Shift 2: Unleashed

Shift 2: Unleashed can be best described as Hollywood’s take on motorsport racing. It’s the first and is most likely to be the only one of its kind. Slightly Mad Studios have set their sights set deep in simulation racing territory, rather than just bordering on the thin line between arcade and simulation racing. They call it ‘the most realistic racer ever’, so there is no doubt about who their target audience is even though the game carries the ‘Need for Speed’ tag.

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Shift 2 features more than 140 cars from 40 manufacturers and 35 different racing locations, which include a mix of real world tracks like Silverstone, Bathurst, etc. and fictional tracks like Shanghai and Ambush Canyon. The locations offer a good variety of tracks for all event types. The game does the job of shuffling the locations and tracks around very well. The same, however, cannot be said for the cars. While 140 might sound like a big number, there are more than seven car classes in Shift 2, so each class contains only a handful of cars to choose from, until the GT events get unlocked.

Shift 2 has been studded with new features, but not all of them work towards making it the ground-breaking game it tries so hard to be. The helmet cam view isn’t a revelation. It is, in fact, derived from the rather ingenious cockpit view mode of the first game, and doesn’t look all that different. Autolog is just a disappointment. It might be an impressive addition to the console versions of the game, but without a proper online community base, it fails miserably in the PC version.

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On the bright side, some of the new features do prevail. There is a new ‘Elite Handling Model’, which essentially turns off all assists, and is supposedly the most authentic mode in the game. The cars handle brilliantly in the Elite mode, and it brings the game that much closer to its competitors in terms of the simulation experience. The wheel-spins and lock-ups feel raw and physical. The way the tyres react to the various surfaces is very impressive. Off-road elements are also exceptionally well done. On lower difficulties, the game turns on most of the assists, but fails to impress. The handling feels clunky and the game virtually plays itself. The new replay mode feels good, and there is also this nice little feature to upload ten-second video clips to Youtube. I played the game using the Logitech Driving Force GT, and while it isn’t the best of games to support the racing wheel, using the wheel feels much better than a controller or keyboard.

The career mode plays out through event cards, each of which holds several events. You start out racing with the low performance class D cars and progress through the ranks. As you level up, you get to play invitational events and special events before moving to the next car class. Finally, you enter the FIA licensed GT events, where you get to race around the most demanding tracks with the most powerful cars in the game. At the business end of each event type, you get challenged by a professional racer from Team Need for Speed. If you manage to finish first in the race, you not only win the championship, but also his car.

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The game offers a new, sophisticated tuning mode in addition to the upgrade options. You can also visually customise your ride, but it isn’t really satisfying. Also newly featured in the game are night time races. Racing around the different locations at night or during twilight is sublime and that much more thrilling. Shift 2 arguably has one of the best looking visual damage models around. Mechanical damage isn’t the most realistic, but with damage set to full, the game certainly punishes you if you’re being reckless.

The drift events are easily the most difficult and the least interesting of the lot. After spending two hours trying to do a proper drift, all I ended up with was a sore foot. They require point-blank precision, and for all the trouble you go through, they feel the least authentic and even the rewards feel unjustified. It’s a hopeless ordeal. Thankfully, the other special events make up for it with some fun filled action. The career mode tends to drag on during the middle stages and ends with a moderate class of cars. After a point, you’d feel that there aren’t enough cars to keep you interested. Shift 2 lacks high end racing machines, while almost every other game in the genre offers plenty there.

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Shift 2’s Achilles’ heel lies in its AI. Whenever I think of the AI in Shift 2, I’m reminded of the Romulans. They launch an assault on you with deadly precision. Describing it as over-aggressive would be an understatement. Their only goal is to eliminate you. Mind you, there is a huge difference between senseless ramming and high precision take downs. You would expect the priority in a simulation racing game to be clean racing, but Slightly Mad thought otherwise. Luckily, the AI is just about manageable on the easiest AI setting. To add to the woes, the tweaked Hollywood-styled motion blur, colour-fading and camera zoom effects are over-exaggerated. It was fine the way it was in Shift 1. All these new additions impose massive stress on the eyes and can get frustrating.

So what you have here is a game that is confused about what it wants to do. It wants to be ‘the most realistic racer ever’, and at the same time, it wants to showcase drama and action the likes of which we’re only used to seeing in games like Burnout. The result is catastrophe. There are numerous other minor technical issues that also keep the game from its potential. When using a wheel, the force feedback is very inconsistent. The screen frustratingly goes haywire even if you have the mildest of brushes with another car or if you hit a bollard. If you’re playing with manual gear shifts, the car occasionally gets stuck in a gear and you’ll have to keep shifting twice or thrice for it to shift properly. This is a massively embarrassing glitch, especially given the name of the game.

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Online racing is pretty much the same as it was in Shift 1, except for the new event types. You have the usual ranked and unranked races to choose from. There is also the Driver Duel mode, again, from Shift 1. Matchmaking is impressively quick and the game handles lag very efficiently. Even though there are penalties like disqualification for driving the wrong way, and engine cut off for cutting corners, the people who’ll be most successful online are the ones who play the dirty game well. There is absolutely no penalty for dirty racing, so don’t expect clean racing online unless you’re playing with friends or a dedicated bunch.

Shift 2 is a treat for the eyes. With most of the settings maxed out, it was able to perform at 25 to 30 frames per second at 720p on my 9600GT-based PC. Loading times are remarkably low as well. The game is locked at 30 frames per second, leaving a lot of room to cram in the various visual details. The result is a fabulous looking game, and the lighting is stunning in the night and twilight events. The sound effects are also exceptionally well done. When you run wide, the sound of your tyres on grass gives you a mushy feeling, while on gravel, the abrasive sound is exasperating. The engine tracks are a treat to hear. There’s no music during races this time around, and I’d say it’s a wise move. You’re better off listening to your engines sing. The menu music is repetitive, but still feels good.

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Shift 2: Unleashed is a confused bunny. It tries to be a tame racing simulator and a berserker at the same time. It certainly is not the most realistic racer ever, but at the end of the day, even with all the drawbacks, it still manages to be a fun game that keeps your heart racing with dramatic action. It’s disappointing because Shift 2 had the potential to be great, but instead only ends up being average. If you liked Shift 1 and/or want to experience motor racing from a different perspective, pick up Shift 2 and give it a spin. But if you feel that you have better racing games at your disposal, feel free to skip this one.

IVG's Verdict

  • Impressive Elite handling model
  • Quick loading times
  • Matchmaking is fast and lag is handled well
  • Shockingly boorish AI
  • Autolog doesn't serve its existence
  • Hopeless drift events
  • Career mode can get boring mid-way
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