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.