EA is back this week with the sequel to 2009's Need For Speed: SHIFT. I found the original SHIFT a compelling title due to how it blended a simulation experience with a dash of arcade. SHIFT 2: Unleashed gets that same feel right again for the most part, while also adding in several new gameplay features. Ultimately it once again bridges the gap between a Hot Pursuit or Burnout and Forza or GT5.
SHIFT 2 has two main components: Career and multiplayer. EA did a good job of bringing these two modes together with the edition of Autolog, a sort of social networking component that allows you to check up on accomplishments and record times set by your friends. A Speedwall is maintained that shows how you compare and you can also earn additional XP by beating your friends' times. I liked how the Autolog feature was always present while I was in Career mode, but it was never in the way. In most cases, you just have to press Back to bring up the Autolog window.
Online competition and Autolog are a great way to increase the replay value of SHIFT 2 once you have worked your way through the Career. The ultimate goal of Career is to win the GTR FIA championship, something I am still working to achieve. The experience starts with a video from self-taught drifter Vaughn Gittin Jr, who acts as the narrator and your trainer throughout the game. I'll talk a bit more about that later. Your first driving experience is a test drive, just like the original SHIFT. After a brief run on a basic racing track, the game attempts to set a variety of settings for you regarding controlling your vehicle and AI difficulty.
With that done, its time to buy your first car. The D class has a lot of pretty boring cars, such as my VW Golf that I rocked out for the first few hours. As you earn XP (just about anything you do earns you at least a little XP) and money, you can begin to purchase upgrades to the vehicle and you can tune it whenever you would like as well. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about paying for damages that occur during a race, but, bear in mind that if you wreck, you are probably going to lose the race anyway. I found out quickly that, even on Medium difficulty, once I was in the C-class (about four hours in), the races got pretty unforgiving. This was both good and bad -- by that time I was getting bored of breaking out in front and holding onto first for nearly the entire race -- but at the same time, once the difficulty flipped, it flipped almost completely. The experience went from being too easy, to the point where I was about to try Hard mode, to being very challenging. Whereas a race would normally take five to eight minutes, I would spend nearly thirty minutes to try and finish in first.
That said, it made the experience a lot more intense and rewarding when I won, but getting nudged on the fourth lap out of five and going from first to eighth was pretty frustrating. I wouldn't call the AI dirty, though, they in fact felt very believable, but the lesson is to be very weary of any contact with other vehicles or getting off course or misusing the handbrake. More than a few times I found myself spinning out in a 180 to a halt or actually barrel rolling down the track after a overcompensated turn mixed with unfavorable terrain. More common than both of those is contact with other cars, though. The races are almost always very tightly ran so you have to all but completely avoid mistakes, including contacting other vehicles.
Thankfully, the Restart option is instant -- I found myself using it a lot because I learned that if I didn't get off to a good start, there was very little chance of getting on the podium. Obviously, the higher you place the more XP and money you get, and with those you unlock new racing events and more upgrade and vehicle options. Upgrades and tuning take place across the entire vehicle -- from the engine to the tires to the transmission, etc. -- and make a very real difference in the performance of your car. Not being a car guy at all, I appreciated the ability to view what the "Works" package was for any car I owned. The Works package is the ultimate form of your vehicle. You can purchase these items bit by bit, or, once you have a lot of money, you can purchase a Works package outright for a large sum and go from stock or slightly upgrade to max.
Most events in the career are just flat out races between multiple AI opponents, but other events like drifting competitions and racing solo against the clock are also part of the mix. Most times, you will be driving your own car, but as a fun way to spice that up, certain events give you access to a higher end vehicle; you won't get to keep it, but you can at least get a taste of what you will eventually be able to purchase.
I have found the Career to be compelling, challenging, and rewarding. I have found the controls to be tight and responsive and the framerate to be constantly smooth, both of which are absolutely essential to a good racing experience.
So the Autolog is a cool new online feature that you can take advantage of but SHIFT 2 also includes a Helmet Cam for the first time. This optional view is meant to present the race as it would be seen by a real driver, with graphical and camera nuances present during very high speeds, turns, and collisions. There are also night race events now too that weren't seen in the first SHIFT; these are cool, but I sort of expected those to be included from the get go so they don't seem as exciting. New 'Elite' handling options are available for those that want to try and control their vehicle in what is supposedly an ultra realistic manner. New damage models are also included, and players have the option for damage to be visual only or visual and performance affecting. Live Tuning allows you to tweak your ride and test it out. Also, a new mode known as Online Driver Duel pits you against a friend, while Catchup, Manufacturer Showdown and Old Vs New give you more ways to creatively check your skills.
As for the presentation, SHIFT 2 does a great job. I found the soundtrack to be outstanding -- I think literally the best soundtrack selection by any EA sport or motorsport game in a decade or more (granted I haven't heard every one of them in that time). The music, which you only hear in the menus, just fit the atmosphere perfectly. It wasn't too in your face but it also was not too quiet, either. The effects were fine, although I never could quite figure out what one of the noises I heard from time to time was. I have to think it was realistic, given how everything else sounded, but, yeah. Also, Vaughn would get annoying after a while -- the number of lines he has at the start of an event is limited, so you'll hear the same ones over and over. I did like that he offered either neutral or positive encouragement, though.
Graphically, I loved the smooth framerate but wasn't all that excited about the car detail or the tracks. Also, the same characters or scene occurs at the start of every race -- the women, the technicians, and so forth -- more variety there would have been good. The menus are clean and navigate quickly, which is a plus. All in all, it's a very good graphical presentation.
To the summary...