How you feel about the latest Need for Speed title is not going to depend on your feelings towards the franchise, as much as your attitude towards the other big dogs in the console racing market.
While Shift 2: Unleashed is the sequel to 2009's Need for Speed: Shift, and nominally the three hundredth instalment in the Need for Speed series, the NFS logo is almost invisible on the packaging. This perhaps reflects its focus on entering the space currently occupied by Forza and Gran Turismo rather than on continuing the more arcade-focused legacy of its parent series.
Presumably, in the wake of the good-but-hardly-earth-shattering Gran Turismo 5, developer Slightly Mad Studios felt the door was open for another direct competitor. Certainly, Shift 2 presents itself as a simulation-focused title, with car modification and progression based on a series of races, much like the last decade of Gran Turismo titles. The hook, for motor racing enthusiasts at least, is the end point, which provides you with the opportunity to partake in the super-modified GT-1 racing series.
At first glance though, there’s nothing much else that particularly sets Shift 2 apart from the competition. The familiar layout of a car yard to purchase vehicles, a garage to upgrade and tune your cars, and a series of races that slowly ramp up in difficulty as you advance through the vehicle classes is nothing new. Likewise, the graphics are good, but although the use of sun glare and the expertly captured look and feel of night racing are excellent, there’s not much about the graphical focus of Shift 2 that is really game-changing.
One new feature that does add something to the mix is the introduction of helmet-cam. Easily the most enjoyable driving perspective on offer, it has you sitting back that little bit further, with slightly more of a cockpit and less of a track view than you might be used to. This is initially disorientating, as is the manner in which your head (and therefore view) move when the G-forces are applied and accidents occur. It doesn’t take long to get used to however, and once you factor in the ability to move your view with the right-stick you’ll find yourself thoroughly immersed.
Handling is similarly good. Cars are twitchy, but follow the racing line and negotiating the track soon becomes second nature. There's more of a learning curve required here, and newcomers may find themselves suitably challenged, however keeping on top of the somewhat excessive oversteer is key. Regrettably, I'm unable to tell you whether Shift 2 realistically captures the experience of driving a Bugatti Veyron or a Shelby Cobra, although the distinctive nature of each vehicle is clear by the first turn.
Likewise, your AI competition is more intelligent than it is artificial. Your opponents tend to stick to the racing line, making overtaking a suitably risky process that prohibits passing on certain track sections. True, your opposition will occasionally introduce themselves to your rear bumper in an unexpected fashion, but it's unfair to attribute that to a flaw in the game when it could be a valid response to my inconsistent braking. Regardless, when it does all go pear-shaped, the crashes are enjoyably epic, and the detail applied to damage is also more than satisfactory. Seeing a wing mirror get clipped off by one car as another flips you into the air is certainly a highlight thus far.
In some instances, tracks are overly easy, while others are unexpectedly challenging, perhaps suggesting the game's physics are not as fully evolved as they could be. However, there are some fantastic tracks to choose from. Bathurst once again proves itself to be the gold standard of international venues, regardless of whether you’re struggling up Mt Panorama in a family hatchback or reaching terrifying speeds down Conrod Straight in a Pagani Zonda.
Speaking of exotic metal, the array of vehicles in Shift 2 is a satisfying mix of European speed and American muscle, as well as Japanese cars that you might actually see on the road. Australian V8s are absent, which is a shame, but throw in past classics, a few Top-Gear featured kit cars and GT series racing models, and you’ve got as good a range of options as you’ll ever need.
If there is a flaw, it’s the manner in which you gain access to these vehicles. Perhaps beginning with a Ford Focus, you'll strive to bring it up to racing specifications by earning money in the early stages of your career. It may be a slightly faster than average runabout, but it's still a vehicle you've personally customised. During this process however, the game will offer you one-off drives in Aston Martins and Porsches – no doubt as a taster of what's to come, but nevertheless it's a mechanism that removes the sense of achievement gained when eventually mastering your own 500HP monster.
This flaw isn’t unique to Shift 2 of course, but this only heightens the sense that whilst you may be enjoying the game, it feels like you've been here before. It would be nice to see an approach to career progression that more realistically details the process behind moving up the classes by placing high in competitions. As it stands, it's only necessary to simply repeat races until a podium finish enables progression to the next race, and the cash earned allows you to purchase your way into a higher class of racing.
The Autolog feature from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit makes a welcome return, and again automatically registers player lap-times online to enable competition amongst friends and strangers alike. It's part of an online system that offers plenty of opportunity for competition and enables players to continue earning career progression points as they take on the world.
Shift 2 is an enjoyable racing game and you could do worse than to lay down your hard-earned for it. However, it's difficult to shake the feeling that it's merely a prettier version of the first Gran Turismo game. In a genre in need of a breath of fresh air, Shift 2 isn’t it.
As you take your GT-1 racer to Bathurst to annihilate existing V8 lap-records though, you may simply not care.