Version tested: Xbox 360
By now, the Need For Speed brand has come to mean little more than 'EA-published video game featuring cars'. It's an umbrella term broad enough to encompass everything from the Burnout-inspired cops-and-robbers thrills of last October's Hot Pursuit to SHIFT, a simulation racer with its eye firmly on Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport's trailblazing exhaust pipes.
With Need For Speed games tearing off in all manner of creative directions, it's clear that EA's plan in recent years was not to create a cohesive brand so much as a synonym for the term "Racing Game" that is specific to the company's output. Nevertheless, while the Need For Speed name is guaranteed to sell copies, in the case of SHIFT, it may have had other, less desirable effects.
This is clearly intended by developer Slightly Mad Studios to be a Serious Racer (TM), but it is now detrimentally associated with a clutch of titles that are anything but.
So Need For Speed: SHIFT becomes SHIFT 2: Unleashed for the sequel, freeing the game from the supposed shackles of its lighter-weight cousins. But with Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5 both released following the original SHIFT's debut, it's going to take more than a tune-up of the name to help the sequel catch the pack.
The raw building blocks of the experience are solid yet familiar, because SHIFT 2's feature list almost exactly apes that of Turn 10's Forza titles. There is a slew of modern road and race cars to purchase, a mixture of real-world and imagined race tracks to drive them on, deep and involved tuning and decal options to customise them with and a stable of sequentially unlocked championships in which to compete while growing your collection of virtual automobiles.
That collection is never going to rival that of Polyphony Digital's latest. There are far fewer cars on offer here than in SHIFT 2's rival titles, but the limited catalogue supposedly reflects focus rather than stinginess. At least, it does according to the game's lead designer. And he has something of a point. In limiting vehicle selection to major manufacturers and their standout or iconic models (145 in total), the emphasis shifts from Pokémon-style collecting to the racing itself.
It's easier to familiarise yourself with the full range of models available in each racing class, to learn their idiosyncrasies and characteristics, and to tune each for the track and conditions set before you. It also means that all eyes are on the pitch and timbre of the racing itself.
As with its predecessor, SHIFT 2's cars have a twitchy, unruly feel in the hands. There's none of the slick grace of Forza's cars, nor the dry, studied realism of Gran Turismo's cast. There's still a great deal of oversteer, and cars will spin out at the slightest provocation. This certainly gives races a taut, sometimes fraught feel, but there's a harsh edge to the driving that takes some getting used to.
Hit a barricade or slam into the bodywork of another vehicle and the screen drains of all colour, slipping into a disorientating blur. The intention is to penalise careless driving but it's an unsubtle, somewhat heavy-handed solution. In strange contrast, damage to the bodywork of vehicles, even in a head-on collision, is somewhat inconsequential in visual and mechanical terms.
Despite these reservations, SHIFT 2's handling (especially when played with a wheel or, if using a controller, tweaked to suit the input device) is wholly acceptable. What grace it lacks is made up for by the thrill of racing up to 15 other competitors and the creativity of championship design, which has you racing around Tokyo's docks at night in 1980s Japanese street cars one minute and taking on the tall endurance demands of the FIA GT1 the next.
But what causes SHIFT 2 to catch up with the pack are the innovations found in the metagame layer that sits over the basic racing. Autolog – the brilliant and engaging online competitive overlay introduced by Hot Pursuit – is present and correct, posting your best time in each and every event to a virtual wall, encouraging friends and rivals to top it.
As such, you are never merely racing against the other cars on the track in any single event. You're also racing against your friends list, and your and their best times become arcade-style high scores, with all the hustle and bustle of micro-competition that they demand.
Perhaps more profound to the second-by-second game experience, however, is the experience system, a prestige economy into which every positive action you perform in the game feeds.
Perform a slick start from the grid and you earn experience points. Overtake a competitor and you earn experience. Draft, block, stick to the green racing line marker on the track or slide with elegance around a corner and the gauge will fill. You earn points for where you place in a race, and how many of your friends you beat on Autolog. The sizeable experience gauge that sits in the centre of the top of the screen where the wing mirror normally would go may be a desperately unsubtle reward read-out, but it sure works.
Fill the gauge and your character levels up, earning money and unlocking new races, vinyls with which to decorate your vehicle, and championships. It's a system lifted straight from Dungeons & Dragons (or, to put it in car game parlance, it's Project Gotham's Kudos system taken to an extreme).
Each of the game's 30-odd courses also has a completion rate, a stat that reveals how close you have come to mastering its corners and racing line. This statistic is persistent between sessions. So, for example, next time you return to Brands Hatch you have the opportunity to improve upon the 'mastery' rate for that course, literally ticking off corners on the mini-map as you successfully complete them, and colouring sections of the track green like de Blob on wheels as you take the perfect racing line through them.
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SHIFT 2, LEGO Clone Wars, Top Spin 4, Red Faction: Battlegrounds, MotoGP 10/11.
Hands On: Shift 2: Unleashed
"Our opposite is Gran Turismo."
Hands On: Shift 2: Unleashed
Through the win-shield.
With more corners than a Müller yoghurt.
There will be those who baulk at all this RPG-ification of the racing game. But the core racing experience is robust enough that the constant stream of rewards and micro-challenges never feels like it's trying to make up for something crucial that's missing, so much as it's heightening the effectiveness of what's already there.
Besides, one crucial benefit of the system is that even when you're in last place it still feels as though it's worth persevering and racing well in order to net experience. For once it really isn't just the winning so much as the taking part that counts.
Online, the game has enough flexibility to allow players to set up matches to suit their tastes. Lobby owners can set the time of day, force particular in-car views and, of course, dictate the vehicle class and whether downloadable cars are permitted or not. If you want to get into car modification then the setup is identical to that of the Forza series, each car given a 'score' based on its power and potential, and then slotted into a class based on that number.
Once you've pushed a vehicle to the edge of a class you can then fine-tune its behaviour on the track, even saving out specific tuning setups for specific tracks and conditions and tweaking values live on the test track.
As an update to the previous SHIFT title, Unleashed is a significant draft forward. While the driving itself retains the boisterous character of its predecessor, there's been a considerable tightening of focus in the experience system, which makes every race feel meaningful whether you win or lose.
In a sense, the designers are following a general trend in game design, rather than defining it, but never before have extrinsic rewards been used with such determination and to such great effect in a racing game. Combine this with the brilliance of EA's Autolog and SHIFT 2 becomes a significant proposition.
Many will consider the game a third place to Forza and Gran Turismo's slicker, more exacting odes to motor racing, but in terms of its social features, SHIFT 2 leads the pack, even if Autolog really is a debt owed to the Need for Speed heritage it is so eager to pull away from.
8 / 10