Going head-to-head with behemoths of driving simulation like Forza and Gran Turismo is a daunting prospect. With Shift 2 Unleashed, EA is trying to find a gap to slip this formerly Need For Speed-branded franchise into, and this is pretty much what it came up with: it’s a racing sim, not a driving sim. That might sound like a dumb statement, but what Shift 2 does is give up some of the accuracy and physical realism of Forza and Gran Turismo, focusing on creating an exciting, visceral racing experience instead.
That isn’t to say Shift 2’s handling engine isn’t accurate, but when you play all three games together it’s obvious that Shift leans more toward an arcade feel. It’s not a huge difference, but it’s definitely noticeable when you step from one to the other. Shift 2’s presentation is also geared towards delivering a feeling of excitement: areas of the screen blur at speed; there’s a “helmet cam” that “looks” into a corner for you, making the game feel more dynamic; and there are numerous visual effects and tricks used to enhance bumps, jolts, and sensation of speed.
The end result is definitely exciting. In Shift 2 you can’t hit other cars and trackside objects and get away with it – when you crash, you crash, and it’s often impossible to recover to a winning position. This makes you drive “properly,” since you can’t careen off cars and use walls to speed around corners.
Shift 2 marks a bold step away from its Need for Speed roots, and for the most part it succeeds. However, there are certain aspects of the game that feel incongruous, like the cheesy videos that you can’t skip through, and the painful, dude-bro voiceover. No doubt, plenty of Shift fans like that kind of thing, but to me it feels like the game is trying to grow up and get more serious, but it’s being held back by its own legacy.
In fact, Fast & Furious wannabes need not apply, because Shift 2 can be very challenging. At the start of the game you go through a series of tests that determine the control settings and difficulty level. I performed well, and was summarily greeted by a brutally uncompromising and somewhat dispiriting experience; I got through it, but it wasn’t always fun. I ended up spending a lot of time trying to get the settings right – more than seems reasonable. While I understand that driving games occasionally demand some fiddling to find the right balance, Shift 2 seems to be either too easy or too hard, and in terms of the handling, it either feels over-assisted or very challenging to control.
Once I’d finished tweaking the controls and finally got down to racing with the right setup, I began to enjoy myself a lot more. The racing works in the same way it always does: win races, earn money, unlock cars, buy cars, and enter more challenging races. Shift 2 also features “boss” races that pit you against a rival. On the whole, the racing is fun, the progression is good, there’s a nice suite of cars to choose from – ranging from hot hatches and supercars to modern classics and full-on racing cars – and almost all of them can be modified to a very high degree. I’ve managed to turn a Nineties-era Escort Cosworth into a pseudo-German Touring Car racer, complete with authentic, period livery. Shift 2 is excellent in that respect.
A lot of work has been put into Shift 2 to make it as customisable as possible, but I think it’s over-engineered in that respect. If you stick with it you will eventually find something that works, but it’s somewhat frustrating going through that process. When you do, though, Shift 2 delivers some extremely exciting, white knuckle racing that is both enjoyable and challenging to play. And it looks absolutely spectacular, with night racing and crashes the obvious highlights.
The career mode seems to be disappearing very quickly career, and if that’s all there was to the game I’d be worried about its lasting appeal. However, adding a little extra longevity is Autolog – debuted in Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit – which tracks your scores and enables you to set up social matches. This feature will definitely help extend the game’s replay value long after the career mode has been wrung dry of entertainment value, and will help build a Shift 2 racing community for the game’s hardcore fans.
At the end of the day, Shift 2 is an enjoyable racing game. It certainly doesn’t have the finesse or the definitive feeling of its rivals, but that isn’t what it sets out to accomplish. This is a loud, brash and exciting thrill ride of a racing game that mixes realism with over-the-top action. If you’re not so keen on the heavy simulation of Forza or Gran Turismo, it’s a great buy. And if you like either or both those games, but want to experience raw and exciting racing, Shift 2 delivers enough frenetic action to make it a great additional purchase. In that respect, it’s a winning formula.
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Need For Speed: Shift review