Need for Speed: Shift Hands-On Preview

Shifting the emphasis: Kikizo goes hands-on with Slightly Mad's reinvention of Need for Speed.

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As somebody who scampered, swung and chimney kicked his way through Mirror's Edge without the slightest hint of motion sickness, I wasn't expecting Need for Speed: Shift's jarringly ambitious depiction of pro racing to get the better of me. Conditions weren't perfect, to be fair: I'd spent the entire morning wrestling (ironically enough) with London's public transport system, arriving at EA's vast, glass-fronted temple of Mammon in Guildford, UK, sweating, unfed and a fair few Americanos short of a cafeteria. Fifteen minutes into the demo, I found myself unable to watch the screen.

Developed by the pleasantly non-mainstream Slightly Mad Studios, Shift is about as far away as the franchise can get from its open-ended arcade roots without being a Japanese role-playing game. It's also a leap above and beyond the developer's GTR games, mainstays of PC racing simulation when the studio called itself Blimey! Games. Collide with something at speed, and you'll see why.

"Real-time destructible car models" is one of the racing genre's favourite buzz features. Shift isn't short on crumpling bodywork and shattering windscreens, but ultimately it's all about the driver. Hit a barrier here and you'll feel the impact thud through your digital skeleton, the camera snapping around sickeningly, external details smeared with motion blur. Textures slam out of focus, the audio goes all wobbly and colours take on a dazed vivacity. The idea, we were told, is to make the player "fear" crashing not because it'll wreck that glorious 1080p paint job, or scupper your shot at gold (though it might), but because it'll actually give you whiplash.

It's a complete change of emphasis both from prior Need for Speeds, where crashing was less something to be physically dreaded as a costly cinematic indulgence, and prior examples of the sim genre, where the business of tearing up the tarmac often plays second fiddle to managing your vehicle's stats. With Shift, the chaps and chapettes at Slightly Mad (many of them real-life amateur racers) hope to crowbar open a space somewhere between the two, a new kind of sim dedicated to the raw, queasy thrill of being dragged along behind a 16 cylinder engine.

The results are more pronounced in cockpit mode, not least because you can see your hands on the wheel, tightening as you accelerate, but switching to bumper view offers no reprieve from Slightly Mad's arsenal of G-forces and post-processing effects. Put pedal to medal and the clean, elegant HUD will be yanked back by inertia; brake hard and it'll sag forward. As you push into the rightmost quadrant of your speedometer the edges of the screen will start to blur, leaving the centre pin-sharp to simulate your driver's eyes focussing on the road ahead. Crank up the volume and you'll hear his pulse going into overdrive.

There's no open-ended course design, no police cars nipping your heels, no gratuitous bad boy story mode, no cavernous suite of customisation options - nothing to detract from that carefully sculpted, densely layered core. There are two tiers of licensed cars, one made up of exotics like the Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 997 GT2 and Pagani Zonda (eye-bleedingly quick), while the other includes the Audi RS4 (powerful but less than manouverable), Shelby Terlingua and Lotus Elise 111R (not the swiftest ride in the shop, but with better cornering).

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