Shift 2: Unleashed might be ditching the Need for Speed mother tag for now but don’t let that fool you. Shift 2 encompasses all the things you love about the acclaimed racing franchise and then some. If anything, more should be made of the phrase ‘then some’ in this instance, not least because Shift 2 promises to be the most comprehensive and robust racer to ever come out of the Need For Speed stable.

Shift 2 is intense stuff. The new in car Helmut cam is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in a racer, as unforgiving as it ultra realistic. It could very well be one of the most innovative features of any racer released this generation. It compliments the intensity and insular nature of the racing experience. Shift 2 is really on to something here…

Shift 2 marks a new beginning for the Need for Speed hierarchy. Not just an arcade racer, Shift 2 is a confluence of said arcade thrills and accomplished realism.

TGL recently met up with producer Jesse Abney and spoke about all things Shift 2, Autolog, that Helmut cam and those Gran Turismo 5 delays……

Here we go….

TGL: So obviously Shift 2 still falls underneath the ‘Need for Speed’ umbrella – how important is Shift 2 towards the Need for Speed franchise?

JA: It’s very important. It satisfies the third segment of what we’ve always felt Need for Speed needed to do correctly and that was to focus on designs specific to the interests and segments of motorsports fans. So simulation racing, for us, is where Shift 2 squarely sits. It is an authentic racing simulator, that’s how we coin it. It definitely sits inside the realm of the Forza titles and GT [Gran Turismo] but it’s a much different model, with a different style of gameplay.

Need For Speed is all about exciting, visceral fun. I love to say that word a lot because when I play GT I don’t have a lot of fun. So we like to design and develop for fun and excitement. At the other end of the spectrum is what Criterion did a beautiful job of creating, which is [Criterion Games’] Hot Pursuit. Its arcade, pick-up-and-play, fast-paced, all gas, no brakes, all drift, high-impact racing.

In the middle has always been action, which Blackbox Games has always created designs for Need for Speed Underground, Most Wanted, Undercover, that satisfy very much different styles of ‘action driving’. They would be story-driven and have much more different motivational twists than a simulation, track-based, skill-based racing game.

TGL: So if the Need for Speed franchise is synonymous with that fast-paced, arcade gameplay, does Shift 2 appeal more to the simulation side of things?

JA: Absolutely, and it’s a deliberate design approach. It’s not saddling ourselves with the need to develop for action or for arcade in a game where we really want to have serious racing. That’s what Shift 2 is – it’s legitimate, skill-based, track-based racing with the FIA GT World Championship as the ultimate career goal.

With that in mind, it’s about a very high level of skill and a much more methodic approach to how you create the vehicle list and deliver those cars to player, allowing them to customise, tune them, master a bunch of different variables along the driver level curve in order to continually ratchet up their experience level.

The implementation of Autolog which now is serving up many layers of micro data is the perfect marriage to the simulation category in racers. The idea being that those types of players, those types of games, have so many more layers of data that you can measure and interpret and surface for players to compare and compete.

You see in our use of Autolog, which is now Need for Speed DNA, it will be used everywhere, that the design criteria that it’s going to satisfy will be slightly different. Hot Pursuit is designed very much arcade-like, simplified, “here’s five things we’re showing you”. Shift is showing you two dozen.

Obviously you don’t want data overload but you do have very specific things that are key to the real-world racing segments – corner-mastering, track records, then you have regional leaderboards, global, world records… so you’re surfacing all these things, meanwhile you can see the progression of your friend list – where they’re at in the game, currently, dynamically, ‘are they customising their favourite BMW or racing Hockenheimring with five other players?’ So you’re dynamically bringing people closer to the action as its happening and that’s the key to Autolog.

TGL: It’s interesting that you mention Autolog because I read a few months back that you and Criterion both arrived independently at the notion of this feature…

JA: [Laughs] it’s the tipping point in the social spheres of looking at ways to innovate in competitive spaces. Racing is all about that personal competitive nature, whether it’s arcade or action or sim.

I have a bunch of friends and we all have the same interests, we all compete at similar levels and tying all that together has always been something we’ve done in Need for Speed. Leaderboards were the traditional mechanic but we needed something that went beyond that and Hot Pursuit keyed into how we can take this to the new level online because [another Criterion racing series] Burnout has done so much killer innovation online and online community-building, surfacing ideas from the community in the gameplay and adding design criteria based on the community consensus.

We love that idea so overall, the lessons that Criterion teaches us about how to harness that, embrace it and look to turning that into gameplay mechanics is a clear resounding thing to do. The ubiquity of broadband, everybody is online, platforms have it, the popularity of PSN and Xbox Live obviously are backers to that whole notion, and so Autolog for us, becomes the right mechanic at the right time and keys into what we already know.

Friends list, that’s an overused term but everybody has one. If you play on Xbox Live with anyone, we love the idea that now you can add them directly, challenge them directly, you can see where in the game you are directly and Autolog is making recommendations based on what they’ve accomplished versus what you’ve accomplished. And dynamically, there’s background intelligence surfacing events that you may not have partaken in yet, so there’s a lot of layers and nuances to what Autolog brings to a game that is otherwise very linear. You can just have 10 events but no, Autolog actually goes ‘wait, you haven’t played 8, 9, 10 but your friends are really hammering 1, 2 and 3, why don’t you compete on those?’

Through our career structure we cover seven different motorsport disciplines, seven different ‘bosses’ if you will, and those bosses are real-world racing drivers that we’ve been working with for the last year. They’ve all given expert input on our game design, from the way that the tyres work on the pavement to the way the camera looks inside the helmet, to the actual career branch that they represent. So each of them are real-world representations of the career structure and ultimately, for a completionist, would beat each of them, win that car and become champion of that career discipline. Ultimately though it’s GT1 Championship on the road to becoming champion. The GT1 cars are kind of the pre-eminent performance machines, they’re down the end of the career, so that becomes the pinnacle achievement

TGL: Just from our time with Shift 2, it seems a very intense experience and the helmet cam really adds to that. What was your main decision behind its inclusion and what does it bring to the fore?

JA: Well, it becomes a gameplay-assisted device. Otherwise, you could say ‘it’s a visual thing, its gimmicky’, but it’s part of our VFX system, it’s part of our camera, it’s inherently tied to our physics system. Now through the simple mechanic of looking into the apex of the corner, we’re creating a gameplay-assisted device.

Players that choose to commit to that view, as all race drivers do naturally; we’re broadening the view space on the break point and the apex to give you the best possible chance of managing the corner. So now it’s actually becoming assistive to you playing in that view, which few camera views have done in the past. The helmet cam is cool, innovative and now assistive to the whole event that you can actually have an edge. It’s what games are supposed to be about. It’s immersing you in a new environment.

TGL: Finally, I have to ask, in terms of the arena of driving simulations, personally I felt that the prolonged development of Gran Turismo 5 almost cast a spectre over the entire genre and I don’t think the first Shift or the Forza titles really got the recognition they deserved. So when GT5 was released, a lot of people online were saying ‘actually, this is quite prosaic, there’s a lot of grinding’. So for yourself, do you think now is a great time for people to see the Shift series with fresh eyes?

JA: It is. But we’ve always known, I mean… we’re big fans of what they’ve accomplished and the time they had, as a designer and developer we’d all love five years of development, but it’s not always beneficial. A lot changes in five years. A lot of what PD [Polyphony Digital] had an issue with was changing tech. They transcended many generations, where they had to retool and keep up – that’s a by product of having not-too-long a lifecycle and set them back. What they achieved technologically is great but it’s not what we want to do when we design a game.

We design the experience as part of the Need for Speed brand. Shift is an experience in sitting in the cockpit of a high performance race car and every nuance of that, which no other game, right of simulation or left of does. Pretty bold statement, I know others do pretty close. We’ve always considered DiRT and Grid to be our measuring sticks because they’re great quality games and do a lot of innovative stuff but we are building that experience from the driver’s seat.

The driver’s battle is the proposition for this one and it is because we work with that motorsport team and those drivers have become an inherent part of that design process, it’s really their experience that we’re relaying to you guys.