Love, hate. Love? The raw feeling of pure excitement as you barrel down the Nurburgring in a 911, HUD off, helmet cam on: it’s perfection, utter racing nirvana. Hate? Being dumped in the middle of the desert and forced to learn to drift under the ever watchful eye of a certain Vaughn Gittin Jr. No, us neither.
They’re two distinct, yet equally powerful emotions, but they’re both absolutely appropriate in going some way to document my on/off relationship with Slightly Mad’s bipolar racing title, out this Friday.
But, back up a little. You’re reading this as the review embargo ticks over, no doubt accompanied by legions of hyperbole-happy text and all manner of videos showing off Shift 2’s exemplary visuals and dynamic crashes, but a glance down will confirm that we’re not quite there yet, three days isn’t enough to accurately gauge the game by way of a score, and so you’re getting this personal, open look at the first 10 percent or so of the single player career mode.
Think of it, if you will, as an extended preview, albeit one that’s caused all manner of sweat, tears and one stressful phonecall.[drop]First impressions, as you’d expect from a big budget EA published title, were positive. Despite a huge install (eased somewhat by the immediate purchase of Pilotwings) and an unrelentless desire to hang for a good few minutes sorting out its Trophies, Shift 2’s introduction is as slick and determined as any past Need for Speed game.
Except this isn’t a Need for Speed game. Not really. Sure, it’s there if you look hard enough, but that’s purely a logo, not the pounding heart of a franchise now so splintered that those three magic letters – NFS – are little more than a marketing tool. And Shift 2 doesn’t need them. It needs a better name, sure, but it doesn’t need a Need for Speed prefix.
Not that it doesn’t warrant it. It might try to pretend it’s a sim, but it’s not. It’s somewhere slightly uncomfortably nestled between arcade balls-out racer and the likes of Forza; Gran Turismo can sleep easy in the sense that all the mathematics of perfect lines and tyre heat measurement will remain in the school of Polyphony. Elsewhere though, every other game, including GT5, should be petrified.
See, it’s like this. On Saturday, I could barely play the game – the initial race, which foolishly puts you behind the wheel of a Nissan GTR and a full pack of hungry, bumper happy AI drivers, isn’t one to take lightly. It almost wants you to come last so it can show off all its fancy driver assists like stability control and auto braking – and true to form this author rolled over the line a long way from first.
The trouble is, though, that each and every so-called ‘assist’ makes the game increasingly more difficult to drive. I spent a good hour wrestling with all manner of toggles and dials before deciding to a) turn everything off except a dash of ABS and b) admit the fact that I’m going to need to play this on ‘easy’, at least at first. Finally, although it sounds counterproductive, shove the driving model onto Elite, or at least the second highest.
That way, it’ll at least let you hug the corners.
After that, quit out to the main menu and slide down all the bars under controls/advanced. They’re the deadzones, and when they’re up at the default levels you get some awful controller lag. It’s still there a bit when they’re down (at least in our promo copy – we’re expecting final retail code today and will post an update once tested) but it’s nowhere near as bad as it is out of the box.
That done, I started to win some races. Finally, after a good few hours, Shift 2 started to click into place. And you know what? It was suddenly absolutely brilliant.
The career mode’s split into a number of events locked to your current level – although, annoyingly, it appears you can ‘buy’ your way up the ranks by spending cash in the PlayStation Store or Xbox Live Marketplace – and these also govern the class of car you can drive. The vehicles are divided up into rough categories – Modern, Retro, Drift, Muscle and so on – and then into peformance levels.[advert]For example, I chose the Seat Leon as a starter car, and you can gradually upgrade and tweak that particular car (which starts off as Modern ‘D’ class) right up until 499 in the performance index, at which point it changes to Modern ‘C’. See?
The tuning options are comprehensive – you can buy everything from engine parts to bodywork modifications, and each item you purchase goes some way to unlocking the Works version of the car, which opens up after you’ve splashed out on 75% of the components for any given ride. Obviously, the Works version is the ultimate modification, but it’s certainly not a necessity, at least at first.
There’s a rack of visual options, too – from paint and wheels to a reasonably deep, multi-layered vinyl editor. The multitude of customisation will result in some truly individual cars out on the track once the multiplayer side of things starts to hot up, although the game does fire a few nicely done vehicles into the career mode to spice things up a little. We look forward to the first TSA liveried car.
Out on the track, though, those AI cars are brutal. The game’s designed to keep the pack nice and close (it doesn’t feel like rubber-banding so much, more that cars out in front will tend to make more mistakes) and bumps and scrapes are a given around most corners. Damage can be visual or mechanical, and large crashes are accompanied by a very striking visual effect – the screen flashes mono and becomes blurred – which works really well.
Of course, it’s the all new Helmet Cam that’s being pimped so hard by the publisher, and rightly so. At first, you’ll wonder why on earth it’s so exaggerated, but after a couple of races the way the angle turns to the next corner, moves back and forth under acceleration and braking, and fades out the dashboard at speed all become second nature and hugely intuitive. You’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.
So far, so good, and we’ve not even mentioned the utterly amazing sound that the developers have managed to squeeze into a console – the engines roar, the turbos whistle and the crunch of metal against metal is captured perfectly. Above all else, the visual and audio in Shift 2 are surely the highlights. Switch off the HUD completely, ramp up the surround sound headphones and get onto the tarmac: love, love, love.[drop2]But it’s not all good. The RPG levelling system that’s so fundamentally routed into the game constantly threatens to take over the actual racing. We’re all for a little dash of Project Gotham’s Kudos now and again, but everything you do in Shift 2 is not only ranked and rated, but those scores are continuously pushed right into your face. There’s even an ever increasing bar at the top centre of the screen with the progress until your next level. I kid you not.
Slipstream, take the driving line, perfect a corner, it’s all there, logged and stacked for your reading pleasure. Just remember to keep one eye on the road.
And, as mentioned at the top, the way the game suddenly drops you into drift mode by way of a three tier tutorial at around level 5 feels really distracting. You’ve just figured out how to win races at will and you’re forced to forget all the game has taught you and try to drive around a barren Nevada in an S13 on what feels like sheet ice. If you’re bad at how Shift 2 wants to portray drifting, this bit goes on for ages.
Still, this aside the career structure is actually reasonly non-linear given the ranked progression – new events open up steadily at your current level and the sheer depth of track variety (from city based courses like London through to traditional races around the likes of Monza) mean that it doesn’t get old quickly. Most of the courses look great, too, albeit in a slightly low-resolution, muddy kind of way.
Love, hate? Probably more like hot and cold. At the moment, the good stuff is outweighing the bad, Shift 2 flexing its muscles as the range of events continues to offer some fantastic racing action. I’m torn on the game, though – at times, when it feels cheap and I spin at the last corner I want to fling it across the room in frustration and the initial round of input lag almost made me physically sick.
But at other times, when it nails everything so well, I think it’s quite probably the best racing title this generation.
I just don’t know which one will stick.