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The Making of Shift 2 Unleashed

How to pull a double shift.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Slightly Mad Studios wants to tell us about "the journey".

"When I talk about Shift I always talk about 'the journey'," says lead designer Andy Tudor. "It's a journey of players' growing expectations and changing play styles, and a journey chronicling car culture over the years.

"Shift was always meant to be the next step in that journey, transitioning players from the illegal street racing of Need for Speed Underground and Carbon and that Fast and the Furious mentality, through legitimate racing in ProStreet (that brought 'organisation' to the racing), and finally onto bona fide circuits for the first time."

The expansion of the series goes beyond the game focus, however. From a corporate perspective, Need for Speed is now an over-arching brand like EA Sports, and Slightly Mad views Shift as the Madden equivalent.

The franchise is heading off in a range of new directions, each providing a different experience within the racing genre. The developer's objective is very straightforward. Shift, as Tudor describes it, must become "the most authentic, realistic, visceral racing experience out there."

Having achieved excellent sales, good reviews and positive customer feedback with its first game, Slightly Mad's strategy for improvement with the sequel was also fairly straightforward: it wanted a game that was more exciting, with a lot more content, but remained true to the core focus established in the original Shift.

"The two main areas were authenticity and variety. We knew we wanted night racing - it provides variety and we wanted to add gameplay challenge there based off the personal feedback from real-world racing drivers.

"We knew we wanted to keep on top of the cockpit innovation, since competitors would no doubt start copying it. We also knew we wanted to mature the product even more with a premium presentation, a streamlining of the different currency systems (XP, stars, cash), and the inclusion of authentic real-world boss drivers and licenses (FIA GT3/GT1)."

Shift 2 Unleashed on PS3. The introduction of deferred rendering on all platforms added a great deal to the game's look and offered up new gameplay opportunities, such as the night-time racing where the sheer volume of active light sources really makes a big difference.

The approach to boosting content was a realistic assessment of what was possible within the development time available, with a focus on introducing new features that the team considered they could produce to a best-in-class standard.

"At the start of any game (as most teams do) we create a wishlist of what we want to achieve and see in it. This can be features, cars, tracks, anything," Tudor continues. An overall 'roadmap' of where the studio wanted to take the series provided some features, while others came from community feedback and the studio's own wishlist.

"Now, of course, that list is very long and not focused yet [at that stage of development], but regardless we then plug that in and see what kind of schedule we'd need to complete it. Does it fit into the time we have available? Do portions of it complement each other and would therefore work as a nice downloadable content pack? What features do we know we can do 10/10 and which would need more time to fully realise to our high standards?"

The developers also spent time producing new ideas that would improve the core game experience, its basic message, or as Slightly Mad calls it, "the 'X' of the game". This was defined as being "the True Driver's Experience", so the team focused on elements such as replicating sensations caused by the extreme G-forces of high-speed racing, the panic and disorientation of being involved in a serious crash along with the career progression element of "being" the driver.

Many consider that the Shift games represent Electronic Arts' efforts in taking on the platform-exclusive simulation-based behemoths like Forza and Gran Turismo. Slightly Mad acknowledges the influence of these titles but reckons that its games are charting their own course.

"There's clear brand loyalty to those titles, a considerable consumer base, and a high benchmark in terms of quality and expectation. So we know the audience we want to reach and we know the standard required by those guys right off the bat," Tudor observes.

"Our attitude isn't one of copycatting though - you'll always be playing catch-up if that's the case. Instead we focus on questioning every aspect of the racing genre as a whole and asking why they're like that? Are they still relevant, and can they be improved or rebooted?"

Performance analysis shows that both versions have consistent 30FPS frame-rates, though night-time lighting can cause additional tearing on PS3. Slightly Mad had individual team-members dedicated to each SKU to ensure quality.

Tudor describes how Shift's cockpit view and the night racing in the sequel are examples of how important core features are championed in their game that haven't been approached with anything like the same kind of polish in Forza or GT. But it's not just about individual features; the core basis of the action in playing the game is fundamentally different.

"For Shift the analysis is very clear: other racing titles are 'car owning' games; they're about the grind for cash to then collect the available car catalogue.

"When it comes to the actual racing we feel they're lacking - cars never deviating from the racing line, unrealistic damage, lacklustre sensation of speed, feeling of 'loneliness' when driving due to a lack of atmosphere etc - so those are the areas we continue to pioneer in: the second-to-second core gameplay rather than the menus around it. The helmet cam, night racing, and Autolog speak specifically to that and are all either the best or first in their category."

While there's a clear crossover, Tudor firmly insists that Shift is its own game, and that Polyphony and Turn Ten have their own separate and distinct agenda for what a racing title should be.

"They have very clear visions for their products as do we. We're not here to play a numbers game on the amount of cars or tracks we each have, as the indication from players is that that's not a high priority anyway. I've said before it would be like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor having an argument about the number of guns in their games versus the actual experience of firing a single one," he explains wryly.

Another great point of differentiation is that the Shift titles are multi-platform games, released on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Not only does Slightly Mad have to be competitive from a features perspective up against GT and Forza, it also needs to hand in a technologically superb title on multiple architectures - a challenge that Polyphony and Turn 10 don't have to consider.

"It was important to us that we achieve an equivalent game experience across all three platforms," says Shift programmer Tom Nettleship.

"While we do use a lot of platform-specific code to maintain a high frame-rate on the consoles, our dedication to cross-platform equivalence means that a feature we'd only be able to implement on one of the platforms couldn't be included. The only major exception to this was anti-aliasing, where we used the SPU-based MLAA approach on PS3, and more traditional MSAA on 360 and PC."