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.