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.
In Shift 2, your experience is measure by XP, or experience points. Once you meet certain thresholds of experience, you are allowed to move into higher class races. Experience in real life can take many forms. You don’t need to win a race, or even place very well, to gain experience. But while the experience gained by trailing around at the back of the pack will teach how how to be passed, the experience of leading a race is critical as well. Passing a slower car and being passed by a faster car are both things that require experience to do well and safely, but obviously they are not the same thing at all. This fact is modeled well in Shift 2. You will gain XP for leading a lap, for driving a precise and well controlled race line, for driving in traffic without hitting anyone, and, of course, for placing well in a race. The fact that you can gain XP in a race where you have a mediocre finish is helpful too, in that it provides an incentive to keep racing after that first unfortunate spin. I found that my XP account grew satisfyingly quickly and that I was often promoted to the next higher level without having finished every possible event in the preceding level.
As the racing gets tougher, so too does the need to own quality racing equipment. This is where winning races comes in. Nothing in racing is cheap; if you want to go faster, you need to either become a better driver or buy a better car. The higher you place in the races, the more money you earn. That money can be applied to buying performance enhancing upgrades to your current car, or it can be used to buy a better car as you work your way up in the event hierarchy. The resale value of the cars you own is extremely good as there does not appear to be any kind of depreciation cost (another nod to fun versus realism), so it doesn't hurt to option up a car even if you know that you’re going to eventually have to sell it to progress in your career.
In the lower brackets, winning can be tough. The races are short and you nearly always start back in the pack. With only two or three lap races, there’s not a lot of time to spare if you want to get to the front. In other words, leave your sensitivity at home; you’re going to have to drive pretty aggressively in these early races. You’d better develop a thick skin, too, because the AI cars have the same challenge. They often aren't shy about moving you out of their way with whatever means at their disposal. Which, you know, Kyle Busch.
There are other options for earning money, though. The Hot Lap Challenges are great money makers. In these events, you are loaned a car (usually something nicer than what you can afford to buy) and race a few laps against the clock. There are dollar prizes for beating any of three assigned times. While they pay less than the normal races, they are easier to win in that you don’t have to worry about being knocked out of the race by another car or, as in my case, damaging your own car by knocking others out of your way. I found the Retro Hot Lap Challenges to be my favorite mode. In these races, you are loaned a car of historical significance, typically from the 1980’s or early 90’s. As with all of the other cars in Shift 2, each requires a different driving style depending on its weight, suspension, and engine power. For example, with the Volkswagon GTI I found that I had to preserve as much speed as possible through the turns of Catalunya because there was so little engine available to get back up to speed, but with the BMW M3 I had to brake much earlier and harder for the turns because of its higher weight.
As much as I liked the Hot Lap races, I despised the Elimination races. In these races, the car currently in last place is eliminated every 30 seconds until only the leader remains. I thought that I’d like that racing style because it meant that I wouldn’t have to worry as much about the car behind me passing me, but that ended up only being true if I was consistently running second to last. That wasn’t that big of a problem, as it turns out. The bigger problem was the beeping of the countdown timer. For some reason, that caused me to stress out whenever it got close to the 30 second mark. I would make for a horrible bomb-defusing James Bond, I guess.
As I was working my way through race after race, Shift 2 was dutifully recording my best times to the global Autolog system. Autolog is EA’s hybrid social networking / multiplayer hosting mechanism that acts like a big, mechanical eye looking over your shoulder and recording everything you do on publicly accessible boards so both friends and enemies can openly mock you and heap derision on your pitiful lap times. Which is not exactly how EA describes it, mind you; it’s really just my perception of it. This kind of overt, never-ending communication seems to be the wave of the future now that we’re fully immersed in the Facebook/Twitter era; it seems that no one can try to check-in an overweight bag at the airport or get stuck in the drive-thru behind the idiot that seems to have never seen a McDonald’s menu before without the world knowing about it. So it is with Autolog. That having been said, I fully recognize that I am the product of a generation that grew up playing games against the AI and never really developed a taste for “community” when it comes to gaming. I’m fine with multiplayer racing on those occasions when I choose to suffer a little public humiliation voluntarily, but I don’t see the need to have the results of my private games broadcast to a disinterested world. As always, your mileage will vary.
That’s a small thing, though, and does nothing to detract from what is actually a well-crafted and enjoyable game. The graphics and sounds are as exceptional as we have come to expect from modern games of this nature; it’s de rigueur to mention those aspects, but it seems to be becoming wholly unnecessary to do so except in the rare cases where the highest standards are not met. Even in light of that (so to speak), the lighting effects bear mentioning. The most obvious case is the night races where your useful view of the track is limited to what is illuminated by your headlights and track side lighting acts only as a distraction. As you can imagine, those are difficult races. Surprisingly, even daytime races could be just as difficult. Some of the races are scheduled for late in the day and the setting sun can be blinding when heading toward the west. Even in bright daylight, areas of shadow can cause visibility problems. This is a case when full realism makes the game harder, but in a good way.
Beyond the superlative visuals is the advent of the helmet cam. This feature is, in a word, superb! When driving in the first-person view (and I don’t know why anyone would choose not to), the view is exactly what a real driver would see. The helmet cam shows the distracting and disorienting bouncing around that comes from racing on a bumpy track, but also helps the driver find the optimum driving line by “looking” to the apex when approaching and entering turns. I can’t attest to the realism of this, but the drivers-eye view goes to black & white if/when you slam into a wall. Do retinal cones really shut down with impacts like that? I don’t know, but it’s still a cool effect. Between the excellent quality of the graphics, the helmet cam, and the realistic light effects, Shift 2 puts on a show that approaches live racing viewed on an HDTV.
More importantly than the eye candy, the handling of the cars is excellent, albeit limited by the innate weaknesses inherent in the standard hand controller. This game screams at the top of its lungs for Logitech and Microsoft to work out whatever the differences are that cause superior controllers like the Logitech G25 to not work with the Xbox 360. I initially struggled mightily with just keeping the car on the road (and I have to say, the crash effects of a rolling, cartwheeling Aston-Martin DB9 are spectacular!) until I swallowed my pride and turned on stability assistance. That tamed down the mechanical steering of the car to the degree that I was able to use the weight shift provided by working the much less sensitive throttle and break to steer the cars through turns. As impressed as I was by the way I was able to leverage the shifting weight of the car to get through turns, I often frustrated myself by mismanaging it to the degree that I would spin, or worse. See the parenthetical DB9 comment above.
As is the norm with Need for Speed titles, the improvements in Shift 2 are somewhat more evolutionary than revolutionary. That having been said, the addition of the Helmet Cam view alone adds tremendous value in realism and playability. The not overly burdensome career model is enjoyable and strikes a great balance between incentivizing the player to strive to improve in each and every race and rewarding nearly all effort with its generous doling out of XP and virtual money. The view out the window from the driver’s seat is nothing short of spectacular and the sounds provide a visceral sense of the power of the finely tuned, premium racing machines available to the player. Slightly Mad Studios and Electronic Arts have unquestionably raised the bar for console-based racing sims with Shift 2.