Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed Review (PS3)

For many racing game enthusiasts, each of the major brands are defined by their feel, rather than the swathes of licensed content that pepper press releases and official trailers. Perhaps you’re a Forza fanatic, prioritising smooth and graceful turns with rhythmic precision amidst a backdrop of spectacular scenery. Maybe you’re into GT5 with its dry realism, slower pace and millisecond-shaving lap times against monotonous but vaguely comforting opposition. Or maybe you’re all about the powerslide and barely-in-control rocket-like acceleration of a Hot Pursuit or a Burnout; bouncing off barricades, slingshotting around hairpins and firing off victory EMPs for good measure.

By those yardsticks, if you’re into Shift 2: Unleashed then you’re into cornering, plain and simple. Slightly Mad Studio’s tweaked physics engine does a stellar job of reproducing the sensation of hurtling around a bend and clipping an apex at high velocity, but the problems mount when it wants to show you that all of the time.

models are generally fantastic

The fact that most of the cars in Shift 2: Unleashed bounce around and swerve to the side with the slightest nudge of the stick is either a problem or a feature, depending on whom you talk to. Fans of the first game will rejoice in the return of the unpredictable, with races lent a palpable sense of tension due to an awareness that things can go wrong - even on a straight - extremely quickly. On time trials and other solo races those wobbles and occasional crashes become a minor frustration, but faced with a pack of extremely competitive and downright aggressive AI drivers, things begin to look a little more troublesome. These are tricky cars to master, and even if you do, be aware that you might not have any choice as to when the game decides to shatter that comfort zone with a swift shunt in the rear.

To call the handling erratic would be unfair however, since the underpinning of Unleashed’s physics engine seems convincing in implementation. What is erratic, seems to be the setup of both the control scheme and car tuning across the board. By default the analogue sticks are set with a deadzone of around 15% and the triggers set to a sensitivity level for throttle and braking that’s way too high, resulting in the bizarre and squirrely motion that contributes to the general chaos. Factor in tyre pressures that seem to be hugely inflated and default suspension setups that are softer that Mr Stay Puft, and you have cars that can literally spin out of control at the slightest touch. Exciting it may be, but also frustrating in equal measure.

Trackside detail is well-implemented

Once control schemes and car setups have been tweaked to more sensible values however, Shift 2 comes alive in its own right, competently rivalling Forza in terms of style and structure. The career mode features a variety of disciplines and suitably esoteric car and track combinations that get the most from all of the licensed content, and whilst it doesn’t rival GT5 in terms of a sheer volume of automotive porn, the selection of cars and environments is of a high quality - making every unlock that little bit more meaningful. Kudos to the developer for opening the majority of career content within a few hours of racing also, leading to a campaign that’s high on selection and low on grinding. Video introductions set the scene for key categories, and the presentational aspects are of a general high quality throughout.

Indeed Shift 2 looks absolutely stunning at times, with the moody and atmospheric lighting particularly worthy of praise. Tearing around Suzuka at night with only the headlights of your fellow racers for company is one of many standout moments, with realistic and brutal car deformation also contributing to the overall aesthetic quality. The new helmet cam mode takes realism a step further for the hardcore, convincingly modelling the movement and forces that affect a driver’s field of vision, and mimicking head movement for looking into turns through the side windows. If nothing else it will give you an appreciation of just how difficult racing from that perspective can be, and a whole new slant on how tough it is to judge turn-in angles and even the bredth of your vehicle in relation to others.

Night-time races are difficult to master

Autolog - the much-praised leaderboard and social networking tool - also makes an extremely welcome appearance here. It works in pretty much the same manner as you may have already experienced, with individual races and online challenges subject to their own ‘Speed Wall’ friend leaderboards that promote competition. You can easily lose an hour here or there attempting to best a lap time or pip a friend to the top spot, and it’s in those moments that Shift 2 - as Hot Pursuit before it - really shines. Although Autolog comprised the majority of the online support that players will ever require, traditional races and competitions are also available, and function extremely well. Camera perspectives can be filtered and locked along with tracks, cars and all the other options people require to find their comfortable niche of racing, whilst the Driver Duel Championship provides an adequate route for those inclined for serious competition.

All of the above add to a fully-featured and fairly slick iteration on Slightly Mad’s initial attempt at the sim-arcade racing genre, but you get the feeling it’s still lacking a suitable hook to call its own. Forza handles better out of the box (and even after tweaking in truth), GT5 caters for its anorak-wearing Audi brigade with aplomb, and the likes of Hot Pursuit blaze an arcade trail that Shift 2 doesn’t even attempt to gun for. The end product is in a bit of a no-mans-land as a result, and although the helmet cam is a unique enough selling point to make it worthy of a try, that alone isn’t enough to hang a product on. It’s by no means bad though, and indeed comes close to rivalling the competition at various stages of its career mode; just don’t expect many things you haven’t seen before.

Best Game Moment: Figuring out how to drive in a straight line.