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Is it a double-clutch gear change or a botched pit-stop for Slightly Mad Studios' second take on the Shift series...
How do you make a very good game better? Add a few new features, refine the existing ones, and bolster content, right? Whatever you do, don’t take away from whatever it was that made the game so engaging in the first place. That should be rule number one, like don’t agree when your girlfriend claims that she looks fat in her new top, or don’t dangle your fingers in a piranha tank. Whatever precarious situation you’re faced with in life (making a video game sequel being one of them), there’s always basic common sense to abide by and no-brainers that people shouldn’t even have to point out to you. It’s what makes some of the design decisions underpinning EA and Slightly Mad Studios’ sequel to 2009’s Need For Speed: Shift (titled simply as Shift 2: Unleashed this time) so confusing.
Take, for example, the levelling-up system. In the original game, it was a superbly balanced system that levelled you up across two separate branches depending on your driving style. If you drove aggressively by repeatedly ‘trading paint’ with opponents or regularly using their slipstream, then you levelled-up with XP across the ‘Aggression’ pathway. On the other hand, if you focused on clean overtaking manoeuvres and nailing the driving line through corners, then you levelled-up on the ‘Precision’ pathway. It was a genuinely innovative dynamic that effectively tied you to your decisions and actions on the track – a kind of immersion that most other racing games can’t claim to even come close to – and it was ripe for expansion in this sequel. Unlockables and perks such as sturdier chassis could have been made available down the ‘Aggression’ pathway or, alternatively, improved bodywork could have been dished out down the ‘Precision’ route, for example.
Sadly however, these kinds of features are now destined not to be realised. In Shift 2, the XP system has been whittled away to a shadow of its former self, with all driving actions such as slipstreaming, overtaking, and racing cleanly through sectors now being grouped across one single levelling-up tree. It effectively detracts the need to drive with any specific style or conscience, and breaks your ties with much of the gameplay as a result. The XP challenges for each specific race now feel fairly static (e.g. lead for a whole lap; master all corners) and the depth of the whole experience is lessened to a significant degree. It’s true that XP and levelling-up will always just be the icing on the cake for a game and can never make or break it, but with Shift 2 there were times when we felt like we were getting a Victoria sponge rather than a birthday cake, and that did break our hearts just a little bit.
Elsewhere, Shift 2 feels a bit more like a seasonal update than a full sequel per se. To be fair, a decent range of new tracks have been added and you’ll also find a smattering of new cars amongst those returning from the first game. Particularly good drives come from some of the ‘Need For Speed’ sponsored cars that are available through winning selected competitions (particularly the Team Need For Speed Mazda RX-8), although it’s got to be said that Shift 2’s car list is still dwarfed in comparison to Forza 3’s or GT5’s. Modes retain roughly the same core experience and remain well ranged, from variations on time trial events to eliminator events, endurance races to drift competitions, and different types of race series from retro vehicles to muscle cars. Elsewhere in the multiplayer, modes have been expanded to include new ‘catch-up’ races and duels as well as an expansive Driver Duel Championship and time trial events.
Nonetheless, while there may be a few additions across Shift 2’s range of modes, cars, and tracks, it’s perhaps in the handling that the game feels so staid. Looking back to the original NFS: Shift, handling was one area where we gave Slightly Mad Studios the benefit of the doubt. Such was the impressive detail and innovative camera effects behind the quite sublime cockpit views, it was easier to overlook shortcomings such as overly drifty cars that handled as if permanently on a skid pan. Sadly, this remains the case with Shift 2, which once again exhibits precious little differentiation in handling from one car to the next. It’s as slippy-slidey as ever and, even more worryingly, the cockpit camera work appears to have lost some of its va-va-voom. Perhaps it's the result of a new 'helmet cam' that subtly focuses-in on corner apexes as you approach them (apparently at least – we didn't really notice this in all honesty), but the in-car view seems to have shed some of the kineticism evident in its predecessor. Although disorientation effects during crashes and blurriness at high speeds are still there, the sensation of experiencing G-forces at high speed corners or when you brake late and hard for hairpins does seems to have been dialled down a bit, which is yet another real shame.
So, what of Shift 2's headlining new feature: night races. Can they resurrect this sequel? In a couple of words, not really. EA has been harping on about how these are realistic night races with all the fear and trepidation that goes along with that, rather than the floodlit spectacles of other racing games. We'd been expecting to be driving by the seat of our pants, feeling the race track more by instinct and memory than visual cues. On the contrary in fact, the lighting from headlights is more than enough to illuminate the track so that it's practically the same level of difficulty as driving during the day, only with a dark backdrop. Visually it's impressive at times, with stand-out examples such as the amber glow of grandstands on the Nurburgring's F1 circuit. Endurance races are also particularly good fun at night – tougher AI means that you really need to bide your time and remain consistent to succeed, and adding a night-time edge does make it that bit more engaging. It's certainly a feature that adds to the game, just not as much as we'd hoped – rather than taking on the first game's tendency to do things very differently from its competitors, Shift 2's night races actually bear a quite familiar style of presentation.
After all of this though, there are at least some examples of refinement in the series. Framerates have been shored up to a fairly consistent rate now following the occasional judders of the first game, but by far the biggest improvements can be seen in the crashes and damage modelling. The pie-slice effect of 2009's game – where you could literally shovel-up cars with your bonnet – has now been successfully eliminated; replacing it are altogether more convincing physics to govern your car's tendency to role and precisely what happens when it does. To fit alongside this, damage modelling is not only more detailed but more active in the gameplay as well. Wheels can now fly off their axles upon heavy impacts, effectively retiring your car from the race and forcing a restart. Since the original game boasted little more than a slight veering off to the left or right if you took on too much damage, it's a quite considerable step forward for the damage system and, next to Forza 3 or GT5, Shift 2 is the undeniable leader of the pack in this area at least.
EA's all-pervasive Autolog feature has also been lifted into Shift 2 from its debut in last year's Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. The social networking facility effectively makes it very easy for players to keep constantly updated on the performance of their friends: lap times and high scores for each competition are automatically uploaded to Autolog, placed on a leaderboard populated by your PSN/Xbox Live friends list, and linked together by automated messages whenever a friend beats your time or vice-versa. Other neat features include the ability to recommend certain events that you particularly enjoyed to friends. We still think that Bizarre Creations was the undisputed master of this kind of social networking with Blur, but Autolog is a solid piece of kit nonetheless and it successfully adds a bit of spice to the competition.
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