Shift 2 Unleashed, or the game formerly known as Need for Speed Shift 2 Unleashed, is an interesting game as much for the publicity campaign that preceded its launch as for the game itself.
Whether or not you accept it as the 17th in the Need for Speed franchise, the sequel to Need for Speed: Shift was again developed by Britain’s Slightly Mad Studios, and following the reboot of the main Need for Speed title with Criterion’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, it was allowed to go in a more authentic race simulation direction. As a result, three elements stood out pre-release. The first was the apparently conscious decision to limit the number of cars in the game to a reasonable amount, rather than aiming to compete with the car porn catalogues of Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, although the cynical could say it’s also a sensible decision when allocating resources given that two car packs have since extended the number of available cars since launch. The second was a more authentic implementation of night racing, made trickier by the fact damage could even see you stuck in the dark with no lights to help your way, whilst the third was the addition of a new ‘helmet cam’ view.
Shift 2: Unleashed gameplay:
All of this built high expectations, which may have led to a little disapointment when the game was released. The gameplay and handling is certainly good, if not great, but it’s an evolution of the intense and frenetic action of the original Shift, rather than an absolutely authentic racing experience, despite the in-game and development involvement of several top racing drivers and the post-launch links to various Team Need for Speed teams racing in real championships around the world.
As with Shift, the in-car view is the most enjoyable by far, as the cars have a tendency to float slightly above the track, rather than having any real ‘weight’ to them, particularly when cornering. Although that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment when you’re battling in a pack of 10+ cars for the first corner of a race, it’s more noticeable when hot lapping on your own, and does take some readjustment after playing Forza or Gran Turismo. There is some rolling resistance and you can feel the tyres losing some grip around corners, but it feels far more minimal than with the aforementioned race sims, and the sound of tyres screeching comes as more of an added sound effect than feeling like you’re torturing the rubber on the road.
The new helmet cam is fun, but ultimately a little frustrating, as the point of view moves as your head would in real life, looking at the apex of each corner, for instance. It’s interesting, but ultimately without an interface using something like Kinect, the fact that you can’t control the view feels like a bit of an out-of-body experience which is a little disorientating, and less effective than the traditional static in-car view.
There are plenty of Career Mode options and routes to take in Drift, Retro, Modern and Muscle car events en route to the GT3 and GT1 championships, with a pretty wide variety of courses, and a mix of single car hot laps and normal racing with large fields of AI drivers. The AI itself isn’t bad, but there are times when there’s a lack of awareness from other drivers as they punt you off the track in ways which harm them as much as your own race, meaning it feels like a lack of AI awareness rather than any artificial spitefulness, especially when the same driver will courteously move out of your way on occasions as you try to come back through the pack. It also suffers slightly from the Forza problem of allowing you to upgrade your car far beyond those of your competitors on occasion, meaning that once you can break through the pack you pull out a whopping lead, even on the hardest difficult setting.
But there’s a lot of joy to be had, especially battling in the lower classes as rubbing paint and battling with the pack can be a lot of fun – Retro saloons in particular seem to be a good class for the handling model and AI to work with as they have enough speed to be interesting, but not the over-abundance of power which can make the maxxed-out cars slightly frustrating.
Shift 2: Unleashed Graphics:
One of the biggest selling points of the game is that it looks absolutely fantastic, pushing the Xbox 360 further than any other racing game we’ve seen. The cars are very detailed and with a hi level of resolution, and the tracks and surroundings are extremely pretty – it’s certainly the best we’ve seen Brands Hatch represented in any game, and the selection of tracks includes some beautiful classics such as Spa and Zolder. It flows nicely, with no stuttering or glitching, and the sound isn’t bad either, particularly on the distinctive engine and exhaust noise of a full works Caterham.
The whole game makes a great impression graphically in fact, with the intro videos and career mode FMV cut scenes all shot in high quality and really selling the action. It’s definitely one you can bring out to impress car fans who aren’t gamers. The paint and graphics editor for cars isn’t perhaps up to Forza standards, but it’s possible to make some interesting creations, and Slightly Mad have provided a nice set of stock race liveries for each car for those of us who would rather be racing than painting.
Shift 2: Unleashed Sound:
There’s a pretty good and well implemented selection of engine and exhaust notes going on, and you can certainly tell what type of car you’re driving from the engine note alone. Crashes are suitable whince-inducing, and probably the highest compliment has to be for the audio clips of the real racing drivers giving you tips and advice before a race and congratulations/commiserations afterwards – there’s actually enough variety that although the tips aren’t essential, they’re also not at all irritating. And that’s probably the first time we’ve ever said that about a racing game. Top marks for Slightly Mad for being the racing game developers who have probably invested the most time and effort in successfully giving us the racing atmosphere and excitement – as long as you like the more alternative, drift, street kids gone racing world!
Shift 2: Unleashed – Online:
There are the usual opportunities for quick, custom and private races, and all the usual options for setting up your preferred racing are available – everything is handled pretty smoothly and there’s some top notch racing as a result. The only flaw is from the other gamers – the rubbing is racing feel of the game means that a lot of the human racers online seem to think it’s fine to just barrel into corners without braking and bounce off whichever cars are in front with no real implications in terms of damage, often wrecking your race if you can’t get clear of them quickly.
Whereas it’s more possibly to avoid these nobbers with full damage modes in other racing games, and they tend to be more of the exception than the rule, we’ve found that the Shift 2 lobbies are particularly tricky to find without a compliment of mobile hazards, so it’s been private games which have been by far the most enjoyable for proper racing action.
The other side of online is the constant reminder of friendly competition from anyone on your Xbox Live list in the form of the Autolog and Speedwall which appears before and after each Career race and by hitting the Select button. The default list of friend’s times for each event really provides an added incentive to do well as it’s so prominently displayed and also rewards you with XP points should you beat your mates – unfortunately it’s not really filteed by class or car, so you can find some people with times in stock Ford Focus listed behind someone who set their time in a Bugatti Veyron fully tuned, but we can live with that, and the fact that you can ‘recommend’ an event to your friend after destroying their best lap gives the opportunity for some fun and games.
Shift 2: Unleashed: Overall Opinion:
Overall Shift 2: Unleashed is a good game, and a definitely high improvement over Shift. Without doing it an injustice, you could compare it to Forza and GT5 by imagining them as formal three course meals, and Shift as a damn good burger. It’s not got all of the depth of the full dinner party, but at the same time it definitely satisfies the need for quick and intense racing, and like a good burger, it’s also pretty addictive. Whilst it’s not quite the full-on racing simulator you may have been led to believe, it’s the perfect arcade-sim alternative to either of the more comprehensive, and at times, more tedious games. And that’s more than good enough for us…
Shift 2: Unleashed is available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 (version tested). Score: 7/10.