It is impossible to critique a racing simulation title without comparing it to the juggernauts Forza and Gran Turismo. For a number of years now they have each dominated the genre on their respective platforms. There have been many contenders in this console generation, but none showed the potential of Need for Speed: Shift. With its emphasis on not only the realistic driving experience but also the realistic driving atmosphere, Shift challenged what it means to be a racing sim. Shift 2: Unleashed is the next step in the series, but is it a step in the right direction?
Racing games with stunning visuals are so common nowadays that a title without beautiful graphics is shunned by gamers. Our jaws don’t gape anymore at our inability to differentiate between a real and rendered Corvette ZR1. We are spoiled to say the least. This truth makes it increasingly difficult for developers to improve upon the look of the racing genre – that is, unless the developer is the Need for Speed crew. While the cars themselves do not appear more pristine than those of any other sim, the beauty of Shift 2 is in the details.
Driving a Honda S2000 you speed full-throttle into Turn 5 at Circuit de Catalunya. It is the last lap and each driver is jockeying for position through every bend. As you and a Mazda RX-8 trade paint the car in front of you brakes late, and shreds of its tires strike your windshield. The RX-8 cuts the corner and dirt and grass spatter behind the spinning tires. Inside your cockpit the camera leans to get the best view of the turn as you notice your helmet padding and other surroundings beginning to blur. Your thumbs grip tight on the steering wheel and your fingers begin to vibrate as you break over the shoulder.
It might sound like I am explaining – in exhausting detail – driving a real Honda at the factual Circuit de Catalunya. Yet I am simply duplicating all of the details of Shift 2: Unleashed. You have to see it to believe it, but this is the best looking racing game on the market simply because of all the spectacular details that blur the line between reality and virtual reality. Where the other popular driving simulation titles offer a game that replicates racing, Shift 2 offers racing that replicates a game.
It isn’t just for show either. The turns are often riddled with debris such as rocks, dirt and chunks of rubber. These dirty parts of the roadway are just as dangerous to you as they are to drivers on the authentic circuit and should be avoided at all costs. If you fail to avoid them you might get the bittersweet vision of your car flipping and tearing to shreds. Shift 2 boasts a fantastic damage model. Crashes are tremendous in this game, and you won’t see any of that lifting off like you witness in Forza and Gran Turismo. These improvements over the first Shift would be my favorite if it wasn’t for the Helmet Cam.
The major emphasis in Shift was the cockpit camera; in fact, it was the first game to my knowledge that used it as the default setting. The Need for Speed team did this because things like crashes and high speeds were greatly emphasized by animations that could be seen from the cockpit view.
Shift 2 continues this trend but in a much larger and more crucial way with the Helmet Cam. Instead of the straightforward outlook that every title has presented with a cockpit cam, the Helmet Cam leans the driver’s head into each corner and then focuses on the perfect apex of the turn. At first this may sound like a gimmick but the realism this presents coupled with how incredibly helpful it is makes the Helmet Cam the best improvement in the genre – outside of graphics – since we began seeing hundreds of cars per game.
Incredible track effects and damage model, tight mechanics, the Helmet Cam should be the new standard.
Only 145 cars, no split-screen, no free play, minor graphics issues.