Anyone who has ever gotten into a Need for Speed title knows what the franchise is all about. It's about going fast in exotic cars with nary a thought given to realistic physics. This formula has done the franchise proud for years, and culminated in last year's Hot Pursuit remake. Does Shift 2 Unleashed also have a spot on your shelf alongside Hot Pursuit only six months after the last title, or does it choke on Hot Pursuit's dust?
It's perhaps unfair to compare the two titles when the only thing they truly have in common is cars going fast. Picking up where the original Shift left off, Shift 2 is definitely leaning towards the simulation end of the driving spectrum. Drivers will have to take into account weight transfer, tire traction, and the like while driving in this game. Overall, the game doesn't approach the incredibly realistic physics of a Gran Turismo or Forza, but rather nestling in comfortably with racers like Project Gotham and GRID.
There are standard races, elimination races, and the like to take part in. The excitement here is in simulating the sheer terror that comes with driving incredibly fast in expensive cars. In that regard, the game is a sheer success. There are also drift modes that give you points for sliding you car cleanly around a track. This mode is a lot of fun once you get used to the physics of drifting, which admittedly takes a little while.
Racer AI proves to be problematic. It's not bad per se, especially when you stay out of their way. There's a certain dynamism to the racers that fortunately doesn't robotically follow driving lines like the AI in Gran Turismo. Problems arise when they start treating their car like heat seeking missiles to your vehicle. No matter what the situation, any sort of contact with your opponents will send you careening off track or spinning out. I'm serious, 9 out 10 times, they'll continue on their merry way while you kiss the guard rail or spin out into the grass.
Where Shift 2 differentiates itself from the pack is how the driving assists allow you to tune the realism to your liking. The game starts off with a test lap for you to try, and then suggests settings based on your performance, which can be changed later as you get more comfortable with the game. Loads of driving assists like displaying the best driving line on the track, traction assist, antilock brakes, and automatic speed adjustment for corners are included and are very useful. Playing the game with manual transmission with all the assists turned off is a nightmare for all but the most dedicated and hardcore among virtual drivers.
I also encountered a few control problems in that the analog sticks are a little too sensitive at times. Sometimes, while driving fast on a straight away, it'll feel like your car is magnetically charged to the walls, and making the small adjustment to not hit the opposite wall proves impossible. It's not always a problem, but you'll definitely have to restart a few races due to the issue.
Pushing you forward through the ranks is addictive XP system much like the one in Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. While Hot Pursuit rewarded you with experience for driving recklessly, Shift 2 rewards you for driving smartly. Sticking to the best driving line, avoiding contact with other drivers, passing cleanly and perfecting corners are the best way to rack experience quickly. Winning races doesn't hurt either. XP helps open new events and unlocks bonuses and cars.
There about a hundred or so different cars in the game, ranging from underpowered grocery getters to the sleekest of the exotic car market. Players will also have to drive a wide variety of cars throughout the game as different events have pretty strict performance or manufacturer restrictions. There are also dozens upon dozens of tracks and events to enter, keeping the replay value high and the variety coming.
There are also tons of options to edit and tweak almost every aspect of your car. Gearheads will be in sheer nirvana with the plethora of options from everything to engines, nitrous, suspension, weight reductions, tires, and more available to fool around with. An effective live tuning feature also makes tuning quick and convenient.
Making an appearance after a successful debut in Hot Pursuit is the Autolog, a Facebook like system that automatically compares your time with your online friends playing the game. Whenever you or a friend posts a time, everyone else is notified, creating an online community built out of competition. The system works great and gives even the single player an addictive online element. Online multiplayer for up to twelve racers is also available.
Presentation is where Shift 2 truly shines. The highlight of which are the fully rendered cockpits that are completely unique to every car. No game has ever made me feel more in the drivers seat than Shift 2. Even small details like having the camera tilt to the apex of corners just like where a professional driver would be looking is impressive for immersion. The sense of speed is also frightening, especially in the unlit night races that are only illuminated by your headlights. Car models are exquisitely detailed, and wreck fantastically, especially when seen from the helmet camera. The only complaints I have is that there's no music during the game (and the PS3 version doesn't support custom soundtracks either), and there's an irritating voice that only yells at you that the green light is on at the start of the race. I muted him pretty quickly.
Overall, Shift 2 Unleashed is a fantastic driving game that should satisfy fans on either side of the arcade/simulation spectrum. The game may not be as sheer fun as Hot Pursuit was only six months ago, but could easily occupy a cherished spot on your shelf right next to it.