SHIFT 2: Unleashed Review
I don't know if you've noticed, but the car simulation genre is starting to get a little crowded. PC gamers have been playing the hardest of the hardcore games like iRacing and Live for Speed for years, and the console crowd has been catching up with stellar releases like Forza Motorsport 3 and the love-it-hate-it Gran Turismo 5. Slightly Mad Studios and EA made an attempt to bridge the gap between arcade racer and full sim in a new way with Need for Speed SHIFT, but for many players, the developers made quite a few missteps in bringing the two sides together. With the sequel, SHIFT 2: Unleashed, they've chosen more wisely - but the competition is much more fierce than before, too.
For this review, I've chosen to focus exclusively on the PC version of the game, mostly because I can hook up a trusty Logitech G25 racing wheel and get 1080p visuals at 60+ FPS. You'll need a solid gaming PC to do this on, though, as the system requirements are rather steep, especially for what may seem, at first, like a straight console port. I did play around with both keyboard and gamepad controls just to get a feel for what they're like (and they're exactly what you expect them to be), but I stuck with the G25 wheel along with "Experienced" driving difficulty for the vast majority of the game.
It stands to reason that EA dropped the Need for Speed moniker for this sequel once they realized that three games with this name, all either in beta testing or being launched in the same five month window, was a little overkill. No matter the name, Slightly Mad has made the most realistic road racing game EA has ever had a hand in, even if the physics are a few years behind. There's a good selection of tracks here, and while the roster of 100 licensed cars covers a lot of favorites, it pales in comparison to other games out there.
Throughout the career you'll be gaining experience points and leveling up by staying on the race line, passing other cars, mastering corners, winning special conditions on a track, and more - and that's along with making good money from getting onto the podium, too. Drift events are back but are entirely skippable if you want, while a mix of time trials, elimination, and standard road race events make up the rest of the game. You'll buy parts to upgrade your car, minding the maximum rating for whatever class you're racing in, and even have the option of manually tuning quite a few bits of your car as well. Again, don't expect true sim-level stuff here, but for a game that is trying to balance out the race-nerd stuff with that NFS brand of excitement, it does a pretty admirable job.
The AI, however, can really be a drag. I found that opponent cars will happily slam into you from the blindside, even if you're just minding your own business, and unless you're a genius with your car's handling, getting hit means you've got a good chance to spin out and wind up in last place. It'd be fine if this only happened occasionally, but this happens a hell of a lot, and most races I tried in the late game were just trial-and-error slogs - another car would manage to collide with me and spin me out within the first 30 seconds and I'd have to restart, repeat that a dozen times in trying to dodge the bumper car charlie foxtrot, then finally get an attempt where I'd sneak into first place and pull away from the pack. After that, it was usually a smooth cruise to victory as long as I did some smart driving.
Dropping the AI difficulty setting down to Easy doesn't help much, either, as it'll still result in a destruction derby on four out of five attempts. I do appreciate that some of the aggressive tactics players could use are no longer rewarded by the game with XP bonuses, but the AI still happily slams into you way too often. It is weird, though, because once in a while an AI opponent will actually check his rearview and move out of your way if you're about to easily pass him, but the AI's whole attitude changes once they think they can take you.
SHIFT 2 does include one major original feature, which is an extension of the developers' attempt to enhance the in-cockpit view of the first game. Now, you're actually in your driver's helmet, as he focuses on the track and turns his head to see upcoming corners. Unfortunately, I found this viewpoint to be a bit of a bust, because the head-turning was kind of disorienting at first (which I eventually got over), but then I started to get annoyed at how the game would blur everything other than the track in front of me, leaving my mirrors to be an unfocused mess. Hey Slightly Mad, if I was actually racing in that car at that moment, and I wanted to look in my rearview mirror, then my eyes' focus would shift, wouldn't it? Why not just leave everything in focus so that when I do want to look in one of my mirrors, they're not slathered in Crisco?
There were other strange things I found, too, like the Lotus Exige that had a blacked-out center mirror for no discernible reason, a tire physics model on PC that was just a little sluggish but was actually fixed by modders, the now-standard set of EA-branded unskippable tutorial videos and feature introduction movies that are totally useless, and an interface that really doesn't mesh well with some control schemes. In some menus, you'll use the arrow keys to navigate, but in others, you have to use a variety of letter keys to do things that arrows, Escape, and Enter should be doing - and navigating the menus with a mouse is just downright weird and sometimes confusing.
Despite still being a step or two behind from other sim-type games, SHIFT 2 is still a large improvement over its predecessor, and one thing Slightly Mad Studios did a fantastic job on was the in-car experience. The helmet camera has already been mentioned, but it's important to also note that all cars have fully-modeled interiors, and you can even swap out the dash for a complete replacement that's more conducive to racing. And the feel of instability at excessive speed - the sensation that you're going way too fast and are about to go out of control at any moment - is the best in the business.
Let me try to sum it up this way. On one Top Gear US episode last year (yeah, it sucks compared to the UK version, but I still find it entertaining), Tanner Foust drove a Morgan Aero Supersport, a British-made, luxury/sports car with a wooden frame and a top speed in excess of 160mph. When he got it up to that speed, he said the whole car's front end was just kind of waving around and close to going completely out of control, and he was left visibly shaken once he was done - and this is a guy that has made a career out of racing at high speeds. Well, in SHIFT 2, you will get that same feeling - and that same look on your face that Tanner Foust did - when you take cars to their limit. When you do actually lose control, you'll get a pretty spectacular crash and will likely have to restart the race, but if you can hold on, the feeling of victory is wonderful. Sure, other racing games do this, but it's not nearly as good as what Slightly Mad has achieved.
Time to move on to some of the extra bits of gameplay. While there are no LAN play options or split-screen modes, the Autolog system does a solid job of allowing you to save and share replays, compare your lap times with your friends', set up online races, and do quite a few other handy, fun things. It's not all linked together quite so smoothly like it is on PSN or Xbox Live, but it works just fine here.
SHIFT 2 is a significant step in the right direction for Slightly Mad Studios, and while it still can't really be considered at the same level of simulation as some of its competition, this budding sub-franchise is getting there very quickly. It's got just the right amount of accessibility to get you started and enough sim to keep you there, but not enough of either to keep you playing for too terribly long. Of course, you can still bank on getting dozens of hours and hundreds of laps around the world's most interesting road tracks, so by all means, I recommend that racing fans - especially armchair car nerds - jump right in. This is a great choice if you want to take a lot of fast production (and a few true racing) cars around the track and are looking for something just hardcore enough to justify the cost of a racing wheel controller, but not so hardcore that you have to spend four hours tuning a scratch-built car in order to take it into some high-powered online racing league. SHIFT 2 isn't quite to the level of the big boys yet, but it's still very much worth your time.