Shift 2: Unleashed – hands-on preview
Earlier this month EA announced Shift 2: Unleashed, the sequel to last year’s simulation racer Need for Speed: Shift. Curiously, there appears to be less emphasis on “Need for Speed” in the title, although it still comes under the Need for Speed branch of games, and this (along with the suggestive title “Unleashed”) gives us the impression that EA has different plans for the game – that they want the name “Shift” to break free and become famous in its own right.
In our time playing Shift 2, we can see many reasons for EA to have such high confidence in their developer Slightly Mad Studio. First of all, there are major graphical improvements. The new rendering system makes the environments look considerably sharper and the cars much more luxurious than before. However, the main thing to notice is just how brutal and intense it all is.
EA are describing it as the “driver’s battle”, the constant battle between the player and his car, other drivers and the track. “Shift is all about making you feel the intensity of being a driver”, says executive producer Marcus Nilsson. They put you in the driver’s seat, and they want you to feel every bump on the ride.
The cockpit mode was one of the great success stories of Shift 1 – every knock would be exaggerated for you in the car – and with Shift 2 they are taking that further with the introduction of helmet cam. It is essentially a slight change in perspective with the camera now being positioned a few inches higher on the screen.
It may sound like a small change in aesthetics, but this has a big impact on the game. The head bounces around as you would expect from someone who was driving at 100mph and the eyes shift to prepare for turns and when overtaking, and your driver will react in an unsteady manner if you bang into another car. The head basically reacts as a real-life driver would.
Shift 2’s in-car mode is definitely more visceral than anything we’ve played before, and it’s certainly not a gimmick. “We really believe that helmet cam is one of the biggest innovations in racing games for a long time”, says Nilsson. When we raced on the streets of Shanghai at night, the darkness and the narrow streets and the confines of the helmet all combined to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. The world outside the car felt out of our control, and our time was spent trying to avoid crashing as much as it was about overtaking.
Yet, helmet cam doesn’t have to intimidating; it can be an aid for the driver. It’s much easier to approach corners when the driver’s eyes are pointing towards the approach line. Nevertheless, we braked much too late on our first corner and significantly smashed up our car. The damage model is still in its early stages of development, but this snapshot pointed towards heavy, visible, representations of your misdeed – basically, if you go into a wall at high speeds, you will have a mangled car to show for it.
With regards to cars, there will be around 130 in the game, but this number could drop slightly due to licensing issues. Nilsson says: “We have included the cars that you want to play”. This is clearly a not too subtle dig at Gran Turismo 5, although, that being said, every car we saw looked like a top-end racing model that we’d like to race with.
Part of the “diver’s battle” is the sense of competition, and Shift 2 will be using EA’s outstanding autolog system (seen to good effect in Hot Pursuit) to fuel this sense of battle between players. Players will be able to see exactly what their mates are doing, and be able to see their times. There’s even scope for notifications being pushed to your phone, to tell you when your mate has outdone your best times. Autolog is simple in its presentation, and the vital stats are in your face, appearing in real-time. Nilsson expects gamers to play as much through autolog as they will through the career.
Variety should be key to Shift 2’s success. As well as having a healthy number of cars, there will be around 100 different tracks to choose from. We’ve already mentioned night-time races in Shanghais as one of the new tracks.
Shift 2 is not an arcade racer, but it’s not entirely a simulator either. The physics are a shade sharper than real life, that little bit faster, a bit harder and a lot more scarier and intense. If Gran Turismo 5 was too slow for you, and if Hot Pursuit was too wacky, Shift 2 could be perfect for you. It’s close enough to realism without losing its edge.
It’s due for release in 2011, and we are looking forward to playing some more in the future.