Fans of console racing sims have, since 2005, been split into two camps: Forza fans and Gran Turismo fans, each asserting the superiority of his favorite franchise. Sure, there’ve been a few compelling offerings from the likes of Codemasters and even Konami, but it always comes back to those two main franchises. Now, however, developer Slightly Mad Studios is vying for a piece of that action with their newest offering, Shift 2: Unleashed. Surely a game under the “Need for Speed” banner couldn’t possibly measure up to the giants of the genre. Is it worth the time of some of gaming’s most polarized and finicky fans? The answer is a resounding yes.
Shift 2 boasts a helmet cam that’s completely different from any other camera view of any other console racing game. The helmet cam mimics the movements of a professional race car driver. This means that, for example, when you approach a corner the driver begins to shift his gaze toward the apex like a real driver would. The way this was implemented is nothing short of remarkable. The happy side effects of the helmet camera aren’t limited to the benefits of looking into the apex, either.
The kinds of forces the driver is being subjected to are communicated through the camera. Collide with a barrier or an opponent, and the color will fade from the screen, the driver’s vision will blur, and the edges of the screen will become distorted. In a particularly heavy crash you might even hear the driver grunt in displeasure as he absorbs the impact of the collision. The cars themselves also come alive in this view. The mirrors shake violently even at ‘normal’ speeds, enriching the entire experience. Initially you might find yourself fighting it, especially if you’re using the suggested line as an assist, counter steering to correct what might feel like the car ‘drifting’ to one side. However, if you stick with it you’ll be able to enjoy a driving experience that, as of the release of this title, does not have an equal on consoles.
Should you prefer Shift 2 does have a traditional cockpit view, complete with semi-stationary camera. The realism doesn’t stop there, though. Contrary to what many might be thinking, this is a proper racing sim. As a fan of both Forza and Gran Turismo, I had a hard time coming to grips with this myself. Need for Speed has, at least in recent memory, been slanted towards an arcade crowd. Even the previous title was criticized for what seemed like a simplified physics engine. On my playthrough I switched back and forth between this game and GT5, and, though I can hardly believe it, there wasn’t much I could single out as unrealistic in Unleashed in comparison. Approach a corner with too much speed, and you will careen uncontrollably off the track. Tires can fail, headlights can be blown out, and it’s all handled in a completely realistic way for the most part. The numbers back it up as well, as according to executive producer Marcus Nilsson, the physics engine runs at 360 frames per second, the same as Forza 3.
You’ll be spending most of your time in career mode where you progress through an event list that unlocks as you level up (you’ll earn RPG-type experience points), competing with real-world drivers like Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Tommy Milner in a variety of different disciplines for a chance to become number one. Time Attack, Elimination, Drift, and GT3 are just a few of the sixty different kinds of events players will be competing in, each with multiple races. The experience points you earn also unlock things like special paints, vinyl groups, and special vehicles that are otherwise unavailable. Completing specific objectives for any particular event will also award experience points. Additional bonuses can be unlocked by mastering a track. That involves learning the proper racing line and all the entry/exit points for all the turns. That kind of encouragement is found throughout the game, and it works to keep the player engaged while simultaneously teaching the basics of good driving.
Online competition is also emphasized in Shift 2 and takes place in two distinct ways. Players can partake in direct competition in online multiplayer through a variety of race types, like Driver Duel, Time Attack, or the elaborately titled Race, while (you guessed it) also earning experience points. Indirect competition can also be waged through Autolog’s Speedwall. The Speedwall is where you and your friends’ fastest times will be placed. They are individualized for each event/track, and provide a good basis for one-upmanship and healthy competition between friends. At a recent multiplayer preview event, a few other journalists and I got to try out this feature for ourselves. In the small amount of time we were able to toy with it, its potential was immediately evident.
Equally impressive were Shift 2’s graphics. The car exteriors themselves lack the level of detail present in the competition, though to be sure the cockpits are extremely detailed. What its graphics engine lacks in sheer power or numbers it makes up for in consistency. All of the tracks can be driven during day and at dusk, and most can be driven at night. The results are stunning. The graphics engine allows for multiple light sources, each casting dynamic shadows. This plays out dramatically during the night races and can be particularly pretty during the dusk races as well. Your opponents’ headlights will light up your cabin, illuminating the heads up display and mirrors and generally looking fantastic.
Shift 2 is as good to listen to as it is pretty to look at. The engines bellow and the exhausts belch in a way that somehow balances carefully between fanciful representation and faithful recreation. It’s almost symphonic. The music is the kind of emo alternative rock you’d expect, but it’s never intrusive. It’s often even appropriate so there’s basically no complaint here either.
Very rarely was the fourth wall ever broken on my playthrough, but it did happen. There were a few incidents where the physics engine had a hiccup or the graphics engine had to play catch-up, but the game ran smoothly for the most part.
Where customization is concerned, however, there was much to be desired. Players can customize their vehicles with vinyls via an editor much like the one found in Forza, although its implementation ends up being very bare bones and not really all that impressive. This isn’t a huge fault by any means, but players won’t be creating any Picasso recreations any time soon. The paint editor also left me scratching my head. Instead of using a color palette, there’s a hue, saturation, value system in place. It works fine enough but because of the way it’s set up, there are some colors that are next to impossible to achieve. Again, it isn’t a big issue, just one that left me wondering why there wasn’t an additional solution, like a color wheel alongside the HSV setup.
Upgrades are a bit confusing as well, largely due to the way they’re handled. For instance, if you want to upgrade the air intake on a particular vehicle, there are three parts that you can purchase: performance filter, high flow cone and intake tube, and a cold air intake system. None of these parts conflict, but they also can’t be installed at the same time. What might be going on is that the third option (which lends the highest performance boost) probably has the other two included in some way but you couldn’t tell by the way it’s displayed. Tuning itself is simple enough and won’t require a lot of time to understand. It’s all very straightforward and well-presented. Each vehicle is assigned a number that corresponds to its performance potential. The Performance Index is a quick way of telling where you might stack up against you competition. It should also add another layer of competition to the Autolog as well as bragging rights for those who can best their friends with lesser vehicles.
All things considered, Shift 2: Unleashed is a rewarding experience. Sure, it doesn’t have 1,000 cars made up of more polygons than the moon or a vinyl editor Michelangelo would have deemed ‘adequate,’ but it’s still a complete package. More than that, it could easily stand its ground against its 800-pound console brethren and, for me, that’s what so outstanding. Slightly Mad Studios famously set out to outshine the efforts of Turn 10 and Polyphony Digital with this effort. If nothing else, they might be on the right track.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
Not the best-looking on the market but when everything clicks it’s absolutely gorgeous. 4.5 Control
As you’d expect, there is lots of wheel support. Force feedback on a normal pad is extremely informative. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Engine notes are captured brilliantly, and the music doesn’t get in the way. 4.2 Play Value
One of the best driving experiences available on a console. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best