I've long been a die-hard Need for Speed fan. I won't bore you with the details, but I will say this: I've been following the series since the very first game debuted with the enhanced PC port Need for Speed: Special Edition. It's been well over a decade since the arrival of the franchise, and it has remained one of my favorites, despite some of its lows. Even though Black Box released a technically flawed product with NFS: Undercover, they rectified the situation by issuing a patch in February that fixed the game's biggest flaws and brought out the fun. This, in turn, is a strategy of EA's that actually involves and makes space for NFS: SHIFT. Instead of churning out another arcade-like racer, EA will instead keep the updates for Undercover flowing which fills the criteria of arcade-racer. For an even more accessible game that fulfills the mainstream criteria, there is the Nintendo Wii's Need for Speed: NITRO. And finally, to fulfill the criteria of the simulator, there is Need for Speed: SHIFT.
Now, first thing's first, there has been talks of Black Box Studios being shut down following the release of Undercover, and many suspected the economy as the problem. Such is not the case, instead Black Box moved into another one of EA Canada's offices, leaving behind their old homebase. Why is this relevant? Because if I had simply stated that NFS: SHIFT was a joint project between Slightly Mad Studios and Black Box, you'd be confused, thinking "but I thought Black Box shut down?" Well, they didn't. In any case, SHIFT has been in development since mid-2007; I had a chance to sample the game last month and I walked away very impressed.
For a game that is still in relatively early development, SHIFT played superbly well. The game engine certainly moved better than any next-gen NFS engine we've seen thus far, and that's being at only pre-alpha stage in development. The framerate was super tight, moving at a crisp 30 frames per second with barely a frame drop in sight, no matter how crazy things got. The overall quality of the visuals was absolutely astounding though, as the game's texture work is every bit as brilliant as it looks in the screenshots. The cars were that detailed, and so were the interiors. There's no doubt about it, but this is one gorgeous game.
There also some neat visual touches such as the motion blur, and the crashing which causes disorientation if severe enough. When playing the game using the in-dash view, your camera is essentially the eyes of the driver, and with every slam of the brakes, every burst of throttle, every nudge and crash, the camera will jolt forwards, backwards, and side-to-side – it's a very cool effect.
The early build EA had on hand featured six cars: Pagani Zonda F, Porsche 911 GT2, Audi RS4, Lotus Elise 111R, Chevrolet Corvette Z06, and a Shelby Terlingua. The Shelby is a 2008 Mustang that Shelby put together specifically for NFS: SHIFT. The tracks are a mixture of real-life circuits with made-up ones that take place in actual locations (such as London). We sampled both the London track, and the Brands Hatch, both of which we found equally fun. In total, a selection of 80 vehicles will be made present, likely with more on the way as downloadable content, in addition to 15 tracks, once again, possible more with DLC.
Now, because this all new NFS is a sim and developed by one of the leading developers of racing-sims, you'd better believe that SHIFT boasts an amazing physics engine. You get into a car like the Audi RS4 and you immediately feel the advantage of having an AWD system like QUATTRO giving you all of the grip and traction you need in order to stay on course. But the second you move to a rear or mid-engined supercar like the 911 GT2 or the Zonda, all hell breaks loose (as do your tires upon every sweeping turn). Heck, even when you step foot into a car where the engine is front-mounted (Z06), you immediately feel the difference in balance and weight distribution. Each and every car feels like its got a personality of its own, and that really helps keep SHIFT away from the GRID comparisons many are throwing around out there.
Speaking of personality, you can, of course, customize your car to your liking with both aesthetic and performance upgrades. EA hasn't gotten into much detail regarding the depth of the customization, but we're expecting big things for this sim. To keep in tune with the subject, the A.I. boasts unique personalities, too, with drivers that will make mistakes and also seek vengeance if you're racing dirty. And, yes, when you're in the mood for it, you can take your personality online and race against 12 other players.
As you can tell, I loved every minute I got to sample with Need for Speed: SHIFT. And even if you've been miffed by the franchise before, this can very well turn out to be the biggest and best Need for Speed game in a long time. Look for it to hit September 22nd, 2009.