Shift 2: the color of gravity

, | Game diaries

I am not a highly trained soldier. You can tell by watching me play a shooter, where I tend to shoot all around my target and hope it has the courtesy to step into the line of fire. But the first Modern Warfare made me feel like a highly trained soldier by lining up my gun for me. I squeeze the gamepad’s left trigger and my weapon points at a bad guy! Then it’s up to me to either finesse the aim for a headshot, or pull the right trigger to fire. From there I learn that awesome move where I pulse the left trigger to drop a cluster of bad guys one-by-one, with nary a wasted bullet. Years of virtual military training, sidestepped with an interface tweak.

After the jump, I’m not a professional race car diver either

As far as I know, Forza was the first game to color gravity. Plenty of racing games will show you the best line through a track. But Forza color-coded the line dynamically, based on your vehicle and speed, indicating at a glance where you’re going to slip the surly bonds of gravity, friction, and downforce. If your car could take a turn at the current speed, the line stayed green. If you needed to slow a tad by coasting into the turn and then accelerating out of it, the line turned yellow. And if you needed to brake, the line turned red. Plus, it had helpful arrows pointing the direction you should go. You know, in case you sucked so bad that you lost track of that part of the race.

Several games since then have used Forza’s color-coded line, but none as well as Shift and Shift 2. I don’t mean to bag on Forza 3, which is a perfectly adequate racing game with some pretty cool features. But Forza has a weirdly mechanical feel with its line. I have the sensation that I’m driving the line instead of the track. It’s like painting by numbers. Forza 3 is a little too controlled, a little too guided, a little too slavish.

But the line in Shift and Shift 2 has a more organic feel. You can’t always trust the line. There are some combinations of car and track where I’m pretty sure the line is misinformed. It tells me to slow down when, pish!, I can easily take that corner. Or it might show a green path through an S-curve that’s sure to mess me up if I don’t tap the brakes. The line isn’t perfect. It’s no substitute for playing the game. It feels a bit like a suggestion, like a visual rendering of the co-driver in the Dirt games who sometimes lies about monsters up ahead. “Left 3, ahead titans,” he’ll say, and I never see the titans. I can’t trust that guy.

The colored-coded line is a substitute not just for a driver’s years of experience, but also for how he can feel a car’s grip. It’s a visual and tactile aid. And it’s terribly addictive. Turning off the line will leave you helpless for a while. I suspect it might eventually make the game more immersive, so you have to watch for landmarks like those signs that I never used to notice that I recently found out indicate the distance to the curve. My, how helpful! Well, it would be if I had to figure out braking on my own. I’ve got my line instead.

The real shame is that there’s no incentive to drive without the line. It’s different from, say, manual shifting vs. automatic shifting. The incentive to use manual shifting is that you get extra performance. You can downshift as a half measure between letting up on he accelerator and actually braking. Plus, it just feels and sounds so cool when you make the shifting happen.

Shift’s superlative interior views are also their own incentive. Just as there is no racing game that does the color-coded line as well as Shift, there is no racing game that does the interior view as well as Shift 2, because it’s so good that it is its own incentive. Shift and Shift 2 are perhaps the only racing games other than Midnight Club Los Angeles in which I find it easier to drive from inside the car. Although I want no part of Shift 2’s new helmet camera, which messes up your steering by turning your head into a curve, as if you didn’t know the curve was there. Of course, I could never use padlock views in flight sims either, but at least I was way up in the sky and not likely to fly into the walls of Nurburgring.

So as gung ho as I’ve been about turning off driving aids, unless Shift 2 does something to encourage me, I’m going to stick with the line. Maybe when Electronic Arts folds in the first round of DLC, they can add some Xbox Live achievements for lineless driving.

Up next: where’s the “turn off autolog” button?
Click here for the previous Shift 2 entry.