Fans of 2009’s Need for Speed Shift from Slightly Mad Studios remember the experience well. The sensation of speed was dumbfounding and the accompanying visual trickery made the title a bright new contender in the arcade racing world. Skip forward to 2011 and Shift 2: Unleashed, no longer weighted down by the expectations of the NFS brand, sets its wheels towards establishing a lasting franchise.

As with the first game, prepare yourself for a lengthy introductory race before you’re given any freedom. Racing a loaner car and being mentored by a bearded drifter (quite literally), you’ll do a couple of laps to determine your difficulty setting. Being that it’s a new game with modified handling and a confusing new helmet-cam, you’re better off choosing what you think might work as it will take a few laps to come to grips with the new changes. Once you’re done there it’s back to the nifty live action main menu. Taking a scene from the sensational opening video, you rotate around the center vehicle to choose each menu option which certainly feels much better than the dry menus of NFS Shift.

The original career mode was a slightly haphazard affair whereby you earned stars for achieving objectives in each race. The problem was that no-one had sat down to work out the math of it all as it was possible to complete the final tour of the game having driven very little of what was on offer.  Strangely, this has continued in Shift 2. I’d only completed a smattering of races in the first 5 levels before I was able to complete the GT3 championship which was on level 14.

Another oddity of this career mode are the real life drivers that occasionally pop up in videos to address you directly. This implied sense of competition never actually translates into the race because you don’t see or hear from that driver after that initial cut-scene. There needs to be a comfortable point between the embarrasing bro-banter of DiRT 2 and the soullessness of GT5 that can make the player feel engaged in the career path and sadly, Shift 2 never comes close.

Ride-handling is still an intense affair but is slightly more forgiving this time around. The steering takes some time to get used to and you will need to commit to corners earlier than your eyes tell you to if you’re going to make it around due to the shocking amounts of oversteer on faster vehicles. At high speeds it will take every bit of concentration you can muster to successfully navigate the tracks, particularly if you’ve got the AI on a higher difficulty level. The selection of tracks is uniformly excellent from the complex Riverina circuit (Monaco) to narrow fantasy tracks like London and Tokyo to Australia’s own V8-behemoth Mt. Panorama (Bathurst). As long as you ramp the difficulty up to something suitable for your skills, Shift 2 can be as challenging as you want it to be.

Visually, Shift 2 is the most stunning arcade racer on the market. Even on the Xbox version the colours are vibrant and the level of detail across the entire playing environment is stunning. Cornering exposes you to disintegrating rubber from the vehicle ahead, drifting throws up clouds of smoke and the crash effects are incredibly visceral to the point where my eyes would lose focus after a hard hit. Car models are extremely well done and the cockpits are highly detailed. With no HUD, no assists and the in-helmet view, Shift 2 becomes a wholly incomparable experience.

The new Helmet-Cam view feels authentic and is meant to simulate the turn of the drivers head towards the corner apex. In play however, it’s disconcerting and irritating. For the most part it’s perfectly serviceable and can feel quite natural as you steer in, but hit some rapid S-bends or leaving a corner too wide and it all comes apart. The cam itself is a great idea but it’s just not smart enough to recognise the player’s position on the exit of the corner to reposition the view as a driver should and I’m hoping this will be evolved as the series progresses.

Most will remember the AI’s aggressiveness in the 2009 title.  They slavishly adhered to their driving line regardless of player actions and drove a very aggressive race. All good sequels aim to improve on existing facets and unfortunately the AI gets their own new trick… magnetic cars. No longer content with just batting you off the road into a wall, if you make direct contact with another vehicle from behind it will stick to you like it was welded there and invariably take you off the track (and most likely cost you the race). The biggest player gripe from Shift was the AI so to see it continue like this is disappointing to say the least.

With a wide range of tracks and vehicles, an enjoyable (but skippable) career mode, stunning graphics and great sound effects, Shift 2 is a competent racer. As far as furthering the series however, it hasn’t actually moved far from where it started. The introduction of the helmet-cam and night races along with the now-standard Autolog isn’t enough to make this a stand-out title.

The Shift series is being touted as a racing simulator, but it’s a simulator only in the visual appearance and visceral experience. With brutally unfair AI and an online mode that plays like high speed dodgem cars, I feel let down by Shift 2.  I really think they could have done more than window dress the original and the series is in danger of becoming stale before it’s really started… but at the core, this is a super-visceral experience and there’s still plenty of room to develop the IP which leaves me cautiously optimistic

The Rundown:

+ Amazingly realistic visual representation of high speed racing
+ Good, old fashioned twitchy racing fun
– Yet again, career mode can be almost entirely skipped
– AI makes you want to break things
– There’s nothing new here, it’s Shift 1.5

Shift 2 Unleashed was developed by Slightly Mad Studios and published by EA.  The game was released for $59.99 USD on (PS3/360) and $49.99 USD (PC) on March, 29th 2011.  A copy of the game was purchased for the purposes of review.  Murray played through the campaign and spent quite a bit of time with the multiplayer.  Sometimes when he’d crash he’d go “crikey!”  He was let down by the fact that this game was not much better than it’s predecessor, but still found it rather fun.