There are two Need For Speed games coming out this year, as part of EA’s effort to recalibrate the franchise. Nitro is for Wii and DS and is very much an arcade racer. Shift is for PC, 360, PS3 and PSP and, you’d imagine, veers more to the serious end of the spectrum. Just don’t call it a sim.
EA had been looking to reboot the Need For Speed series for a while, Shift producer Jesse Abney told me.
“The announcement last year came after several years of assessing the racing category, of understanding how broad a demographic it is and understanding our community of fans and where there interests lie. Certainly there’s a huge portion of them that are in the action and arcade oriented space, and there’s a portion that have grown up and ‘matured’ more towards the Gran Turismo and Forza style of racing.”
So, Shift, in Abney’s words became an offering to that latter portion of the audience. In essence, they’ve split the series into three different racing sub-genres – because in addition to Shift and Nitro there’s also the massively-multiplayer Need For Speed game coming next year to PC – to better tailor the experience to a diverse audience. Trying to appeal to everyone with the one product only leads to the overall experience being diluted.
But Abney is keen to point out this doesn’t mean Shift is a sim.
“We dub it an ‘authentic’ racing game because it’s rooted in professional motorsport,” he says. “It’s track-based, it’s got a collection of cars that not only includes the stock versions but also the Le Mans style, the WTCC style cars you see in those racing circuits.”
For Abney, Need for Speed is about accessible, fun, exciting racing, whether it’s the open world, cop-based underground races or the competition of track-based racing. A simulation is not something he thinks fits with that fun model.
“When you go full simulation, it really requires something less mundane than this kind of device,” he says, holding a PS3 Dual Shock controller. “You have to expect the player has a wheel, a clutch, an e-brake… in order to be able to model what it takes to operate at that level of fidelity. I think you’re cheating the fan when you have a sterile, grind-based simulator that takes dozens and dozens of hours of practice to get even slightly proficient with a gamepad.
“I may be overselling that point, but to me that’s my experience with those games. When I pick up the first device that I have available to me, which is a gamepad 99 times out of 100, my ability to control and have any type of fun with those games is remote. Need For Speed has never been after that segment. We don’t craft experiences like that because we don’t find them to be fun ourselves.”
Abney mounts a persuasive argument. Need For Speed has built its enviable success on the back of being approachable, and Shift – for all its nods towards simulation – isn’t suddenly going to become a hardcore game. There’s a huge gulf between Burnout and Gran Turismo, and Shift seems well-equipped to exploit that.
There are three kinds of racing gamer: the one who tweaks every aspect of the car to eke out an extra couple of tenths per lap; the one who doesn’t even realise you can brake; and everyone else who sits somewhere in between. That latter group is much harder to pigeon-hole with marketing bullet points, but it’s where the majority of the audience sits.
What sort of racing experience are you after?