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Shift 2 Unleashed

Like the first game in the Shift series, Shift 2 Unleashed was developed for EA Games by Slightly Mad Studios (SMS). However, unlike the majority of the other Need for Speed games, the Shift series focus on circuit based racing rather than illegal street racing mixed with max power style car modification. The big attraction for me was the beautiful graphics, the great selection of real world circuits and the official licenses for the FIA GT3 and GT1 championships.

Having recently built a gaming HTPC I decided to purchase the PC version of Shift 2 rather than the PS3 version for two key reasons. Firstly the graphics are significantly better, and as was the case with the first Shift game, there was the possibility of community developed mods to extend and enhance the game, but more of that later.

Lets begin with the graphics, and in my opinion Shift 2 is the best looking racing game I have played to date. The car models are highly detailed, and the lighting gives the game a realistic quality that the sterile GT5 cannot get close to. The range of cars available to drive includes all of the GT1 cars and with the exception of Ferrari, all of the GT3 cars as well. In addition to these race cars, there is a good selection of cars available from the Golf GTi through to the new Pagani Huayra, and all of these cars can be race modified if desired.

The cars all feature high quality interior views (take note GT5) and multiple pre-defined liveries that you can choose from. Unfortunately the in game editor that is supposed to enable you to create your own custom liveries, in much the same way as the Forza series does on the XBOX, is frankly unusable, as was the case in the original Shift.

One of the hyped features of Shift 2 was the helmet camera, which was designed to provide a more immersive driving experience. It is a nice idea and well executed, but the amount of movement as you accelerate and brake becomes tiring after a short period of time, so I much prefer to stick with the standard in car view.

Once you turn off the annoying American announcer the sounds are generally very impressive, and each car has distinct engine sound (take note of that again GT5), even if there is too much transmission whine, especially in the road cars.

Early in the game where you are racing road cars like the Golf GTi on tight street courses the AI drivers have a tendency to regularly drive into you from behind in the braking areas, which can be very frustrating. I’m not sure if this was a result of the patches or a combination of the class / tracks that I have been racing on more recently, however this issue appears to have gone away. In fact I have driven several close races in the GT3 class against the AI drivers where they have been very clean. I was also impressed to see them moving off line to defend the inside line into the braking zones for hairpin corners.

But its not all good new, unfortunately as there are a few fundamental issues with Shift 2, even after the release of two patches for the game in 2011. Firstly, it appears that the game was designed to be played on a console with a joypad, and not a PC with a steering wheel. As a result the handling of the cars is inconsistent at best, and for some like the Lotus Exige the car is almost undriveable. By adjusting the suspension settings in the game some of these handling issues can be reduced, but the game should not have been released with cars that handle so badly with the default setups.

The two other main issues are the gravel traps and magnetic attraction to other cars. If you so much as put a wheel wide into a gravel trap the car is unrealistically and violently sucked in, irrespective of the amount of steering lock applied. Similarly if you make contact with another car, the two cars become locked together and there is very little you can do as both cars head towards the nearest barrier.

Overall Shift 2 has the feel of a great game that was rushed, not finished or probably both. For example, it was discovered that Shift 2 has 5 hidden cars (Alfa Romeo 8C Spider, Aston Martin DBS Volante, Audi R8 Spyder, Koenigsegg Agera and Pagani Cinque Roadster) already in the game that were intended to be part of a 3rd Down Loadable Content (DLC) pack. Unfortunately, following an announcement by EA Games on 3rd July 2011 that development and support for Shift 2 had come to an end, it looks as though these cars will never be available to drive in the game.

However, all is not lost thanks to the enterprising modders out there in the sim racing community. While surfing the NoGripRacing forum I came across the “Unofficial Community Patch” which has dramatically improved my enjoyment of this game. The handling of the cars when using a steering wheel has been significantly improved. Apparently the location of the fuel tank was in some cases up to 2m behind the rear of the car, and as you can imaging this would have a detrimental effect on the cars handling.

Similarly the quick sand nature of the gravel traps and magnetic effect of making contact with other cars have both been reduced, but not eliminated. This patch also added several new levels to the career structure that enables the player to unlock the cars that would have been available as part of the 3rd DLC pack.

With the PC version of the game it is also possible to create your own custom liveries in PhotoShop and import them into the game, thus circumventing the terrible in game livery editor. Creating a realistic livery takes time and the import process is far from straight forward, however I have successfully created several custom liveries and published a step-by-step guide to help others in creating their own custom liveries on the NoGripRacing forum.

So where does that leave Shift 2, well the various community mods have transformed an unfinished game into one that is highly enjoyable and one that has provided some of my best sim racing experiences. So if you have a PC that is powerful enough to run the game with the graphics maxed out, a steering wheel and pedals, and you are happy to install some community mods to improve the game, then Shift 2 comes highly recommended.

If you would like to see what SMS can do when they are able to create a game that is designed from the ground up to be played on a PC with a steering wheel (and without the interface of a major studio), take a look at projectCARS which is currently in development and is expected to be released in late 2012 or early 2013. I have already invested in this community supported initiative and will share my thoughts on the game as it progressed over the next 12-18 months in future posts.

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Senna Movie

Growing up and watching Formula 1 on a Sunday afternoon, Ayton Senna was always my favourite driver. The amazing qualifying laps, the dramatic wheel to wheel racing, the multiple race and championship wins. He really stood out as the leading driver of his generation, and the image of him in the red and white McLaren wining the Monaco Grand Prix is how I will always remember him.

However, the movie that carries his name is not a Hollywood dramatisation, but a 106 minute documentary carefully assembled from over 5,000 hours of archival footage by director Asif Kapadia, together with editors Gregers Sall and Chris King.

For many the 1980s/1990s were one of the real high points for Formula 1. The cars were extremely powerful (reports of 1,000BHP in qualifying trim), but with more basic aerodynamics and larger tyres they had a greater dependence on mechanical grip, meaning the cars could race more closely than is the case with modern F1 cars.

There were also some great drivers in Formula 1 at that time including Prost, Mansell, Alesi and Beger. For me Senna was the stand out driver of his generation, exhibiting an almost super human talent behind the wheel, which made is death live on Sunday afternoon television all the more shocking. It is a strange feeling walking into a cinema to watch a film about your childhood hero knowing that it is going to end in his death. At the same time I was excited to see and hear these classic Formula 1 cars on a large cinema screen, to see if it recaptured the excitement and lived up to my memories.

Other than a few YouTube video clips I have not watched any F1 races from the late 80s and early 90s for over a decade, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect in terms of picture quality. Clearly scaling up the footage from a TV broadcast and projecting it onto a cinema screen was going to lead to compromises, but I was unprepared for how poor some the video sequences looked. I guess watching the races on a 21” CRT television can hide a lot of picture inadequacies, and when you have not seen a high definition broadcast on a modern plasma screen, you don’t really have a frame of reference to compare with. That being said you soon get used to the visual presentation and get drawn into the story.

The film follows Senna from the point at which he starts his Formula 1 career to the point of his death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. What surprised me the most was how amateur the races, circuits and safety precautions looked. Some of the circuits looked like minor roads though a park rather than a Formula one race track. The level of danger was extremely high, and in one shocking crash involving Martin Donnelly the car disintegrated around him and he was left lying motionless in the middle of the track.

As you would expect there were several great on track action sequences showing Senna doing what he did best. Driving a Formula 1 car at and in many cases beyond its limits. But for me I left feeling short-changed by the race footage. I could easily have watched another hour of Senna’s best qualifying laps, races and overtaking manoeuvres. Hopefully the director will include plenty of additional footage on the Blu-ray of the movie when it is released later in the year.

But for me it was the behind the scenes footage that were the most revealing. In particular the sequence showing the discussions and arguments that took place in the drivers briefing before the race was very insightful. If you think the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone are bordering on corrupt in the way in which they run Formula 1 today, then very little other than the huge sums of money involved has changed in the last twenty years.

The film concluded with Senna’s death at San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 and the state funeral in São Paulo, Brazil which was handled with sensitivity and respect.

This is a great film, and one which resonates for the average viewer as well as the true Formula 1 fan. However, I left the cinema wanting more, I could easily have watched another hour of footage documenting how Senna progressed from karts through the junior series into Formula 1. Similarly there were so many great races and victories that were absent, the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donnington which took place in the torrential rain for example, that it is easy for the true Senna and Formula 1 fan to feel short changed.

Overall watching this movie was a fascinating and at times highly emotional experience, and the film certainly deserves the praise it has received from critics and fans alike. The archive footage showcased Senna’s talent behind the wheel and the behind the scenes sequences provided a never before seen insight into the world of Formula 1, I just wish there had been more of it.

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Gran Turismo 5: Initial Impressions

After 5 years of development and two high profile delays Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) was finally released on Wednesday 24th November 2010. I purchased the GT5 Collector’s edition which includes the Apex driving book and 5 special edition chrome line cars.
GT5 Collectors Edition

I’ve only spent a couple of hours with GT5 so far, but the graphics are amazing (bar the well publicised issues with the pixelated shadows) and the way the cars drive is much more realistic and demanding than previous entries in the Gran Turismo series. However, after such a long development cycle it is disappointing that GT5 falls short in several key areas.

GT5

Firstly when Sony announced that GT5 would include Ferrari and Lamborghini for the first time, I was expecting that a complete range of cars would be available from both manufacturers. However, this is not the case, and there are only 12 Ferraris and 7 Lamborghinis included in the game. To put this in context there are 22 versions of the Mazda MX-5 in GT5. I have a feeling that a lot of paid for DownLoadable Content (DLC) will be released in the coming weeks and months.

Secondly it also appears that the developers have not made the most of the official license for the TopGear television show. While the track is accurately modelled, none of the reasonably priced cars (Suzuki Liana, Chevrolet Lacetti, Kia Cee’d) used in the show are available, and the track is only available for a number of pre-defined challenges. Hopefully the cars and the TopGear track will be unlocked as you complete these challenges.

GT5

Finally there are the loading times between races. I can’t remember playing a game in the last couple of years which takes as long to load a race as GT5. I have a feeling that the loading progress bar is going to become a point of annoyance as I spend more time playing GT5.

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Pure Tech Racing

Today I went Pure Tech Racing close to Gatwick in the UK to try out their Formula 1 simulators with a couple of friends.

Pure Tech Racing

I managed to qualify in pole position for both races, but was taken out by the pack at the hairpin on the first lap in both races.  My fastest lap at 1:05:394 was just 4 seconds off the lap record, which is not too bad after just 60 laps in the car.

When driving the cars on track the motion of the simulators was not as forceful as I was expecting and the driving experience was very arcade biased.  An enjoyable day and I’m sure I’ll be back to try and improve my lap time.

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