Shift 2: Unleashed - What's In A Name
Formats: PC (reviewed) / PS3 / 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Released: April 2011
Electronic Arts' latest entry in the Need For Speed franchise, Shift 2: Unleashed, is caught between a rock and hard place - and the stresses and strains are starting to become obvious. Seasoned racing simmers might come to this title hoping that Slighty Mad Studios, the developer, has made good on it's promises of a 'serious' racing simulator, but - really - the clue is in the NFS prefix. This is a game straining to break free of it's parentage and become its own entity. The NFS stylings, such as they are, really do start to feel surplus to requirements in a game that seems poised on the edge of true 'sim-dom'.
Shift 2 straddles an uneasy line between being a semi-serious racing simulator and an all-out arcade racer. It manages to do this with considerable style - every race is a brutal, nervy jostle to the finish line, battling against wayward physics and suicidal AI, all wrapped up in a very pleasing visual confection of trackside detail, light and shadow and some very impressive car models. The excitable game play first exhibited in the original Shift is once again here in full force, managing that rare feat of bringing a palpable sense of delightful dread to each and every race as the player negotiates unpredictable AI and some very demanding handling.
Of course, it was that handling that sparked so much criticism of the first title in the Shift franchise and this sequel will do little to silence such mutterings. Shift 2, like it's predecessor, can be a touch hyperactive. Cars bounce and sway, their physics often unwieldy and highly unpredictable; the celebrated (and in this release much hyped) in-cockpit views (especially the 'helmet cam') can be disorienting and feature graphical flourishes such as colour drain on impact and motion blur when hitting those high speeds. This kind of thing, along with self-indulgent track side details (hot air balloons, planes, tents and fairground rides, etc) and a fairly risible and godawful 'rawk' soundtrack, doesn't appear to go down well with the 'serious' racing sim crowd. Complaints have already begun - as have the modifications, removing such unpleasantness. All a bit too...well, 'NFS', to be frank.
Other annoyances creep in under the NFS stylings, too. The game is peppered with intrusive voice-overs from 'pro-racing drivers' (none of whom I'd ever heard of) which eventually become so grating one is forced through sheer exasperation to turn them off (thankfully) in the options menu. Introductory movies seem also to intrude upon every possible event and cannot be skipped on first play. Of course this being a NFS game, the language used in such videos is excruciating - aimed, one assumes, at a 14 year-old boy who might enjoy the 'duder' idiocy of it all. Marketing bods at EA don't seem to realise this franchise - Shift - doesn't find it's true market or longevity amongst fickle, unserious teenagers. Shift 2 might have been forced against its will to wear the 'NFS' moniker, but it finds its biggest - and most loyal - fans amongst an older demographic, simmers eager to put their highly-spec'd PC racing rigs and expensive controllers to the test yet again - and the same people who will stick with and modify this game to within an inch of it's life over the next couple of years. Head over to the likes of NoGrip or RaceDepartment to see what I mean. These guys are serious.
Still, Shift 2 brings a lot of content to the table - and while many of the same tracks that featured in the first game reappear, here they have been re-lit and joined by a host of newcomers, all of them a joy to speed around whilst shaving seconds off lap times and earning the game's currency 'XP' to unlock new modes, cars and upgrades. Night racing (on all tracks) makes its début in the Shift series and provides some seat-of-the-pants moments whilst managing to look highly impressive. There are 150-odd cars in Shift 2, each of them beautifully modelled; often just poring over them in Garage or Photo Mode is a simple voyeuristic pleasure in itself for devoted car fans, especially if the model in question has been converted to a 'Works' edition; these cars looks mean, powerful and sexy and all kudos goes to the talented 3D designers who've faithfully recreated these beasts. EA's determinedly 'social networking' app, Autolog, first seen in Hot Pursuit, also makes an appearance here. Personally, I care little for this kind of thing, but if you really must let your friends know every time you shave a few seconds of their lap times (and vice-versa)...well, you might see the point. Autolog is also the designated method for posting photos and saved replays. It's possible also to upload replays to YouTube, but - bafflingly - only in 10-second snippets. Doh.
At the time of writing, soon after release, Shift 2 feels a little buggy. Apart from the aforementioned 'lag' issues with some controllers (although I personally found no such issues using a 360 controller, albeit with no visual concessions, annoyingly, to the gamepad in the PC interface), there are some graphical twitches and glitches still to be ironed out by way of patch, as well as a few other minor game play issues to be addressed, most particularly in MP, where due to the lack of options to boot or penalise idiotic players too many races can be ruined too easily. One can only hope that SMS stay as good as their initial word and continue to support this game through it's early months on release.
Shift 2 remains a solid and hugely enjoyable racer, despite these few niggles. SMS have demonstrated an accomplished approach to putting some raw excitement into a genre that can all too often feel somewhat staid and dry. It won't be to everyone's taste; Forza and GT purists may baulk at the game's rollicking nature, it's nervy sense of rough and tumble, while traditional NFS fans would be better off looking elsewhere for their fix of point-to-point 'street' racing and car chases. For the rest of us, this is a magnificent package well worth getting to grips with on your platform of choice.