Following a mid-life crisis presumably brought about when the last few games in the series sold a mere billion copies each rather than the forecasted gajillion, Need for Speed is changing. In fact, it's developed full-blown schizophrenia, with its '09 offerings split into three distinct strands covering the core, casual and free-to-play audiences in turn. According to EA's VP of marketing, Keith Munro, offering three games rather than one represents "the inverse of milking", an unfortunate turn of phrase which conjures farmyard imagery of such a bizarrely disgusting nature, that we can probably leave it at that.
While such big budget soul-searching is mildly interesting, the more important question is how the games themselves will hold up. Luckily, if any franchise could handle such a fundamental change of gear, it's probably this one. Despite persistent themes like urban racing, car-collecting, and unintentionally creepy CGI/live action interludes, Need for Speed has always seemed defined by its reliance on one-shot gimmickry rather than the prolonged exploration of core ideas that has given Burnout's frantic evolution a sense of rock-steady inevitability. The series may flit between temporary pre-occupations with cop chases or finding the perfect shade of neon orange alloys, but, deep down, all Need for Speed's really about is selling a lot of games at Christmas.
Shift, at least, is looking like it can keep that theme on track, with a recent chance to play a pre-alpha build suggesting the core offering is shaping up to be a serious racing title, already sufficiently tuned to be putting on the second coat of polish.
Slightly Mad, the title's UK-based developer, has a decent lineage in car games, its staff having started as modders before working on the GTR series and GT Legends with SimBin - although the extent of the team's involvement is a matter SimBin itself has suggested it may be willing to sue over. However the legal side of things turns out, Shift's brand new engine has been in development for two years, with a cross-platform emphasis from the start. Given such a solid chunk of hard work is behind it, it's hardly surprising that the game is already looking lovely.
As promised, most of the series' more familiar elements are AWOL: there's no police, no open-world environments, and no distracting character nonsense. The focus here is not on stocking up your garage so much as building your own career as a driver, with the game playing out as a very straight racing sim set against a variety of iconic tracks (some real, some imagined) from around the world.
Taking to the corners of Brands Hatch in a Zonda sees the developers striving to create a race-day atmosphere at the roadside, with crowds milling in the stands, bunting rippling in the breeze, and the sun bouncing off the metal walls of nearby buildings. The cars are pretty too, with large, shiny models, and bold primary colour liveries. The audio is throaty and fierce, and the much-teased in-cockpit view is equally excellent, with real-time reflections, elaborate gear-stick animations and a detailed expanse of dashboard visible. Outside cameras are still available, of course, including a stomach-churning bumper view, but it's in-cockpit that the game's focus lies, and where Slightly Mad's attempts to create a convincing sense of g-force are most vividly displayed.
The team seems to be doing a decent job in this respect, layering on a handful of telling little details to increase the sense of immersion: put your foot down and the depth of field changes, keeping the track in sharp focus while gently blurring out the cockpit, and even making your character's grip on the wheel tighten almost imperceptibly. Sudden accelerations are also coupled with camera shake and the screen pulling out to mimic your head being pushed back into the seat, while emergency braking contracts your view suddenly as you lurch forward again.
On top of this, the developers have spent a lot of time thinking about the too-often hum-drum activity of crashing, eager to capture the drama of collisions as a brutal bodily event as much as an annoying kink in your lap time. The solution so far is optical overload, collisions sending the screen into a screaming blur as your vision dissolves into a shimmering watery mass, and your heartbeat grows increasingly audible on the soundtrack. Compared to the Hollywood explosions of Burnout, it's a far more physical approach: the videogame equivalent of getting Tabasco in your eye. It's jarring rather than terrifying, then, but it's also far from cosmetic, as the damage modelling is keyed into the physics engine: after a series of bad racing decisions have reduced the clean lines of the Zonda to a clanking pile of abstract expressionism, the resulting mess handles very differently, sluggishly chugging down the road, and cutting through the oncoming breeze with all the grace of an old mattress.
Switching from Brands Hatch to a race on an imaginary track that threads itself around tourist book London, provides yet another opportunity to focus on just how good the game looks. These are streets already made familiar by PGR3, but here they're more richly detailed, with the buildings looming much closer over the track, the surrounding roads bustling with crowds, and a range of on-the-fly lighting effects allowing developers to switch between different types of weather and shunt the clock back and forth between the blooming orange glow of early evening to the shimmering pale sunlight of noon in seconds.
London's also a chance to see just how deeply the sim elements of the game are embedded into the design. Turning off the HUD entirely while in-cockpit allows you to drive by the dials alone, while a colour-coded racing line is projected onto the ground in front of you, red and yellow telling you when to brake, green encouraging you to floor it, while blue suggests you're lagging behind. It's serious stuff for a traditionally arcadey series, and, coupled with entirely new car physics - there's a much weightier sense of your tyres hugging the road, but if you're not careful on the corners, you can still end up in a spin - is enough to make Maggie Q seem like a distant memory.
While it's hard to avoid suspicions about how Shift came to be - its new developer, new direction, and surprising level of polish suggesting its link to the Need for Speed franchise may be fairly opportunistic - there's no reason yet to question the quality of what Slightly Mad has been working on. Whether or not you believe EA's notion that the videogame audience is now so deeply fragmented it needs three separately tailored titles in order to please everyone, it's clear that, if you're after the series' more familiar style of gameplay, you'll need to wait for Nitro on the DS and Wii for the time being. However, if you're a fan of driving as much as just racing, Shift is looking like the best thing to emerge from the strange new art of inverse milking in quite a while.
Need for Speed: Shift is due for release on PS3, Xbox 360, PC and PSP this winter.