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.
More on Shift 2: Unleashed
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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