Next to shooters, and sports, the racing genre offers gamers the rare chance to interact in a game AND the same room at the same time. With all the hype surrounding Shift 2 Unleashed, my friends and I gathered in my lounge (well, I was there - they gathered with Bigguns and soft drink) to bask in the Unleashedness.
The latest chapter in the Need For Speed Shift series is here to challenge the might of Forza and Gran Turismo for Driving Simulation King. It's here to show a third way - a blend between Arcade racers and Simulation. It's here to electrify fans of both genres with gameplay that appeals to both.
IT FROZE ON US FIVE TIMES!!
So, not the greatest start. But after a few (FIVE!!!) false starts, we got into the game - and then things got… unleashed?
Slightly Mad Studios second instalment in the NFS Shift series graphically improves on its predecessor, however it lacks the immediate oomph of both Turismo and Forza. If you're wondering where the memory is being used, simply switch to the new driver's cam view - which becomes more impressive when you realise they've had to specialise that for each of the 140 different cars in game.
Before people double take on that number (what?! Only 140 cars for me to drive! How very dare they!) take a moment, and think of how many different cars you've ever actually used in a Sim Racer. The designers have blatantly gone for style over (graphic) content, and shouldn't really be faulted for trying to differentiate themselves as such.
When justifying why Shift 2 Unleashed's frame rate doesn't match Forza's, Marcus Nilsson, the games producer came up with this pearl of spin:
"Either you go for.. the bland graphics of GT and Forza, or you try to push the bar for what consoles can do."
Brilliant, and commendable. Except the graphics are for a Simulation Game! And it's an intriguing marketing pitch to criticise Forza for not pushing the bar for consoles when it has superior graphics at a faster frame-rate. In Kiwi terms, that's the equivalent of me criticising Richie McCaw for his bland style of Rugby, rather than focusing on raising the bar for how Rugby can be played with my "try-not-to-die" style.
The arcade view outside the car works well with the physics engine which, while also improved from Shift 1, is still a bit light to handle. However, this is balanced by some fantastic courses to spin around. While not quite graphically punching with the heavyweights, the designs are fantastic. There's also an improvement to car damage, with more realistic consequences for high speed prangs. And then there's night racing. Driver cam is a must here. Limited visibility, a roaring engine, and the ability to look around your car mean it's one of the few times you'll really feel immersed in the game.
That roaring engine must be where the Unleashed comes from, coz hoo-boy it's loud. Slightly Mad haven't broken new ground with their audio work, but they've raided the Growl garage for their engine effects which, along with generic racer music, keeps the blood pressure up during the midst of competition.
Actually one of the more calming sounds in Shift 2 Unleashed is the good ol' boy southern tones of real-life racer Vaughn Glittin Jr giving you hints, tips, and occasional exposition in Career Mode. It actually makes a better fit for a Need for Speed game narrator, than the Basil Expedition from Shift 1. And those tips of Glittin Jr's would do Peter Brock proud, as they're actually helpful for negotiating some of the harder tracks.
A main difference Shift 2 Unleashed has tried to bring to simulation is an enhanced emotional experience. You'll immediately see what they're talking about from entering Career Mode. This is Sim Racing as Jerry Bruckheimer would imagine it - CSI editing et al.
Your career goal is to be world champion, which is something you and the game can have in common. Experience is earned through racing and skill feats, and essential for progress. Yes, to achieve your goal, you'll have to race, accumulate, and update your way through several grades before finally making the GT round. There is a method to this, as by the time you get to GT you should have raced so much that you'll be able to get the most out of Shift 2 Unleashed, racing at top speed expertly in super cars. And no man walks such a path alone.
Vaughn Glittin Jr doesn't just want to help you with advice, he's obtained a car for you. An awesome car no less, that he wants you to drive. He'll also help you buy your first car and tell you what a good deal it was. Chur Vaughan. Now please explain the driving mechanics.
Shift 2 Unleashed’s biggest flaw (apart from freezing - never forget!) is how unforgiving it is as a game. It looks like an Arcade game set in a Sim world, but it drives like a Sim with Arcade rules. No amount of pretty women at the starting line can make up for the cruelty the AI will compete with. Apparently it's not the engines, but the cars that are Unleashed - and if they're not nagging at your behind with near fatal shoves, then they're ahead, and merciless in allowing gaps to overtake.
"No worries" you think, its NFS, and drift shall save the day. Sorry son, drifting is for Arcade games. This is a Sim, and you're up Shift creek. It's not that you can't drift, it's the amount of time required to get it down is a tad too life-like.
But if this drives (no pun intended) you online, that's probably the idea.
EA are rewarding fans of NFS by offering downloadable extras to anyone with former NFS saved games on their Xbox. Online is also a fun way to compete and earn xp. There are unlockable challenges, and racing strangers can be fun - but limited options mean there's room for improvement here before Shift 3 comes out.
What EA are counting on, as distributors, is that fans will fall in love with the concept of driving in the car (as opposed to driving as the car) and have heavily invested in making this look as cool as possible. It works. Driving as the car can be immersive, and is exclusive to Shift 2. Well done EA. But they forgot the driving aspect.
Honestly I’m not sure what game I just played.
Slightly Mad Studios have definitely lived up to their namesake by putting together a racing game that's part Gran Turismo, with a bit of Forza, and the gaps filled in by NFS Underground. I know, it sounds awesome - which is why it's such a disappointment that they seem to have gotten the mixture wrong.
This isn't to say Shift 2 Unleashed is a bad game, in fact it's quite good. And it would be even better if I had never played GT, Forza, Burnout, or even - in fact especially - NFS Underground. Each of those titles has either raised or challenged the bar in their respective areas of the Racing genre. That's why Shift 2 Unleashed gets a (generous) 7.5 - because if this is the finished product, then someone should have walked back into Slightly Mad Studios and slapped them sane. I simply can't recommend to the gaming public that this game is worth buying.
Need For Speed Shift 2: Unleashed feels like an intern, in that it knows what it wants to be - but it isn’t quite sure how to do it yet. From a simple consumer point of view, this isn't THE game. But from an industry standpoint, it's an exciting warning shot to Turismo and Forza.
Because if Slightly Mad and EA can get this formula to gel, and improve for Shift 3 in the same way they've improved over Shift 1, then they may just have the future of Console Sim Racing.
Just not quite yet.