The second entry in the Need For Speed track racing franchise, Shift 2 Unleashed improves on the first in all aspects.
It would be true to say that I was not a fan of the first Shift game. The handling was awkward, the career was dull and, to be honest, I was still trying to come to terms with the change in direction for the NFS series. But I had high hopes for Shift 2. The surrounding hype had revealed the helmet cam viewpoint, the return of Autolog from Hot Pursuit and a level of simulation that could possibly compete with the likes of Forza and Gran Turismo.
So, back to the tracks I head. The first thing that is quite apparent from the game, which I was not expecting from a contender to the racing Sim crown, was the gritty realism. It may sound a bit strange, but Shift 2 makes the current Forza and Gran Turismo games feel positively sterile. This “dirtiness” seems to carry on throughout all aspects of the game, from the visual detail of the tracks (which look well worn and used), the damage modelling on the vehicles (which can be turned to cosmetic for those not wishing to try their luck driving with only three wheels), to the attitude of the driving itself.
Shift 2 Unleashed features some really impressive, if slightly vindictive, AI. They may not be the best drivers in the world, but they are certainly not afraid to break the rules of motor racing and simply push you into a barrier should they feel the need. Being quite an aggressive driver myself (only in games, I promise) it is quite refreshing to come up against AI opponents that will quite happily give as good as they get, and still make stupid mistakes.
When you take all of this aggression on the track and throw it into the games’ night time racing events, things get really tense. Driving at night takes a certain amount of tactics – does the player hang back and use the brake lights of the cars in front to navigate the track, hoping for a chance to overtake near the end? Or should the player rocket to the front of the pack and hope that the corners don’t appear too suddenly? It is racing at night that really puts the player on the edge of their seat, and quite often into a barrier or the back of a rival car. Why don’t we see more night time track racing in games? This is fun!
The difficulty curve of the game gives the player a false sense of achievement, as it starts off being almost leisurely before ramping up to the point that the player will find themselves having to fight, tooth and nail, to cross the line first. There are a variety of parameters that can be tweaked to make the game easier, such as auto-braking or the ever useful racing line. When first starting the career, the player is given a tricked out car and asked to drive in a race. The results of the race and how the player managed the driving dictates what level of driver the game thinks you are and sets the parameters appropriately. But manually tweaking these factors may be a good idea should the player be finding the game too hard, or too easy.
The new viewpoint, which places the camera in the position of the drivers helmet, is a great idea. Whilst in that position, the camera will turn to where the driver would be looking, such as around the corner, making the driving slightly more realistic. But most impressive in this mode is the feeling of g-force as the player accelerates and the helmet is thrust back in the seat, or as the player goes around sharp corners and everything tilts slightly. Also impressive is the virtual whiplash that the player will feel when being hit from behind, or the utter dizziness that results from rolling your car. Either way, using this new viewpoint will take some getting used to and I feel that players will generally go back to whatever view they usually use and feel most comfortable with, mine being behind and above the car.
As I already said, the competitive social networking of Autolog returns in full force. Running in the background, your times for all of your races are logged and compared to others in your friends list, offering instant challenges and the opportunity for bragging rights amongst friends. It worked really well in Hot pursuit and works equally as well here in Shift 2, adding more purpose to the racing.
So the gritty realism of Shift 2 may not fit in very well with the Forzas and Gran Turismos of the video game world, even though it contributes to making an incredibly exciting game. But there is another way that Shift 2 fails to measure up as a driving simulator, the handling. The collection of more than 100 cars that are in the game all look very good and are recreated with a decent amount of detail, but the handling models are less well done. Much improved over the first Shift, in Shift 2 the feedback is still less than the driving sims, and the tendency to slide on corners is still very, very apparent. At times you could think that you were driving in some kind of drift competition.
Which is kind of handy as drifting is offered as one of the events. Using a stupendously overpowered car, the player will be challenged to pretty much drive sideways around a curve-heavy track. I was quite excited by this as I really enjoyed the drift components of the earlier Need For Speed games. But it quickly becomes apparent that drifting in Shift 2 is a whole different kettle of fish. Even from the unbelievably difficult drift tutorial, chasing a decent score in drifting just gets more difficult. Balancing the speed of the car with good throttle control and just the right amount of steering in order to achieve the perfect angle when going around the corner is no easy task. That being said, managing a complete lap with a sideways car is a thing of beauty and feels very good indeed.
Shift 2 Unleashed is a jack of all trades racer. Whilst it appears to be far too serious to be classed an arcade racer, it is also not quite serious enough, and maybe too exciting, to be thought of as a full on driving sim. The result, whilst perhaps not appealing to the extreme lovers of each genre, is a game that has the ability to appeal to possibly the broadest audience of gamers. It is well-polished, enjoyable to play and, most of all, fun. If you have even the slightest interest in racing games, put Shift 2 on the top of your wish list.