When chatting with Need For Speed producer Jesse Abney recently, as he showed me the PS3 version of Shift, I was struck by how effectively the virtual cockpit view portrayed a genuine sense - not just of speed - but of immersion in the body of the driver.
Shift has a fully articulated driver model in the cockpit view. You can, as you might expect, look all around with a nudge on the analogue stick. More than that though, the camera is actually mounted on the driver's head and coded to react to the physics system. When you accelerate, the force pins the driver model back in its seat, and thus the camera too pushes back; it's the opposite when you brake, as you'll feel the camera slam forward. When you crash, you'll feel the disorienting effects of your head bouncing around in the cockpit. Everything is calibrated to reflect what a real driver's head would be doing while racing at top speed.
Abney explained how this feeling of the "driver experience" was one of the key areas of development focus.
"At high speed where we're blurring the dashboard and everything in the cockpit is desaturated to blacks and whites. We're pushing the view ahead on the track to give you a farther field of vision. It's what drivers call Driver Vision in that at top speed you don't want to be focused on the things in front of you, you want to be focused down the track. It kinda creates a tunnel vision straight down the track. That's just one of the assists we offer that came from real world experience and help the player control the vehicle at high speed."
This reminded me of Mirror's Edge, in particular the efforts developer DICE went to in striving to make the player feel like they were inhabiting Faith's body. Which, in turn, reminded me that Abney had earlier mentioned DICE's involvement in the development of Shift. Factor in that DICE founder and now vice president of EA's European publishing arm, Patrick Soderlund, sidelines as a professional endurance race driver, and that his studio created the well-received Rallisport Challenge on the original Xbox, and it starts making sense.
I asked Abney to explain Soderlund's role on the Shift project.
"He's brought the creative direction and a lot of the driver's experience has been through his eyes," he said. "His time on the track has lead to the crafting of the dynamic camera system, the visual effects, the g-force modelling, inertia, the crash dynamic... and just the style of the game. All that comes from Patrick's experience and that's why I always credit DICE as well because they are very much a part of it. DICE is a driving studio; when you go to DICE and talk to those guys about racing, you have a lot of people who know what they're talking about."
DICE don't just know about racing though. After Mirror's Edge they know about movement and creating an immersive first-person camera. The Driver Vision technique also works in similar fashion to the use of the crosshair in Mirror's Edge as a preventative measure against motion sickness.
"It's one of the design aspects we have to consider when creating something like this," said Abeny. "This is something that Patrick and [co-developer]Slightly Mad Studios worked on for about a year. Mirror's Edge was the same. It's this whole process of refinement of a camera system because it's a very powerful thing to feed back to somebody that kind of movement. So yes, I think we found a lot of success in this, that people aren't getting sick."
Based on what I've seen, Shift really does appear to have succeeded here. Just like Mirror's Edge, the tight connection between camera and physics provides a kind of feedback I haven't felt before in a racing game. You might even call it fully sick.
So to speak.