Shift 2: through a windshield darkly

, | Game diaries

While trying to get a handle on one of the cars in Shift 2, I fired up the first Shift to see how it felt in that game. It felt pretty much the same, which was no surprise. I had confirmed that, yep, Shift 1 still felt great. The guys at Slightly Mad Studios get how to model the feel of a car — whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean — better than anyone else, so that was no surprise.

But what surprised me while playing Shift 1, which is a good-looking game, is how much better Shift 2 actually looks. My brain remembered Shift 1 looking awesome. But now, to my eyes, it doesn’t look as good as Shift 2. You can’t trust your brain and your eyes to get along. They’re often at odds.

After the jump, putting one right in the brain

The new night driving in Shift 2 is dead sexy for the lighting effects. The road in front of me shines darkly in the white light of my headlights. Which is nifty, but plenty of games do that. What I love about night driving is something I almost didn’t even realize I’d noticed.

From my column in Computer Games Magazine, way back in 2003:

I’ve just built a bunch of tanks. They’re making their way across the desert. I’m kind of zoning out, watching them, when I notice it for the first time: the sand is appaloosa with dark shapes moving across the terrain. They’re the shadows that would be cast by clouds drifting in front of the sun. This is what the world looks like from this high up. I’m on the next to last mission in the single player campaign and I’ve never noticed them before. At least, not consciously.

That’s not to say I haven’t appreciated the graphics in Command & Conquers: Generals [note: please remember this was an ancient time known as 2003]. I have. It looks great. But you mostly notice the stuff that stops at your eyes. When a Technical blows up and the little guy in the back of the truck goes flying through the air, it hits you in the eyes and you immediately notice. But things like cloud shadows go straight to your brain, quietly and effectively tickling awake all those times you peered down from the window of an airplane or looked out at a field from atop a hill.

Cloud shadows aren’t unique to Generals. But this is an example of those often-unappreciated subtle touches that work at the fringe of awareness, all the more important because they’re subtle. Most visuals stop at your eyes. The really effective stuff goes straight to your brain.

The counterpart to this in Shift 2’s night driving is the way the light from headlights behind me dances around inside my car. It flashes across the dashboard, the doors, the ceiling, the seats. It’s something you miss in other racing games where you’re seeing your car from the outside. But with Shift 2’s interior view, you get the play of light from that car just behind your rear bumper, sweeping it’s headlights back and forth as you play follow-the-leader through the turns, bouncing beams off the rear view mirror, shining in your eyes. This is cool not just because it’s cool, but because it’s familiar. We all know what it’s like to drive at night, and it’s not an overhead view of a car with a cone of white light splayed before it. It’s us inside a dark bubble moving through darkness, occasionally speared with the light from other headlights.

Up next, a sappy love letter to my favorite track
Click here for the previous Shift 2 entry.