Reviewed: April 8, 2011
Released: March 29, 2011
Whatís up with EA and the NFS franchise this year? It seems that every developer in their stable got assigned a racing game. First, Criterion blew us away with some amazing cops and speeders action in Hot Pursuit and now Slightly Mad Studios is back with their second installment of Shift 2 Unleashed that once again tries to blur the lines of classic arcade racing with realistic simulation.|
The style and presentation of Shift 2 certainly makes the game seem like a sim. Gone are the desert highways, forest drives, and twisting mountain roads, now replaced with realistic real-world courses, precision chronographs, brutal AI racers, and color-coded racing lines that just might save your bacon (and your paint job) on that hairpin turn youíre about to take too fast.
New features make this sequel even more exciting and immersive than the original with the addition of night racing. Personally, I hate driving at night, so driving 186mph at night is terrifying on multiple levels. With only the glow of your headlights and the reflections of track markers and the taillights of other cars (assuming you arenít in the lead), racing around these tight tracks in the dark is a whole new level of challenge.
I grew up playing racing games from the front bumper cam, that is until they came up with the hood cam. That view not only gives you a more elevated look at the upcoming tracks, but also helps you navigate through traffic and helps lessen the exaggerated sense of speed you get when the camera is skimming the pavement. Sim purists have always touted the realism of the cockpit camera but personally, I find them too claustrophobic and restrictive. That might all be changing with Shift 2ís new Helmet cam.
This innovative view has you racing from the driverís eyes, the advantage being that your view will automatically shift to the apex of upcoming turns, just like you instinctively do in real-life. This view allows you to judge corners more accurately and take them at faster speed shaving off precious seconds on that lap timer. The helmet cam is a clever way to enhance your peripheral vision without having to resort to a triple-screen display configuration.
The helmet cam alone is almost enough to put Shift 2 in the pole position of racing sims, but sadly the game comes up lacking in a few other areas. While the game plays amazing with a racing wheel (force feedback or not) trying to play Shift 2 with the standard analog controller can be quite difficult. And donít even think about trying the new Elite handling model without a wheel. The sensitivity and unpredictability of these cars at high speeds is staggering.
Since you are racing on a closed track against other cars we now have to deal with AI. I can be more forgiving of AI in a game like Hot Pursuit where things are supposed to be violently crazy, but in Shift 2 the AI is steadfastly programmed to follow the ideal racing line at ideal speeds and anyone who gets in their way be damned. I canít count the times I would be trying to sneak between two cars only to have one decide it was time to slip into formation putting me into the wall, or when I would be slow down for a hairpin turn only to have the car behind slam me into the wall or gravel patch Ė the equivalent of quicksand in this game. Sadly, I found that the best way to play Shift 2 was to take the lead early and try to keep it until the end, but that is a very solitary and somewhat paranoid experience.
One feature I did enjoy was the inclusion of the Autolog. First introduced in Hot Pursuit, this social networking interface allows you to keep tabs on your friendsí progress through the game as well as send or accept personal challenges on any of the events. While there is a certain sense of satisfaction in winning races in the game, that sense of pride escalates when you know you bested the lap or event times of all your friends.
Those who enjoy tinkering with their cars will love the robust garage system that lets you upgrade in several categories. Upgrades slowly enhance various attributes as well as the class of the car, so itís important to make sure you donít upgrade your car too much or it may no longer qualify for your current series of events. The further you progress in the career the more upgrades you unlock and the more cash you earn to pay for them.
In addition to upgrading your cars your driver will slowly rank up levels through earned XP by winning events or mastering certain elements of each track like key corners, or through racing skills like drafting, clean laps, and fast starts. As your driver ranks up he will qualify for new event series, giving you access to a staggering variety of tracks and races.
Shift 2 looks incredible; one of the finest racers on the console today. The car models, the attention to detail in the track designs, the cinematic pans of the camera before the flag drops and the violent slow-motion crash sequences are breathtaking to say the least. And while you really canít go wrong with any of the camera views (other than trying to drive from behind the car Ė who does thatÖreally?!), the innovative helmet cam sets a new standard that will be required in all future racing games.
The audio is also as close to perfection as it gets with realistic engine roars that almost harmonize when cars cluster together on tight turns or rev their engines at the start. The sound is also properly processed based on your camera; loud outside and suitably muffled inside the car or your helmet. The licensed music is pretty much what weíve come to expect from the EA Trax system. Itís neither good nor bad Ė itís just there and it works. You'll also get some skippable advise from a real-world driver when you first start the game and before each new type of race. He also chimes in before and after each race with a few repetitive comments.
Shift 2 is bursting with content, logging in more than 36 tracks and more than 140 cars from 37 manufacturers, not including Limited Edition exclusives and upcoming DLC cars. Your career will span multiple genres and disciplines from Drifting and Endurance to Muscle and Formula racing. Shift 2 Unleashed has a massive career mode that will take 30+ hours to complete and even then youíll be coming back for more if only to best your friendís latest challenge on Autolog. There is also support for up to 12 people racing online which is a fantastic, fun, and frantic experience. I had a few minor issues with lag but those seemed to be more player related than with the game servers. Load times between races are painfully long but race restarts are instantaneous. I highly recommend installing this game to your hard drive.
When it comes to racing games I generally prefer fantasy and fun, especially when the NFS brand is being used, but Shift 2 Unleashed successfully blurs those lines of fun versus realistic sim creating a unique and highly competitive, flexible, and totally addicting experience that rewards your mastery of skillful driving techniques and track memorization, making this the most enjoyable racing ďsimĒ Iíve played on my Xbox 360 to date.