The more we play Need For Speed: Shift, the more we feel that it's become a little bit schizophrenic. When we saw the game earlier in the year it seemed to us like Slightly Mad Studios were the guys in charge. With much of the team (then working for SimBin) responsible for well-respected PC racing sims GTR2 and Race, it was clear that Shift was an extension of their past work.
As the game nears release, however, it's evolved into a racer that fits in much more with the Need For Speed brand. Under the skin, a serious and challenging simulator still exists - but we get the impression that all the pomp and extravagance we normally associate with past Black Box NFS games is attempting to overpower it, which is a shame.
Still, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Although Need For Speed now has several 'branches' (motorsport, street racing, open-world MMO), few would argue that the franchise needed a boot up the arse. With Black Box responsible for developing all of the outings almost every year for the last decade, it's no surprise that things have been stale for a while. Ever since Codies released Race Driver: Grid last year to whopping acclaim, we can't blame EA for wanting a piece of the 90%-plus rated action.
Anyone familiar with Grid won't have much difficulty making comparisons - and not just with the presentation. Like Grid, Shift sports a handling model that sits in between Forza 2 and Project Gotham. It also boasts Drift events and head-to-head Touge races (deemed Car Battles here) in addition to the traditional multiple race series. Similarly, Shift focuses primarily on the intensity of racing. Here it's represented by the physical forces inflicted on a driver - run over a kerb or collide with another vehicle and your head will be shaken about; barrel into a wall at 100mph+ and you'll know all about it.
Picture being caught in the blast of a grenade in Call of Duty - the effect is similar here. Colour drains from your view, the sound on the impact rings in your ears and you'll be disorientated by the violent tremors of the screen. Your vehicle will be well aware of the cock-up too - although it doesn't feature quite the same level of damage modelling, the way it crumples looks visually impressive.
Essentially, if you get behind the wheel and expect to ham-fistedly powerslide your way around a track like in previous Need For Speed games, then you'll be in for a right old shock. Try to grab Shift by the scruff of the neck and you'll quickly discover there is no Grid-like Flashback option to get you out of the gravel. If anything, the handling demands the precision of a steering wheel peripheral - using a controller to wrestle some of the rear wheel drive cars can be tricky. Personally, we'd like more sensitivity from the throttle and more 'feel' from the steering - it took a real effort to readjust our skills from other racers to stop us overcompensating during slides; cue much 'fish-tailing' down the road due to the lack of feedback from the balance of the car. Whacking off most of the driver assists helps, but we hope the last few weeks of crucial physics tuning rectifies this...
What we've talked about so far is Slightly Mad's role in development. But Black Box have also played a big part - namely, adding the Need For Speed-iness. Beyond the tuning and visual makeovers (which uses a system that looks like it owes a lot to their last title, Undercover), Black Box have also incorporated substantial career and driver development.
At its most basic, the key to advancing your way up through the racing tiers (from Euro hatchbacks like the new Renault Megane and VW Sirocco and old Japanese classics like the Nissan 240SX and Sprinter Trueno to higher tiers which include the Pagani Zonda, McLaren F1 and Bugatti Veyron) is by earning stars and profile points. Stars are awarded for podium finishes and completing race objectives (overtake a certain number of opponents, drift for so many seconds etc) and are used to unlock new races. Points, on the other hand, are similar to Gotham's ageless Kudos system; impressive or destructive driving techniques earn points which can be used to unlock new cars, parts and other goodies.