Two Need For Speed games in the past six months? What's happening here? A cash-cow, surely. Let's not jump to those conclusions just yet, because even though the franchise is notorious for average annual updates (2010 aside), Shift 2: Unleashed deserves more respect. In an effort to grab the arcade and simulation audiences, EA made the decision to split Need For Speed in half. Criterion was in control of Hot Pursuit and made an instant impression, whereas Slightly Mad Studios tries to beat Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5 to the finish line. Obviously, that hasn't happened and Shift 2: Unleashed is left behind, but still does enough to snatch a bronze medal. The biggest worry is that we've already seen most of what Shift 2 has to offer; so read on to discover the good, the bad, and the missing pieces.
Anyone who followed the pre-release media for Shift 2 will be prepared for the most terrifying racer ever with a unique camera angle, unrivaled and genuinely innovative. At least that's what EA wants you to believe. The truth is that Shift 2 doesn't deliver with either of those promises, and that was the bulk of what it had against the established simulators. Don't forget, this is still part of the Need For Speed franchise, and with all that money under the hood, certain aspects are predictably excellent. Presentation, sound, graphics - they're all second to none. Forza 3 move over, Shift 2 brushes it aside and is a visual bombshell. All of the tracks are beautiful, so too are the cars, especially when the sunlight is gleaming over the horizon. The lighting is outstanding and there's a lot of detail track-side; gravel and dirt can often be seen hurtling through the air, the surroundings are vibrant, and that makes Shift 2 an awfully difficult racer to judge. So much has been done so well, yet the passion for racing is difficult to find.
If you played the recent Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, the 'Autolog' should be familiar and to its credit, Shift 2 is miles ahead when it comes to leaderboards and competing against friends. It's deeper this time around, and not so in-your-face about every best lap that has been posted. Players are free to ignore Autolog, but if anything, that's the future of racing online. It is a truly brilliant system that compiles data from you, your friends and drivers across the globe, giving you extra motivation to try and improve your skills. More than any other racer available, Shift 2 knows how to instill competition, making it a lengthy and enjoyable journey for those willing to ignore the faults. Originally in 2009, Shift screwed around with simulation mechanics to make it more accessible, and the sequel follows on from that. The realism fits somewhere between Project Gotham Racing 4 and Forza 3, so with the right settings, anyone can pick it up. The normal assists can be found here (racing lines, braking assists etc.), and these help massively when you first start up the game.
With that in mind, excluding a rewind function is ludicrous. The hardcore will claim that it makes the racing too easy, and that's a fair argument, but the ability to rewind is comforting. The frustration caused without it has nothing to do with poor mechanics, on the contrary, it's because of the challenging AI. Opponents will stay close and are a tough bunch even on the normal difficulty level. They're also more than capable of playing dirty, and have no qualms about shunting you off the track and into a wall. At times, the AI is ruthless and unforgiving, so if you crash (even on the first lap) it's nigh on impossible to win the race. This is even more annoying on the final bend of the final lap after leading off the grid. A simple rewind option would have solved this problem. You can't ease casual racing fans into the intimidating world of real racing without being able to rewind, and this forgetfulness has gone against Slightly Mad Studios. The 'elites' will respect the decision, and that's fine; just wait until you slide into a gravel pit, you'll be praying to rewind and avoid the hassle of restarting.
You must be wondering by now, what about the special camera angle? The main selling point of Shift 2 is an immersive viewpoint, dropping you straight into the driver's helmet, peering out of a visor and racing through their eyes. It's very unique in that respect, though unfortunately, the uniqueness of it all doesn't sit well beside the gameplay. Frankly, we only lasted for an hour with the camera angle which will spark flames in the eyes of many, but it's just too difficult to play with. Turning isn't a problem and looking into each chicane is really cool... until you get hit. There isn't enough time to glance in the mirror, so using the camera angle is like playing on the hardest difficulty; you can't see properly around you and it doesn't compensate for sense. What do we mean by that? Professional drivers have the advantage of being able to feel the presence of the other cars, by sound and also by awareness. That feeling can't be replicated on a television screen. Bits and pieces of Shift 2 are undeniably clever: subtle screen effects, black and white filters when you crash, the shaky camera and so on. It really is the pinnacle of immersion without actually sitting in the car yourself, although if you're only playing Shift 2 as a casual or intermediate racer, it's not enticing enough and you'll end up reverting back to a traditional view.
Another missed opportunity can be found in the lack of weather, a feature that F1 2010 set the benchmark for. Dynamic weather would have given Shift 2 some more spice, the engine is good enough to provide stunning graphics, so why not exploit that with buckets or rain? Fortunately, Shift 2 does have the best night races in the genre. Once again, they're not fear inducing, but they are fun. There's always a great impression of speed no matter what class of vehicle you're driving, and the exhilaration of racing is increased by playing under moonlight. Tracks are made visible by your headlights so you'll need to be cautious when entering any form of crest. Handling in Shift 2 is generally quite good too, although some cars are too floaty. We used the standard control pad, and there's nothing out of the ordinary in terms of layout, but a steering wheel would almost certainly give you more of an incentive to purchase Shift 2. While the racing is competent enough, it never reaches the quality of Forza 3 - a title which defined racing for the current generation. However, Shift 2 does match it from an audio perspective, bringing some very authentic sounds to the track. Cars breathe energy and you'll dread hearing an engine roar from outside the back window, you might end up peering over your shoulder, it really is that good. The soundtrack doesn't play during events, which is ok, because it's small and not very memorable. Shift 2 is prone to flaunting an overly dramatic tone, although when it concentrates on delivering the sensation of physically being in the race, the atmosphere is spot on.
Obligatory online modes are included to beef up the package, the most relevant of which is the Duel Driver Championship. You start off in the qualifying rounds before progressing up the ladder. Winning nets you more experience points to boost the rank of your driver and it's usually a fun ride. Experience can also be earned by mastering every bend of every track - an enormous grinding session - but the basic rules still apply. Surprisingly for an EA title, online isn't very active. You've got the usual suspects who will be in it for the long term, but it's already faltering against Hot Pursuit. Thankfully, the deep offline career has enough to keep drivers logged in. Race types are constantly changing and you'll always have the opportunity to customise your garage. Seemingly minor tweaks can elevate your car into a beast, and there's even a vinyl editor for the creative artists. Shift 2 isn't short on content, Autolog alone gives you another reason to stick around. Everything is delivered with EA's trademark flair, highlighting the ambition of a company willing to challenge the best. Another box ticked, but many have remained empty.
We could ramble on about the features in Shift 2: Unleashed, but it's only a stop-gap until Forza 4 arrives. Don't misinterpret this review, because Shift 2 is a very good racer, albeit one lacking soul. You need to think of it in terms of driving the genre forward and incorporating mechanics that improve the experience. Releasing a solid racer is fine, and Shift 2 becomes a great one with Autolog and impeccable presentation, but its potential hasn't been realised. Forza 3 became the king of the road in 2009 and that remains unchanged. If you want something to keep you entertained until later in the year, you could do much worse that Shift 2, just don't buy it expecting a revolution. We'll have to rely on Turn 10 Studios for that.