It seems like it’s only been a few months since I made my reservations for a few precious hours of Xbox 360 time (one quickly learns to plan ahead for these things when there’s an overly possessive teenager in the house) in order to play a new
Need For Speed game. As I look back, it actually was just a few months ago that I sat down with Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. But here I am again; the new year has brought with it a new entry in the venerable Need For Speed line, Need For Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed.
One could be forgiven for wondering how it is that two versions of the same game can be released only a few months apart, but it doesn't take long to see the difference between the two. Where Hot Pursuit focused on escapist, over-the-top road duels with overly aggressive law enforcement officers (or vice-versa for players that opted to be the cops), Shift 2 more firmly bases itself in the real world of professional auto racing. In this world, fictional city and country roads are (mostly) replaced with authentic race tracks from around the globe. The fundamental goal remains to be the fastest driver on the track, but opponents won’t have collections of gadgets to use to slow you down. If they want to beat you, it will have to be their superior driving skills that enable them to do so. This is all to the good, and only comes at the small cost of less varied scenery. After all, once you’'ve finished the first lap of a race, the scenery can only repeat itself.
With Shift 2, Slightly Mad Studios and Electronic Arts put a premium on both realism in all of its forms, and on playability where it makes better sense to tame the beast. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they’re pretty close to it. Because of the limitations of a 2D display, the handheld game controller, the lack of tactile feedback, and the absence of motion, it would be the height of folly to expect anyone to be able to “drive” a fully realistic race car. If I’m honest, I’d say that 90% of the people that pick up this game couldn't safely drive a high-powered race car if they were sitting in it anyway, myself included. The studio recognized that concessions would need to be made to make the game as realistic as possible while also making it enjoyable to play. This delicate balancing act permeates the entire Shift 2 experience.
It starts with the Career mode. Building a career in motor racing (at least without enjoying the nepotistic advantages of having a name like ‘Senna’ or ‘Earnhardt’) is a long, tough slog. Every rung of the ladder is at least an order of magnitude harder to achieve that the one preceding it, and any combination of bad luck, bad judgment, or bad equipment in any given race can easily knock as aspiring racer back a few rungs. Opportunities for advancement are rare enough that most drivers will drive anything, anytime, and anywhere in order to gain much needed experience. Winning a race now and then is not enough, nor is building a lot of time in a race car without ever managing to step onto a podium. It can take years to rise above the weekend racer level and get into a strong, high visibility racing series. It may never happen at all. The bottom line is this: in the real world, breaking into the higher strata of professional motor racing is frustrating, demoralizing, and never-ending work.
So, who wants that in a game?? Who has the time and persistence to spend weeks, months, and years working their way through a progression of ever-more-difficult competitions in order to get to the point where they can race in the most prestigious races, driving the types of cars that are normally only seen on Top Gear? Well, teenagers, I guess, but for the rest of us, no one has that kind of time. This is why I cringed when I started Shift 2 and saw that I was going to be limited to short, brutal races on short tracks, driving cars that I could drive to work in. Where’s my Aston-Martin DB9??? Was I going to have to grind my way through a prolonged, frustrating career before I could get into a good car?
Fortunately, the career mode is one area where the desirable balance between realism and playability is well achieved. As I mentioned before, the two essential components of career progression in motor racing are experience and winning. Gaining experience proves (sort of, anyway. There are always Kyle Busch type counter-arguments) that you will be able to control your car and judgment well enough on the track to not be a danger to other drivers. As you show your maturity, you are allowed to join races with other experienced drivers. Winning does not necessarily prove that you have racing maturity, but it will provide you with the primary fuel of racing: money.
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