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Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed finally brings a driver's game into the Need For Speed stable. Night racing, changin weather and track modelling all contribute, but the real star of the show is how it feels to drive.
If you like to drive (as well as play at driving) like me, there is plenty to be excited about in the return of Shift. The previous game was EA's attempt to move their Need for Speed franchise in a more realistic direction - to connect with petrol-heads like you and I.
In part, it worked. It certainly got my attention, whereas previously I had written of Need for Speed as kids games. But for all the novel head mounted cameras and high impact visuals, the actual driving wasn't quite up to the quality of Forza, and without that spark of life found in Gran Turismo.
With the arcade Need for Speed ticket now being covered by the creators of Burnout - in the form of Hot Pursuit - it's good to see the Shift series lives on. Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed expands on the original in a number of important areas.
Watching a lot of racing, both track side and on TV, my ears immediately pricked up at the sound of a healthy set of the world's best tracks and cars. Here, Shift nudges into Gran Turismo territory, even including the Pagani Huayra, an as yet unreleased car being clamoured at the world over. Circuits include Brands Hatch, Monza, the Nordschleife, Suzuka and Donington and all look impressively life like. The cars themselves benefit from tuning and upgrade functions and a realistic damage model.
The helmet camera makes a return and has been improved substantially since the first game. It's an unusual first person view that has the various g-forces of driving applied to it. What results is a real sensation of momentum as your view nods under braking and pulls back as you accelerate.
What really got me excited though was the night racing. Why is it that so many great racing games miss this most basic of magical automotive moments? There is simply nothing more awe inspiring than plunging into a corner, hugging the apex while all about you is dark. Shift 2 does this very well although still lacks the full impact found in Grid, and more recently Gran Turismo 5.
Rather than fight it, you need to turn off the driving-aids and go where the game takes you.
Many reviewers are complaining that it's simply too hard. But for me this is like a red rag to a bull. I relished Dirt's pixel perfect cornering and super-hard time trials, so felt right at home with the demands that Shift 2 placed on me.
Rather than fight it, you need to turn off the driving-aids and go where the game takes you. Only then can you really get a sense of just how accurate the simulation is. I'll admit that entering my first Invitational race at Suzuka in the Lotus Exige was something of a shock. But perseverance, and a good helping of sensible, thought through driving technique (and plenty of practice) wins out in the end.
I was less impressed with the computer controlled drivers though. Sure, they avoid the languid lifeless feel of competitors in Forza, but here they are on a downright death wish. This is fine, but the penalty system is not robust enough to appropriately penalise misdemeanours.
My solution was to focus on my racing line rather than respond to their antics. The trick here is getting the nose in early then feeling for the over steer - which usually takes hold around the apex - then a little care (less so if you are rear wheel drive) will see you working back up through the gears as you exit.
Not all the cars responded as I expected (or wanted) but the nicely detailed tuning setup meant I could adjust the levels of under steer until I felt I had control of each vehicle.
Shift 2 focuses on what matters; the driving experience.
There's one part of the game that I can't comment on, on principle. In what I can only imagine is included for the Japanese and US market, a drifting mode offers an entirely different physics engine that seems to grant you god-like powers to caress an overpowered drift car round corners sideways. Not my thing, cars are about forward movement for me, not ballet dancing round tiny tracks.
Getting to grips with the main game is a satisfying feeling, and equips you to enjoy the various modes and races on offer. There is a wide mix of challenges, hot-lap, eliminators and an enhanced Autolog feature from Hot Pursuit that ups the online competition with your online friends.
I know my family gaming friends will miss the local multiplayer mode - again there is no split-screen option which it has to be said is a bit of an omission - but for me Shift 2 focuses on what matters; the driving experience. Add to this the quality and innovation of both the visuals and the vehicle physics and this is a game that impresses much more than you would expect after last year's outing.
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