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Shift 2 Unleashed Review

11 April 2011

Hot off the heels of Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5, Slightly Mad Studios’ Shift 2 Unleashed seeks to speed by its esteemed competition and claim the top spot on the racing sim podium. The second installment in the Shift series — a more realistic offshoot of Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed franchise — Unleashed offers a number of superb new additions like night racing and ‘Autolog’ network features, but it hits a few bumps in the road on its journey to the finish line. Nonetheless, Shift 2 is an outstanding driving game, if not quite the “real racing” experience its slogan so boldly promises.

Let’s start with the basics: Shift 2 features roughly 130 cars from 37 different manufacturers, plus 36 tracks with 93 total layouts. Sure, the overall car count falls well below GT5’s mammoth 1,031 vehicles, but it’s the largest line-up in any Need for Speed game to date. Gamers will undoubtedly find the drive of their dreams somewhere in Shift 2’s eclectic mix of autos.

After an opening race determines your skill level (these ‘recommended’ settings can be modified), the game gives you a small bundle of cash with which to purchase your first car. I thought about picking up an Audi, but I ultimately sprang for the BMW 135i Coupe. A great choice, the game informed me via video message (are there any bad choices?). After that initial purchase, the game opens up, allowing you to partake in a variety of career events or test your skills against other real racers online.

The career, which culminates in the FIA GT1 World and GT3 European Championships, is deep and varied. As you progress from Class D to Class A, there are tons of events to partake in, ranging from simple races and time trials to lengthy endurance races and ‘eliminator’ contests, where the car in last place is eliminated every 30 seconds. I enjoyed every event type with the exception of drift challenges — no matter how much time I put into it, I kept spinning out when I tried to drift. Perhaps if I tuned my cars better I would get the hang of it, but for now I’ll stick with regular racing.

Virtually everything you do in Shift 2 — from staying on the optimal racing line and mastering corners to drafting behind other racers and leading the pack for a lap — earns you experience points, which advance your driver level and earn you bonuses like cash, upgrades, and occasionally completely new cars. It’s an addicting system that encourages you to finish races even if you’re in the back of the pack, if only for the XP and accompanying cash. With that money, you’re able to either purchase new automobiles or upgrade your existing cars in the deep but accessible customization mode.

Racing in Shift 2 is a visceral, dramatic experience. AI racers are aggressive, constantly trying to edge you off the road or make you spin out. They often get the best of you, sending you hurtling into a nearby barrier. In that moment of frustration, take solace in the fact that crashes look phenomenal: windshields crack, tires shred, bumpers fall off, and debris scatters everywhere. In an extra bit of visual flair, the focus softens and the screen desaturates at the moment of impact.

With its revamped graphics engine, the whole game looks superb, particularly the in-cockpit views (there are two variations, one more pulled back than the other). The helmet-cam aims for realism, peering into the apex of turns and reacting to bumps and vibrations like a real driver would. The cockpit views are undoubtedly the most cinematic, intense way to play the game, but there are three other cameras — bumper, hood, and full-car view — if you find the helmet-cam more distracting than helpful.

Shift 2’s lighting is particularly striking. While everyone loves sunset races— indeed, these look gorgeous — the lighting engine really impresses during night races, which are new to Shift 2. The headlights of a car behind you, for example, will shine through your rear windshield, dynamically lighting up your cockpit.

I do have a few issues with Shift 2’s overall presentation. My only issue with the graphics is the heavy aliasing, making distant cars look like non-descript blobs. Unfortunately, Shift 2’s audio is far more troubled. Engines sound puny, cutting out at seemingly random times. Plus, it’s difficult to hear your tires, making it tricky to tell when you’re about to slip out.

My biggest criticism of Shift 2 is the game’s handling. Cars have a propensity to oversteer in slow turns and understeer in fast ones, but this doesn’t get to the core of my complaint. Controller input simply feels ‘off.’ It’s difficult to describe, but there seems to be a tiny bit of input delay in-between moving the analog stick and the resulting on-screen action. Remember the huge outcry over Killzone 2’s “laggy” controls? There’s a similar issue at play here. The twitchy default settings are absolute garbage, but even though fine-tuning the ‘advanced controls’ in the options menu somewhat alleviated the issue, I still felt unsatisfied with the results.

I tested the game with Logitech's Driving Force GT Racing Wheel and found it to be a hugely enjoyable experience, completely eliminating the input issue, but I imagine most people will play Shift 2 with a standard control pad. The flawed handling doesn’t make the game unplayable — far from it — but you definitely have to learn how to be subtle with the stick, because quick, dramatic movements often result in overcorrection, leading to a quick trip into a side barrier.

Shifting gears for a minute, one of the best features of Shift 2 is ‘Autolog,’ which was first introduced in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Autolog is a race-centric social network that allows gamers to vie for driving dominance among their group of PlayStation Network friends. Every event in Shift 2 has a ‘Speedwall,’ which tracks the top times of all of your friends. If a friend tops one of your times, Autolog will let you know, giving you a reason to replay that event. Regular online multiplayer works well, too, though the servers are relatively barren. There were always enough people on to get a match together, at least. Unfortunately, offline split-screen is conspicuously absent.

Despite its handling and audio issues, Shift 2 is an exciting, enjoyable racing experience. Though it’s not as realistic or polished as Polyphony’s Gran Turismo 5, its high-octane presentation and deep career mode offer unprecedented thrills.

-The Final Word-

Shift 2 is an outstanding driving game, if not quite the "real racing" experience its slogan so boldly promises.
  • Deep and varied career mode
  • Superb visual presentation, especially the in-cockpit view
  • Excellent implementation of 'Autolog' social network features
  • Delayed handling on standard control pads
  • Lackluster audio
  • Heavy aliasing
8.0
Platforms reviewed : PlayStation 3
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic and Gamerankings

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