Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed succeeds in being quite tame compared to its predecessor and the two other big racing sims in the genre, Gran Turismo 5 and Forza 3. While the sense of speed is still there, and the addition of night races and the helmet-cam are both welcome and well realized additions, the list of improvements falter under the weight of the negatives that Shift 2 brings to the Shift spin-off series.
Shift 1 became a racing fan favorite for many back in 2009, mainly because it brought with it a crazy realistic cockpit view that allowed players to really feel every bump on the asphalt while conveying a sense of speed that was previously unseen in a simulation racer. No, the controls weren’t quite as tight as the Forza 3 (which was released a month after, if it really makes a difference), but they felt alot more realistic than previous NFS games. An entire suite of tuning options were available in comparison to previous NFS games. In short, everyone was quite surprised when one of the leading arcade racing series put out a title that did many things in the area of authenticity better than series that had been tackling the racing sim side of things for years now. But it is two years later and the long awaited GT5 is out and still fairly new. The next Forza title is slated for later this year as well and some early leaked gameplay footage appearing to indicate that it has learned a thing or two from the cockpit view and sense of speed found in Shift 1. Basically there’s competition now and, frankly, NFS: Shift 2 just doesn’t seem like it’s up to the challenge. But first, the good.
The cockpit view is better than ever with the new helmet cam. It basically is a system that detects when a corner is being approached and automatically moves the drivers head (camera) to look toward the apex of a turn or looks forward when a car is sliding – It’s cool and works surprisingly well. Nevertheless, it is a bit anti-revolutionary, in a manner of speaking. If you have played the first Shift then neither the cockpit view nor the sense of speed will be terribly new to you. It is unfortunate then that the feature which is arguably the biggest addition to the sequel, the helmet cam, is so underwhelming. That is, it never helped or hurt me when playing the game as I could have just as easily used my thumb to look into a corner manually if I needed to. It just really isn’t that big of a deal… but I should mention that in helmet-cam mode you do get the added bonus of (wait for it, drum role please…) being able to actually see the frame of a helmet around your head – yes, a real game changer, I know. For those that dread having control taken away from them you have two options: manually pull the right stick (default controls) to the direction of your choice when entering turns or using the non-helmet cam cockpit view. The later questionably draws in the view considerably which is enough to chop off the view of your mirrors without manually looking at them.
There’s a total of about 140 cars now as oppose to 60-70 in the first. Tuning setups can be saved individually for each track, which is a great feature for the hardest of the hardcore. Night racing is a real thrill and certainly is something that all future racing sims should try to implement. There is nothing quite like hearing the scream of your engine at over 200 mph when you can only see a few feet in front of you – you want to slow up, so as not to become one with the guardrail you know lay just beyond sight, but you’re just crazy enough to risk it if it means keeping that jerk who’s been beaming his headlights in your rearview the whole race in second place. Speaking of jerks, who had AI duties this time around?
There’s no easy way to say this, but NFS: Shift 2 Unleashed is one of the single most greatest exercises in frustration that I have ever encountered in gaming. I am all for a game being challenging. In fact, I have recently started playing all my shooters on the “hard” difficulty setting from the get-go to ensure I was constantly being challenged. But Shift 2’s difficulty doesn’t come from well thought out scenarios, of course, nor from mastering the controls/tracks, it comes from the atrociously unbalanced AI drivers. So, many racing games feature AI competition that drives flawlessly around the courses, but far fewer let them use your metal machine as a glorified pin-ball.
That is, if it wasn’t hard enough for you to just out-drive the flawless AI that often have far superior cars than you despite upgrading your car to the top of its performance index class, then [SARCASM ALERT] you’ll enjoy that added challenge that comes from them power-sliding through corners (that you must come to a near halt to negotiate around) to tap your car and send you careening into the dirt off the course. Even more though, you’ll enjoy the ability to be non-affectual against them when using the same tactics. For when you ram into the back of them, whilst going straight, if their car starts veering off the road sideways, yours will too. The same holds true with sideswipes. The devs seem to have added a auto-activated gravity field, of sorts, that sucks you into their car should you scratch them. Again, I cannot stress how ineffective you are rendered at trying to ram them off the road, or even out of your way, while they continuously can spin you out and send entire races and hours of tuning down the drain with one little nudge to your bumper or side-skirt.
It isn’t a good thing that the graphics in Shift 2 look washed-out in comparison with the first game and the environments seem to be comprised almost entirely of the same assets as the first game while GT5 and Forza 3 both look much better. While cars do look somewhat more detailed than in Shift 1, most everything else looks the same and in some places worse – one of the many things pushing the player onwards toward the finish line (or their nearest game retailer so they can get the maximum trade value while the game is still fresh). One plus is seemingly every single dial works inside your car. You can even read the functioning odometer which is unique to each car. Oddly enough, all digital speedometers in cars are going to be pretty worthless to North American gamers, as they are displayed in kilometers per/hour instead of mph. Most of us don’t know the proper conversions for kilometers on the fly like that, and no, it cannot be changed in the “options.”
In the end, NFS: Shift 2 Unleashed is a lot like Shift 1, so much so that it really doesn’t feel like fans are getting their two years of waiting and $60 worth. Still no game sells the phrase “roar of the engine” quite like Shift 2. But the same can be said of Shift 1. The sense of speed is still phenomenal, but the key word there is “still.” Autolog is a cool new feature which lets players know exactly when a friend beats their lap time, lets friends make recommendations as well as making its own on which races to do, and things of that nature. However, it was in NFS: Hot Pursuit 2 already and is really just a glorified leaderboard, which is fine, but not worth the price of admission. In fact, the new helmet cam could also be considered a glorified cockpit view as well.
The upgrades in Shift 2 just don’t seem to go as deep as they could have. The graphics aren’t much better than the first and are quite bad under scrutiny when sitting idle, which to be fair, you won’t do often. Dirt 2 looks better environmentally. And the cars still aren’t as detailed as Forza 3 and certainly don’t hold a candle to GT5. The controls feel looser than the first as well. Shift 2 really just seems to take one step forward and two back in a lot of areas, unbalanced AI chief among them. At the end of the day, what you are paying $60 for seems to be double the amount of cars, which still pale in comparison to its two leading competitors by more than 200 cars, Autolog, the helmet cam, and the ability to race at night, which seems to be the only standout feature of Shift 2.
If you’ve never played Shift 1 than Shift 2 isn’t a bad place to start, but don’t expect a fair ride. The game is till really fun sometimes and offers a yet-unmatched cockpit experience and racing sound design. To those that have played the first however and are strapped for cash or like other genres of games equally, I would encourage you pick up Forza 3 or GT5 if you haven’t already, or wait for Forza 4 if you have an Xbox 360. Dirt 2 was great and Dirt 3 looks promising (and is slated to come out in May) if you just like racing games in general with great cockpit views and don’t have a preference of asphalt racing vs. rally. Shift 2 unleashes the “common cold” of sequels upon the Shift series: complacency in most places and feature squashing in others that don’t make sense (like the choice to drive aggressively or with precision and be effective with either).