Need for Speed Shift will be the latest Need for Speed title from EA when it eventually launches in September in the UK. Pocket-lint snuck in to see the developers, Slightly Mad Studios, months ahead of the official launch to get a First Look at the game.
Let's clear something up right at the start of this first impressions piece: this might have the Need for Speed moniker in the title, but this is the least Need for Speed game we've ever seen. There are no cops, no road races, no customising your car for hours against a hip-hop soundtrack. To grasp what Need for Speed Shift is like you have to think more along the lines of Forza Motorsport 2 or the Project Gotham Racing series.
Although not 100% confirmed, there are likely to be around 20 tracks from around the world with a mixture of city- and track-based racing. The closed racing circuits will be against 15 other players for the most part. There is no free reign racing, no cop chases, just straight-forward racing. Tracks, however, already include Brands Hatch in the UK and a London circuit that see you racing down the Embankment between Waterloo and Westminster bridges.
Like the tracks themselves that will have around two or three variants each, track lengths have yet to be set in stone, but developers Slightly Mad Studios say that it's likely to be around three laps a go rather than a 2-hour 99 lap opus.
Tracks are one thing, but what about cars? There will be plenty we've been promised including the Pagani Zonda F, Porsche 911 GT2, Lotus Elise, Ford Shelby, and a couple of Audis.
All the cars react differently giving you plenty of scope to learn different vehicles. The Audi is big, heavy and a bugger to get around corners. The Zonda F only lets you break in a straight line and is very, very fast, while the Shelby floats around like many American cars do.
Smashing them into the wall or other cars will inflict damage, but so far Slightly Mad Studios hasn't decided what effect this will have on the performance of the car. They want it to be realistic, but not to the point that if you damage your car in the first couple of minutes, winning or even completing the race is impossible.
So what about graphics and sound?
"With Need for Speed Shift, we set out to create a racing game that pushes the genre and delivers something never before seen in a Need for Speed title", say EA. "By focusing on the driver’s experience through the first-person view, we are able to capture the high-speed intensity and gripping emotions of racing."
Graphics as the cars whizz around the tracks are lusciously detailed: heat haze can be seen drifting off the engine for example. The main focus has been to create a "life-like" cockpit experience taking into account perception-based G-forces.
What does that mean? Well when you break suddenly the camera jolts forward while at the other end, the faster you accelerate the further back the camera pulls. This, combined with a blurring of your peripheral vision the faster you go and a disorientating effect similar to Call of Duty when a shell goes off near you when you crash, all adds to the experience. Crash too hard and you'll hear your driver wheeze, cough, and splutter before taking a couple of seconds to recover before you head off again. It's all designed to make you avoid crashing, and in our play it worked. Crashing isn't just frustrating, it's disorientating.
Likewise, EA say that the sound has been tweaked to not only sound exactly just like the car you are driving, but with a little extra punch to give it plenty of oomph. Gone are the punk, rap or hip-hop soundtracks, there isn't a radio with DJ Atomica mixing the magic. It's all about the sound of the engine and damn are they loud.
Out of the cockpit mode there is the usual behind the car, on the bonnet, and ground level views, plus for those who like reliving the glory, plenty of replay options to share with your mates.
With the promise of a 16-player online and offline multiplayer experience Need for Speed Shift is looking very tasty indeed.
While we played with pre-alpha code, developers Slightly Mad Studios say the game elements we played are virtually finalised with no major changes expected. Of course they still have a lot of work to do, there is the damage physics to finalise, the campaign mode to work out and the online arena to confirm, however the racing and the car handling are done - which is good, because that's we got to play with.
On the whole the game looks to be a cracker. Their was enough of a difference between the cars to make it worthwhile mastering them while a racing line (which can be turned off) will help you get into the races. You get the feeling this is one of those titles that will allow you to take it at your own pace, i.e., learn and grow the more you race.
All sounds great, and that's because it is, the only qualm we have is that this isn't a Need for Speed game. As we've already said there are no open city streets, no cops chasing you and no customisation options, which considering they are the main staple of your average Need for Speed game, might disappoint people expecting just that.
This is a PGR challenger (without the Kudos points) and at this early stage looks to be very good, but EA's biggest challenge won't be convincing people to buy this title later in the year, it's going to be letting them know it's not what they are expecting from the franchise.
Need for Speed Shift is due on the 18 September 2009 on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and PSP.