback and help create the overall experience.
I think experience is a good word to conclude with. Shift has managed to do the near impossible by making the simulation driving seem fresh and vibrant again. It’s done this by looking at key elements which many other games neglect and produced an experience which puts you in the driving seat like no other game I’ve played. It is going to have a big impact on the genre, but sadly one which will go unnoticed and uncredited by many.