Shift 2: Unleashed is a bold step for the Need for Speed series. Much like its predecessor (Need for Speed: Shift), Shift 2 gears itself toward fans of the simulation racing genre. Dropping "Need for Speed" from the title was an incredibly smart maneuver, as this is not Need for Speed as you know it. Over the last generation of games, Need for Speed has established itself as an over-the-top arcade racer that pits people in fantastic and expensive sports cars against the police in equally awesome hardware. (This reached the pinnacle in the recent November release of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.)
Shift 2: Unleashed really, really wants to be the simulation racer, but it also wants to be a lot of other things. It wants to be the drift racing game, it wants to be the gritty and visceral racing game, it wants to be the cool and relevant racing game with real racing stars in it, and lastly, it wants to be the most social racing game. Slightly Mad Studios is a very talented group of developers with enough monetary backing to actually pull this off, but it's unavoidable that since they tried to do so much, nothing is particularly exceptional. This results in a game that is overflowing with content that isn't as good as it could've been.
The first thing you'll do in Shift 2 is watching some extremely awkward videos about the game, what you'll be doing and how you'll be doing it. The videos are narrated by professional race car drivers, and you'll have to watch several of these videos before the career mode begins. I understand the desire to get some star power behind your product, but these guys don't pull off the idea well enough for you to take it seriously. It's not even in the so-bad-it's-good category.
From there, it's finally off to the races, with the game figuring out your proficiency with driving games and recommending a difficulty level. With that out of the way, the career mode opens up. You're given enough credits to buy a single cheap car and access to a few circuits so you can compete for more money and experience.
This is where Shift 2 starts to borrow from its bigger brothers in the race sim genre. Racing well earns you experience points, and your placement in the field also earns experience points. The more you race, the more you level up, and as you go, you'll be handed rewards in the form of cars, paint jobs and, most importantly, more races. Leveling up moves at a brisk pace, and it's impossible to find yourself without a new race to run. While you can advance to the end of the career pretty quickly, it'll take gamers quite some time to do everything that the career mode has to offer.
The racing leans toward the sim side of things. This isn't Ridge Racer. This isn't Burnout. However, it's also certainly not Forza or Gran Turismo, even if it wants to be. Things can have a very arcade feel from time to time, and the focus on the grittier aspects of racing exaggerates those moments. This isn't really a bad thing, as Shift 2 manages to successfully walk a very fine line between a realistic sim and an outrageous arcade racing title.
Regardless of where it stands between the careful precision of Gran Turismo and the high-flying stunts of Burnout, if the game doesn't race well, it's completely worthless. In that respect, Shift 2 (kind of) delivers the goods. The amount of fun that you'll have with this game depends entirely on which camera perspective you use during races. All the standard views are available — behind the car, front bumper, visible hood, etc. — and they race about as well as you expect. When using these views, you'll put up your best course times, race your cleanest laps, and generally perform better. These views are not the way Shift 2 is meant to be played, though.
Shift 2 has focused on the helmet cam. In this view, you see the race as the driver sees it: with a tinted lens, limited vision and a focal point. As you enter turns, expect the camera to move into it, as a driver would try to see what's around the corner. When driving, expect to take your eyes off the road to check the rear view mirrors and look around you. Don't expect that you'll be able to take a quick glance, as your vision is blurred on the sides because your focus is on the road. Hitting walls will also blur your vision. This is possibly the most intense experience I've ever had when playing a racing game. When you really get into this mode, Shift 2 truly shines.
Capping a reasonably tough racing game is very aggressive AI. When driving in Shift 2, it's smart to drive with respect to the other drivers. Pass when you can, and don't hit the other drivers. Shunting a driver is just asking for him to gun it and take you out on the next turn. Once he's got it out for you, expect to have several drivers trying to make your car face the wrong direction. As a result, I restarted several races more than 10 times because the other drivers would take me out and force me to lose precious time in righting my vehicle.
There is plenty of variety in career mode. It switches between several different kinds of racing, and the constant need to upgrade your car or swap it out for a better vehicle prevents the gameplay from getting stale. The only part of the career mode that doesn't get this right is an overly long section with an emphasis on drift racing. It's a tricky thing to master, and it's satisfying when you can pull it off, but in my opinion, there are too many drift events in the game.
The rest of the game's offerings don't really make any missteps. There's a wide selection of cars to choose from, and the various racing modes provide plenty of action. There's a full shop where you can tune up your car, buy upgrades and even paint it. These systems are fun and functional, but they never reach the levels of customization that are featured in Forza and Gran Turismo.
That's not to say that Shift 2 is always lagging behind the competition. When you're planted in the cockpit view, the game looks and sounds absolutely spectacular. The attention to detail is great, and it looks and sounds like one of the most intense experiences you can have behind the wheel of a car. It's not often that a racing game really gets my heart pumping, but Shift 2 manages to do that from the race presentation alone. Cars look and sound good, crashes look amazing, and there is a superb level of detail in the animations.
It's unfortunate that the sound doesn't fare so well outside of the cockpit. The pro racers act as navigators, and the narrator never quite "gets" it; the celebrity endorsement somehow cheapens the experience, and it may leave a sour taste in your mouth. The music never hits the mark, either, as it features stereotypical rock hits that you'd expect from driving games nowadays.
There is one really neat feature in Shift 2, although it only comes into play if you have friends who also play the game. This is known as Autolog, and it debuted with last year's Hot Pursuit, but it's also been integrated here, and it's a nice little way to add some social replay value to the title. You can recommend races to friends, see each other's times on any race (you'll receive an in-game warning when you cut corner, though). In addition, within the race, you'll see the next best time to beat on your friends list, and you'll get an in-game notification when somebody bests one of your times.
Shift 2: Unleashed is a very good racing game, but it's not quite refined enough to be a great racing game. Shift 2 is fun, but you need to know how to play it in order to appreciate it and get the most out of the experience. When played correctly, this is an intense, borderline terrifying behind-the-wheel experience, and it's worth checking out the game for that aspect alone. Shift 2 may not be ready to play with the top dogs in the genre, but it's still a wild ride from start to finish.
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