Shift 2: Unleashed Review
Written : Thursday, March 31, 2011
By: Richard Walker
Driving a car is easy. Millions of people have driver's licenses and millions of cars clog up the roads. Hell, even granny can drive to the shops and at a push, she might even be able to pull off some seriously smokin' drift and lay down some rubber with an incredible donut stunt for all we know. In Shift 2: Unleashed however, driving is frickin' hard, but then again, this isn't just driving. Shift 2 is 'real racing'. Read the box: it totally says so. It's a boast that we've largely dismissed as promotional pap, but there's an element of truth to this claim as we quickly found out while reviewing the latest entry in the Need for Speed franchise.
From the outset it's clear that Shift 2 has no leanings whatsoever towards being arcadey in any way, but that doesn't mean that it's inaccessible. In fact, it's quite the opposite and the game does everything but roll out a red carpet and serve you a hot cup of Earl Grey to make you feel welcome. You can tailor every aspect of the game to suit the way you want to play, so even someone completely averse to racing sims will find a comfortable, happy medium for guaranteed enjoyment.
Of course, hardened race sim fans can crank the difficulty up to the max and switch the game's handling model to Elite level. Add the series' signature helmet cam into the mix and the whole real racing thing starts to ring increasingly true and words like 'visceral' and 'immersive' are actually fairly accurate descriptions for what the game feels like to play. It's about as close to getting into an actual car you can get without having to leave your sofa and lose your hard-earned arse groove. Be warned though; an extended play session on Shift 2 might leave you feeling a little drunk or seasick, as there's a whole lot of shaking going on.
Like the original Shift, every viewpoint offers its own version of the patented shaky-cam, so every bump, knock and full-on crash is accompanied by a disorientating swaying motion and depending on the severity of impacts, the colour will also temporarily drain from your blurred view, losing valuable seconds as you regain your bearings. Shift 2: Unleashed requires nothing less than total focus at all times and punishes lapses in concentration. Even glancing at the race timer for a split second had us ploughing into a tyre wall, so caution is advised. Then again, you could just switch off the HUD altogether and opt for the distraction-free, pure and authentic racing experience. Alternatively, there's a host of driving aids for the casual player, like the standard racing line indicator, which shows you when to brake, as well as braking assists and adjustable difficulty levels that scale the AI and handling.
Whichever way you slice it, Shift 2 is a tough but fair game on the track, although it rewards perfection with huge XP bonuses, and indeed mastering each circuit's corners and racing line, as well as completing clean sections, leading the race or beating lap times all count towards your persistent levelling up. This applies to online racing too, which offers quick races that throw players into a lobby, let the host pick the location and conditions, then within minutes you're on the track. Online modes are every bit as slick and streamlined as Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's, so getting into a straight up race or Driver's Duel tournament over Xbox Live is fast and simple.
Online you're also able to show off any of the cars you've purchased or unlocked and stored in your garage, and there's a range of customisation options to spend the cash you accrue in the Career mode on, from upgrade parts like turbos, nitrous oxide, engine parts, clutch improvements, brake discs, flywheels, exhausts and more stuff to get any petrolheads' blood pumping. You can tune and upgrade your car until the cows come home too if you like and then you can create custom vinyls, respray the paintwork or drape a preset vinyl over your ride to make it stand out and look more like a race car, rather than the kind of thing your mum does the school run in. Spend a bit of time in your Car Lot, and you can create your very own “fire-breathing track monster” - as the face of the game, Vaughn Gittins Jr. calls it - in no time.
"All I need now is Michael Bolton on the stereo"
Speaking of Formula D champion, Gittin Jr., Shift 2: Unleashed's Career Mode features plenty of guidance from him and a few of his pro race driving buddies, including drift racer Darren McNamara, Le Mans racer Tommy Milner and others, each of whom introduce you to a new part of the Career, from the Drift discipline, to Hot Laps and Time Attacks. Beat their respective challenges and you'll bag their signature rides as a reward. Career Mode is enormous, offering plenty of events that gradually unlock as you level up, so you can burn up hours simply competing in races and gaining XP. There's a raft of events and challenges to best, as well as special one-off races, driver duels and pro challenges to work through.
Shift 2's rival AI is also pretty smart and quite aggressive – with minimal rubber-banding as far as we can tell - making each race feel like a real battle. Brave driving is rewarded in spades, as is mastery of the track, adhering to the best racing line and nailing the corners, while conversely, stupid driving and rash decisions are duly punished, so trying to ram a rival into the gravel will usually leave you worse off. You can try and bully opponents out of the way and if you're brazen enough, they'll occasionally give way. When things go awry though, crashing is as much a spectacle as it is in real racing, so when you do make mistakes, at least you get a 'wow' moment to admire and then perhaps share the resulting replay with your Autolog buddies.
Autolog returns from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and still does the same kind of cool social stuff, flagging up recommended events and logging times on your wall for others to try and beat. Given the wealth of events on offer too, there's potentially infinite longevity here, especially when you factor in all of the circuits, which are a neat mix of real-world tracks and fabricated street circuits. Incidentally, Shift 2's night races are another big draw, especially on the aforementioned tight and narrow-cornered street races, and they can be pretty tense affairs, particularly on the turns, which can come upon you faster than you might perceive, especially in the helmet cam view.
"Oi, shift! Oh, I get it! Hahaha!"
And that brings us nicely onto Shift 2's achievements, which are a mixture of the good, the bad and the grinding. Some are pretty simple and attached to progression, like levelling up, earning event badges and purchasing cars, while others require you win X number of races at the hardest difficulty or win races in the helmet cam view. If you like grinding, you're in for a treat too, as there's achievements for mastering (nailing the racing line and all the corners) every single race at day or dusk and at night. If you're thinking that all this will probably take forever, then you're right. Accumulating $10 million in prize cash will take just as long too. It's a tough list that'll keep you going for a long, long time. So, gaining the full 1000 Gamerscore will take heroic persistence.
We have to admit to not really expecting to like Shift 2: Unleashed. We didn't think too much of the first game and assumed that this might be more of the same. But happily, Shift 2 is a much better game than its predecessor. The visual aspects have improved immensely and the danger and sensation of driving a car at speed is truly exciting. Additionally, the sheer amount and variety of cars and their unique handling characteristics will encourage you to experiment with various vehicle classes, from modern and retro road cars to muscle and race spec supercars. That said, the game's devotion to realism might be a turn-off for more arcade-oriented players, despite the numerous driving aids on offer. Still, there's no escaping the sheer quality of Slightly Mad's second stab at the racing sim. Shift 2 is a genuinely thrilling racer and highly recommended for any and all race fans.
Supercars sound like God gargling angry bees and indeed engine audio in general is immensely satisfying. Squealing tyres, crunching metal and debris pinging off your windscreen is all part and parcel of what to expect in terms of the outstanding audio on track. The pre and post-race menu music will soon grate though.
A marked improvement over Shift 1, the car models and accompanying damage models are supremely detailed and the circuits also look fantastic. Night races are superb too and the visual flourishes that come with impacts and the helmet cam view are also impressive. It's also worth noting that there's not a glitch in sight.
Depending on your tolerance for racing sims, you'll either love or hate Shift 2: Unleashed. There are loads of options to adjust in order to tailor the gameplay to your own level of expertise, so even the most impatient player will find their comfort zone. In short, Shift 2 handles like a dream, although the realism might frustrate and consequently repel some people. It's definitely worth persevering with though.
Shift 2's Career is huge and persistently levelling-up between offline and online modes will have you floating between both. There's quick race options where you can choose from any of the different race types, from head-to-head driver duels, to hot laps, time attacks and drift events, if career and online play becomes a bit too much to handle.
A mix of the horrible and acceptable, Shift 2's achievements range from the simple that'll naturally come with progression, to the sadistic that demand total mastery of every aspect of every track. It's not as tough as it sounds, but these achievements are a fairly thankless grind nonetheless. Just be thankful there aren't too many online cheevos.
Shift 2 is a better game than its forebear, although it's still perhaps a bit of an acquired taste. Visually, it's an improvement and the handling and gameplay can be as realistic or as forgiving as you like. Hats off to Slightly Mad for taking on-board the criticisms levelled at the first Shift, addressing them and then some. Shift 2 kicks things up a gear, that's for sure.