When Need for Speed: Shift came out in 2009, it marked a slight change of direction for the franchise as a whole. While in the past, Need for Speed was more focussed on the arcade side of things, Shift took itself much more seriously; it was the closest thing to a simulation racer the franchise had ever seen. With Shift 2: Unleashed, Slightly Mad Studios want to take that mentality and raise it up a notch, as they've claimed that Shift 2 is more of a racing simulator, than a standard simulation racer. Parts of it work, but other parts feel quite unrefined.
As you progress through the career mode, you'll be mentored by different racers from the various categories you're competing in. This might be a retro racer or someone who competes in the GT3 category. Either way, it gives a nice little introduction to what you're about to face, while sometimes offering a few little tutorials to explain the finer nuances of the game. Throughout though, Vaughn Gittin Jr. effectively acts as your mascot, giving you advice pre-race and words of encouragement through the in-car radio.
The career mode is split into different tiers, which you can unlock by going up a driver level. It's a very basic system - when you improve your level, the next tier of events will unlock. How you get experience to increase your driver level is a nice touch though, as you'll always feel that everything you're doing is helping your rank to improve - it's not simply about coming first in each race. You'll get points for driving close to the best line, performing a clean over-take, going over a certain speed and more. And at the end of the race, all your exp gets totalled up. This can then be supplemented by exp gained from performing special feats, like "mastering" a track by nailing every corner and straight and getting certain lap times.
The main focus of the game is of course, racing against opponents. There are some different events to drive in though. The first is the hot lap, where you'll be given a select car and challenged to beat a certain time. Then you have eliminator, where the last-placed racer gets eliminated when the clock hits zero. And finally you have the one that's the most different - drifting. Drifting has been around in the franchise for a while, it was a prominent component in Need for Speed: Underground and in Shift 2: Unleashed it's a pretty similar premise. You'll have to drift around a track and you'll be scored depending on the line of your drift, its angle and its duration.
The drifting feels a bit cumbersome though. Sometimes you'll really get into the groove - you'll start off with an amazing drift. But then, when you try to do exactly the same thing again, it just won't work. If you mess up and get degenerated down to low speed, you'll then have to battle against the incessant wheel-spin, which isn't really necessary; something which is a real pain if the road has a slight camber, or isn't very wide. But this then goes onto the game's actual handling - it's just highlighted as a bit more of a problem in the drifting mode.
Overall, it doesn't really feel like there's a huge amount of down force on the cars - they seem to just glide, rather than feel rooted to the track. It's not a huge problem when using the slower cars, as you can compensate quite easily. But when you're using the faster cars and you want to go flat-out, it just doesn't work that well. If you make a slight compensation to correct your line, the car will sway way more than it should, meaning you then have to further compensate. If you're playing in a first-person mode, this might seem rather confusing, but if you switch to a behind-the-car view, it makes a bit more sense. Even when you're going around a very minor-grade corner, without applying much torque, the back of the car will still slide out slightly and it's this that initially causes the need to compensate - a downward spiral. When going around a standard corner, the car will almost always slide out to some degree. The physics are all there, as shown by the amended camera you can use, but it doesn't stop you feeling like you have very little control of the car.This then has a knock-on effect when it comes to the racing simulation aspect. The AI is fantastic from the perspective of, they'll almost never take the same robotic line. However, on the same note, unless you slightly go off the track, they will almost never be able to overtake you. If you manage to get into first place, hold a decent speed and stay on the racing line, you're almost guaranteed to win. On the same coin though, overtaking opponents can be rather tricky too. Not only do you have to worry about attempting to stay on the racing line, you'll then have to worry about compensating for what the other drivers are doing. It has an element of realism to it, but the handling of the cars take away that realism a bit. The collisions don't do the game any favours either.
No matter how a collision happens, you can almost guarantee you will come off worse than the AI. If you're slightly leaning on a car to go up the inside, somehow your car will lock-up. It also highlights how ridiculously aggressive the AI are when it comes to self preservation. Sure, they won't overtake you unless they see a clear opportunity, but on the same coin, if you try to overtake, mess it up a little bit and duck out to try again next time, they won't think twice about ramming the crap out of you.
There are also some bugs which stop the experience from being what it should. For example, if you get forced off the track a little bit, try to power through and then make a be-line straight for the track, you clearly haven't gained an advantage by this happening. Despite this, the game will still void your entire race-time as it believes you're trying to cheat. It's understandable if you cut off a huge chunk of the track and gain some positions, but if you've gained nothing, why should you be punished? There is also a huge bug in the drift mode. If you end up crashing and going down the wrong part of a track (on a figure of eight, for example), when you rejoin and go the right, it will no longer increment your score. This is the case, even if you let it reset you.
The range of cars featured in the game is pretty decent. There's a nice mix of retro and modern cars, with each of the major continents catered for. You'll also be able to upgrade them quite a lot, which is nice. The level of customisation here is rather impressive actually, and it's great to be able to get a stock car, and upgrade it to a works car.
The visuals match this perfectly too - everything looks great when you're racing. The sound is also rather impressive, with almost every nuance of the cars' engines perfectly highlighted. The music actually takes a bit of a backseat, with it playing quietly in many of the game's menus.
In terms of options, Shift 2: Unleashed has a ton of things for you to do. Its career mode might not be able to compete with the likes of Forza or Gran Turismo, but there's still plenty to keep you occupied for a while. The progression is good, and there are distinct differences between the game's difficulty options - so if you want to mix things up a bit, you can quite easily. There's only the online section, which implements something akin to the recent FIFA World Cup title. You'll enter into a competition, whereby you square off against other opponents. If you qualify, you'll go onto the next stage of the competition, each time going up against even tougher opponents.
There's also Autolog, which was first implemented in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit last year. This allows you to directly compete against people on your friends list. It will also highlight events that you should check out, based on what you like doing.
Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed succeeds in some areas, but falls short in others. The career mode is perfectly paced and the experience system allows for a very gratifying level of progression. But the handling of the cars can be frustrating at times. The drifting also isn't the best and there are some bugs which can be a bit troublesome. It's a decent racer though, and if you want to test yourself in a harsh racing environment you should check it out.
|Some great customisation options|
|The experience system allows for a nice amount of progression|
|It creates a very tense experience, you'll rarely feel relaxed|
|The handling doesn't feel that great|
|The drifting mode is a bit cumbersome|
|There are some frustrating bugs|