Shift 2 Unleashed Review (Xbox 360)
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Shift 2: Unleashed drops the Need for Speed name, aggressive vs. precision points and collecting stars in favor of a more unified and sim-oriented experience. What remains is an exhilarating in-car experience surrounded by pretty basic options and features.
As a racer, Shift 2 captures the best of both racing game worlds. It shares the sense of speed and "edge of your seat" control with games like Hot Pursuit and Burnout. The racing is hyperkinetic, featuring outstanding visual effects that heighten the experience. The cars are appropriately overpowered, and the crashes bluntly visceral.
At the same time, it sticks to a pretty straight forward and realistic approach to driving, with actual cars and a ton of real and fictional tracks. Damage is brutal, and it tangibly changes your driving. You are rewarded, in a real and contextual sense, for clean driving, as opposed to knocking opponents off the track.
Yet, as successful as the game is at straddling both sides of this line, Shift 2 features some floaty driving (at least out of the box). Everything seems like it takes place on ice, and it’s too easy to lose control. This is even more prominent when using the new, incredible Helmet Cam (more on this later). Things can be tuned for better handling -- I suppose this is could be construed as a large part of the game -- but reduces the game’s overall accessibility.
Speaking of accessibility, there are a lot of assists that can be turned on; you do get recommended settings following a tutorial race.
The AI is challenging without being indomitable, and I’ve seen plenty of computer drivers making mistakes -- in many cases the same mistakes I just made.
Visually, Shift 2 looks good, especially when talking about the special effects used in Helmet Cam to deliver the amazing sense of speed and brutality of the collisions. The car models and cockpits look very good, especially (and ironically) when rolling through crashes and into walls. The damage is well represented, but I humorously noticed some clipping when racing without back wheels. Additionally, things are a little rough around the edges, with some noticeable, but only occasional, jaggies.
The worst part of the presentation has to be the full-motion videos and voice-overs that introduce new race types and modes. These are not skippable, and for the most part, not helpful either. During a drifting tutorial, the score-based voice-overs told me I was doing well -- as I drifted into a pylon. Tonally, they sort of feel like some kind of soda commercial.
There are also some long loading times; sometimes the game sat on a black screen so long I thought it had crashed.
The online options are pretty standard as far as racers go, but it’s the addition of the Autolog that really stands out. Similar to its inclusion in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, the Autolog is an ever-present way of posting scores and times to a "wall" for your friends to see and attempt to break. You can earn badges, recommend races to your friends and try to beat others’ records.
Basically, it’s a functional combination of a leaderboard and Facebook, and it is a great addition to the game. Of course, it’s only as good as the number of friends you have playing the game. It serves little function if you are not connected to other fans of the game.
As much fun as the frantic and exhilarating racing is, it does not quite fit together with the fairly basic Career mode. This mode, which itself features a number of different kinds of races, is a straight-ahead advancement through numbered tiers. As such, it lacks personality outside of the annoying videos.
Still, it is sort of addicting, given the game-wide XP system, which is also similar to the system found in Hot Pursuit. You are given points for clean racing, such as following the ideal line and mastering corners. Additionally, each race features some individual goals -- lead an entire lap, for instance -- worth bonus XP. The XP system is balanced enough that unlocks are never out of reach and are instead fairly common. They are also varied, and the unlocks range from individual cars to visual enhancements to new career tiers.
Even though it is bereft of personality and innovation, the Career mode does allow you to skip around and focus on the kinds of racing you like. Basically, you’ll want to progress through your career not on the mode’s own merit, but because the racing is fun and (literally) rewarding.
Though drift races, nighttime driving and the Autolog are welcomed additions, the best augmentation to the series is the new Helmet Cam. It takes the previous Shift cockpit view and pulls it back to where the driver would sit. From there, the camera is purely dynamic and a revolutionary way to play a racing game.
First, the camera moves around based on the car movement, similar to how a driver's head bounces around in the seat. Hard crashes will knock your "vision" into black and white for an instant, and this helps communicate the viciousness of the moment. The camera also locks into upcoming turns, which allows you to prepare the proper adjustments to your speed and angle.
Lighting also is dynamic, changing based on the light source and reflection. Sometimes the indicators will become blurry as cars with headlights approach from behind; getting to high speeds will blur the edges of the screen as well.
My only complaint with this new camera, which is much easier to use than it may sound, is that it moves too slowly when using manual control. Since you don’t have any peripheral vision, you must use the right analog stick to look around the cabin and out the side windows. If you slide off the track, it takes too long to look to see if you are about to sideswipe a car on your way back on to the course.
Shift 2: Unleashed is a great entry point for those not experienced with sim racing because elements like drifting, the Helmet Cam and the visual effects help capture the same feeling of more arcade games like Burnout. It’s a very fun and addicting game, but it lacks a truly interesting Career mode and requires tuning to be a fully responsive
Learning Curve: I found this game to have just the right amount of challenge out of the box, based on my recommended assists. Depending on which are turned on, you may need more time to get a grasp of the controls.
Visuals: Great looking cars, crashes and visual effects. Helmet Cam is a great way to experience a racing game.
Audio: Ambient noise is great during the race, especially tire noises and crashes. No in-game music heightens the experience of being in the car.
Lasting Appeal: The racing is really fun and not as "dry" as genuine sim games. However, the shallow Career mode, limited customization and lack of split screen will hurt those who enjoy deep racing games -- more so if no one on your friend's list is playing.
Score: 7.5 (Good)