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SHIFT 2: Unleashed
Graphics: 8.3
Gameplay: 6.6
Sound: 8.1
Control: 6.1
Replay Value: 7.5
Rating: 6.9

I am a huge fan of the intensity involved in white-knuckle street racing. And admittedly, few games embrace the vim and vigor of hotly competitive racing better than SHIFT 2: Unleashed. The follow-up to Need for Speed: SHIFT, which introduced us to a fantastic in-cockpit view and the singular fear and anticipation that accompanies the sport, strives to reach new heights of invigorated enthusiasm and style. Unfortunately, the completely unreliable and erratic nature of the driving, the overly aggressive (and borderline cheating) AI, and what feels like a more arcade-y experience than before, makes it unsatisfying in my eyes. It’s one of those games that has a lot going for it, and it understandably resonates with other critics and gamers, but I just can’t handle the instability.

Undoubtedly, the intricate detailing and effects are impressive, especially if you take the time to examine damage sustained by your car. They do a great job of designing each vehicle and crashes are more spectacular than ever; Slightly Mad also increases the amount and quality of special effects typically associated with racing. Everything from tire marks to fender benders to the thrill of racing at night is all captured nicely, and what you see from either inside the car or the new first-person helmet camera is beautifully designed. Only when you start to expand your scope do you begin to see some drawbacks; for instance, there are several tracks in the game that we saw in Gran Turismo 5 and…well, there’s no comparison. Still, SHIFT 2 looks good.

The sound features in-your-face effects and some fantastic radio work, which always puts you right in the midst of the ceaseless action. I’m not the biggest fan of the soundtrack but due to the intensity of the racing itself, all music tends to take a permanent back seat, anyway. I think the engine noise is exaggerated in some of the cars and I’m still not buying the audio that accompanies certain collisions, but the expended effort is obvious. Combining the meticulous detailing of the up-close graphics and the nerve-rattling special effects creates what should be a fulfilling race experience. There’s no denying that, despite a few small shortcomings, the technical presentation is top-notch, and that may be enough for certain players. It generates a jarring, violent atmosphere, and it works well…until you start to drive. I just don't get it.

Let’s start with the positive, and my favorite new feature: the helmet cam. It’s just another level of involvement and immersion and actually let me enjoy the game, regardless of all my dislikes and reservations. It’s such a unique view, primarily because it’s very close to a real driver’s view; the camera will actually shift in the direction of turn apexes. So when you’re hurtling down the racetrack, not only do you get the aforementioned realistic radio in your ear, you also get to see something similar to what a real-life racer sees. That right there is worthy of attention, and I don’t want to take anything away from the implementation of that feature. Provided they keep it for the third game, I’ll definitely be willing to try it.

And as made clear in the technical breakdown, cars reflect damage in a way that’s both authentic and downright frightening, so you’re always on the edge of your seat: you’re simultaneously trying to avoid a crash and secretly dying to see one. Furthermore, given the ramped-up aggression of every competitor and the fact that intensity is priority #1, you will always be tense. You will always be gripping the controller (or wheel) tightly. You will always come into a turn with several other racers, knowing you’re a hair’s-breadth from finding yourself in the sand, facing the wrong direction. Toss in the Autolog feature – everyone seemed to like it in Hot Pursuit and it works equally well here – and you’ve got an engaging, addictive racer.

…or so you might think. Look, I’m all for aggression but there are two gigantic issues I just couldn’t get past, regardless of my settings or event type. Firstly, the control- it’s just that much looser and worse, entirely unreliable and erratic. Virtually all the cars seem to over-steer, and you can never really predict how your vehicle is going to perform. It’s a bizarre situation, because the game is begging for more solidarity; we need that solidarity to appropriately cope with the insane level of aggression. This brings me to the second problem, which is the madcap racing of the opposition. They’ll often just shove you off the track; whether they do this on purpose or they just don’t acknowledge your presence, I don’t know.

But I do know that the instability of the racing, unpredictability of the cars, and over-the-top aggressiveness of the other racers is seriously vexing. It’s not that the AI is stupid; in fact, they show glimpses of borderline brilliance at times. But they can easily knock you off course – and that often means the end of the race – and get away without a scratch. In other words, there’s no consequence for them treating you like an obstacle that needs to be swept aside, and you know, you can’t behave that way. If you try it, you’ll just ruin your chances at crossing the finish line first. But I could almost withstand this if it wasn’t for the totally erratic control that never allowed me to gain a firm grasp of the gameplay. Maybe it’s because I spent too much time playing GT5. Maybe I’m letting that experience unfairly impact my analysis of this game.

I have considered that. But I’ve played all sorts of racers. I know SHIFT 2 is a blend of simulation and arcade physics. But here’s the thing- I had no trouble with the first SHIFT, I have no trouble with great simulators, and I have no trouble with great arcade-like racers (Burnout, for instance). And for some reason, this just doesn’t click; the control is just off. The very first race is on Suzuka, which is a course I know like the back of my own hand; I’ve raced it dozens of times (both the short and long versions) with probably over a hundred different cars between all the GTs, and I’ve even seen races on that track. The bottom line is that no lap in SHIFT 2 felt or looked anything like I’d played or seen before.

It’s just too aggressive to be taken seriously; they took the violence to a height that actually detracts from the experience. The AI is smart, but quite capable of pissing you off on a routine basis, and the control for each vehicle is all over the place. It’s just too loose and too unstable. I liked the experience earned, which played to my role-playing sensibilities and really let me dive into some nuts and bolts (pun intended), and unlocking new events and new cars is always a blast. There aren’t anywhere near enough cars, to be sure, but the flash, panache, atmosphere and depth associated with customization and the Autolog saves the game from feeling bare. It goes without saying that the multiplayer can be stupid intense, especially if you run across highly competitive racers who just hate to lose.

Still, SHIFT 2: Unleashed needed to be reigned in. Get the leash out again, because these cars mustn’t throw temper tantrums at bizarre times, and our foes should be penalized for going all GTA on our butts. The technical presentation puts a smile on your face, the crashes are bad-ass, and the varying events are a huge bonus. And I can’t say enough about that helmet cam. But beyond that…this is one disc that very nearly ended up embedded in the wall. Lots of great stuff but this raucous attempt at racing needs some settling and organization.

The Good: Great technical detail and lots of flash. Good racing sound effects. Helmet cam is awesome. AI isn’t stupid at all. Multiplayer can be nuts.

The Bad: Background/course graphics aren’t as impressive. Control is erratic; vehicle performance is entirely unpredictable. AI’s aggression is annoying and goes un-penalized. Nowhere near enough cars.

The Ugly: “So…this is destruction derby, huh?”

4/2/2011   Ben Dutka