In just a few months, it seems that much of the buzz in the gaming industry has moved from the FPS to the racing genre, and with the major shooters out of the way, focus has returned to the franchise that had spent the better part of a decade out of the public eye: Gran Turismo 5. A few things have changed since GT last held the top of the pedestal, with newcomers like Forza and Need For Speed: Shift.
While GT5 claims to be the most comprehensive racing simulation to date, the lead designer of Shift 2: Unleashed seems to think that they're missing the point entirely. With Shift 2, he says, Slightly Mad Studios and Electronic Arts will show them how it's done.
It's easy to overlook just how much of a turn-around the Need For Speed name seems to have accomplished, having elevated itself from a mediocre franchise on a studio-imposed "death march" to a major player. With the latest release of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, EA has shown audiences the potential they must have seen in the development team and the name, delivering a fantastic arcade racer. So now the expectations have been raised even higher for the team behind Need For Speed: Shift and their upcoming sequel, Shift 2.
While the original Shift took the Need For Speed name into the deepest simulation title of the series, the developers are looking to go even further the second time around. It's impossible to put out a racing simulation without drawing parallels to Gran Turismo, but in a recent interview with Gamasutra the project's lead designer Andy Tudor said they welcome the comparison.
Shift managed to reward players both for driving aggressively and skillfully, bringing elements of both sim and arcade in a single game. For Shift 2: Unleashed, the developers are keeping the diversity that was available to players of the first title, but focusing on making every part of the system run a bit smoother:
"If you look back at the design for Shift 1, there are very specific things in there to appeal to both types of gamer. Precision versus aggression XP, for example. Precision drivers are the more sim guys. Aggressive drivers are the more action-orientated audience. That's common throughout the entire career.
"Looking back, it did us well. It allowed us to keep a broad appeal and make sure all different types of people could play the game. But with Hot Pursuit out this year, the action section is already covered, so we can very definitely go after the sim guys. The feedback we were getting was, we'd like more abilities to change the handling model, and specific cars they wanted. Why is this famous track location not in the game? Things like that.
"The whole ethos for Shift 2 is improving and streamlining. People thought stars were a great idea in Shift 1, but when you look at it, the total thing of stars and currency and XP and precision versus aggression, there were too many currencies in the game. So we're streamlining that kind of thing."
Some competitors, including EA have already voiced their criticism of Gran Turismo 5, and Tudor had some choice words about that project as well. In his mind, the massive gallery of vehicles and game types is not what players care about. The scientific and analytical approach to hardcore simulations seen with both GT and Forza, as he sees it, will certainly not be present when Shift 2 hits stores:
"Those two games are on pedestals at the moment. When we're thinking about what we want to do in this game, it's not a numbers game. We're not going to add a thousand irrelevant cars. Both those games, to me, are almost like encyclopaedias. You've got a thousand cars, a thousand tracks, whatever, and basically the game is about earning cash to get another car, earning cash to get another car. It's like a grind. It's almost like stamp collecting.
"That's not where the fun is. The fun is behind the wheel, feeling you're on the edge, pushing it to the limit, putting in the cars that are relevant and cool to drive, allowing you to completely customise those from factory to the works level we had in Shift 1, and giving you the chance to then play against your friends in a social way.
"It's a different way of thinking, basically. We want to take those guys on. We want to make a more authentic experience. We've put in a new elite handling model and given you more access over deadzone, sensitivity, steering aids, break assists, all that kind of stuff, to allow you to dial in the experience you want."
It's obvious from the game's announcement trailer that the team is focusing heavily on the drama and intensity of racing, as opposed to the sometimes clinical approach to the sport employed by some racers. Need For Speed may have been removed from the game's title, but it seems that the drama and energy that has been a trademark of the best entries in the franchise's long history is still present. It remains to be seen if the team at Slightly Mad Studios is on the right track, or if these best intentions will go awry.
At the moment the game is scheduled for a unspecified release date sometime this spring, which means a few more months will have to pass before it's clear whether the racing scene has another major player. To get an idea of just how many opinions and fan reactions need to be taken into account for the upcoming sequel, and the improved social systems pioneered by Hot Pursuit's 'Autolog,' check out the full interview here.
Until this spring, fans looking forward to the release of Shift 2: Unleashed on the Xbox 360, PS3, or PC will have to resort to repeat viewings of the crash-filled teaser.