Shift 2 Unleashed Review «

Among the many accomplishments of Shift 2 Unleashed, there is one that stands out above all others: It made me clench my buttocks.
In the spirit of full disclosure, that happened a number of times throughout my Shift 2 career. The first time I was conscious of the phenomenon was on a race through Shanghai on a track I thought I knew. Speeding down a straightaway, I reached an unfamiliar rise in the road and, before I knew it, took flight. It was at the pinnacle of this jump where I realized things would not end the way they do in movies, and, *cue glutes*. Sure enough, as the weight of my car transferred forward, I plunged to the tarmac in a violent, twisting, blurry crash that was truly harrowing.

Click the image above to check out all Shift 2: Unleashed screens.
In stark contrast to its sim-racing competitors, Forza and Gran Turismo, Shift 2 is a brazen, loud, unpredictable wildchild — for better and worse.

Your Shift 2 career begins with a quick driving test in a tricked-out Nissan GT-R to determine your skill level. Based on your performance, the game will suggest settings for things like anti-lock brakes, traction assistance, and a racing line guide (you can override the settings at any point in your career once you’re up to the challenge). From there, you’re turned loose on a ladder of events that lead to the FIA GTI Championship. Every race earns you experience points to level up your driver, though the “aggression vs. precision” distinction from the previous game is gone in Shift 2. And all your races are tracked by Autolog, the same feature found in Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, creating a new leaderboard-jockeying opportunity for you and your friends.

The 100-plus cars to buy and drive in Shift 2 are all quite handsomely recreated, and include fully modeled interiors for each and every one. They lack the kind of obsessive attention to detail present in Gran Turismo 5’s premium car models, but look better than GT5’s standard cars. What’s more, they’re all susceptible to taking extreme amounts of damage (both visual and mechanical), from bashed-in fenders to shattered windshields; they even occasionally lose wheels — without any set of arcane conditions needed to “unlock” the damage.

Once in a race, I immediately appreciated the grimy, lived-in feel of all the tracks. The blacktops look like they’ve seen thousands of races and the barriers myriad collisions. All these little details seem to have come at a price though, as the graphics reveal some jagged edges and the frame rate occasionally takes a dip (I played the 360 version; high-end PCs may have the horsepower to resolve those issues). Still, when in motion, Shift 2 is a great-looking game — particularly in the new night races, as light from your opponents’ headlamps dances through your car’s interior.

The unique cockpit view in the first Need for Speed Shift was one of the key features that made me fall in love with it. No other racing game has ever matched the crazy, kinetic experience of racing from the interior of a Shift car. For the sequel, EA has taken this approach one step further — actually one step further back — with the new helmet camera. Driving from the helmet camera pushes your field of view back to where the driver’s eyes would be, and increases the sensation of motion and inertia in the cabin. What’s more, the view automatically peers into the apex of oncoming curves, mimicking the way a driver turns his eyes to check what’s ahead. It’s a great effect visually, and worth trying out for a while (at least until you’ve experienced a rollover crash from that perspective), but it takes a lot of getting used to, since you’re essentially steering your car in a direction you’re not looking. Ultimately, I’d assume most people will revert to either the hood view or last year’s still excellent cockpit view (as I did) in order to post their best times.

Click the image above to check out all Shift 2: Unleashed screens.
The team at Slightly Mad Studios revamped the entire physics engine and tweaked the AI in Shift 2 with the goal of moving it closer to a true racing simulation. The results are a little uneven. The cars do handle a bit better and more realistically than they did in the first game, but Shift still lacks the same kind of feel and feedback for the road that Forza and Gran Tursimo have. Without spending time tweaking and modifying your car’s settings (which you can do quite extensively), you’ll still find yourself listing and sliding on curves when you really shouldn’t be. The A.I. drivers can be unrealistically aggressive, too. A measure of unpredictability in CPU drivers is always welcome in a racing game, but when one of these incorrigible bastards turns heat-seeking missile and puts you into the wall in lap four of a five-lap race, you’ll want to toss your controller. In the end, Shift 2 is still situated somewhere in between a sim and an arcade racer, and I think that’s actually a good space for it.

If you found Forza or Gran Turismo to be too austere, polite, and reverent, but you still crave a bit of sim-style racing, you’ll surely enjoy Shift 2 Unleashed — as long as you’re willing to deal with the consequences of its lack of manners.

 

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