Back in early 2009, EA announced that Slightly Mad Studios would be taking over a new, realism-oriented arm of their highly-successful Need for Speed franchise.
SMS’s first product, Need for Speed Shift, was released in September 2009 and despite being put together by the masterminds behind critically-acclaimed simulation titles such as GTR 2 & GT Legends, the first Shift left plenty on the table in terms of realism.
One and a half years later, Shift 2 Unleashed is out and once again promises a realistic racing experience paired up with stunning visuals and lots of content. Is Shift 2 Unleashed more to the liking of fans of realistic racing? Read the review to find out!
When it comes to marketing, EA is never shy of making big promises and Shift 2 Unleashed was certainly no exception. There was no shortage of bold claims as EA announced that Shift 2 Unleashed would be taking on both Gran Turismo 5 in terms of mass-market appeal and be more of a simulation than “anything out there” – Everyone who’s tried iRacing or netKar Pro before would agree that this is a very high bar to set.
What saves this statement from being almost comical is the brain power behind the title as Slightly Mad Studios employs some of the finest simulation experts that have created titles like the first GTR and whose roots go back to modding ISI’s Formula One series. There’s no reason to doubt whether SMS would be able to deliver the ultimate simulation, the question is just if they are allowed to.
The first Shift already came with a more advanced handling model that some press members got to try before EA ultimately scraped it from the title, most likely in favor of accessibility as Shift is meant to be a mass market title that can’t just appeal to a bunch of aficionados.
SMS was ultimately allowed to include the elite handling in Shift 2 Unleashed, making the advanced physics mode one of the most exciting new features alongside other innovations such as night racing.
Shift 2 Unleashed contains 125 cars from 37 manufacturers as SMS has almost doubled up the car count of the first title. The cars offer an interesting mix of road-going sports cars and racing machinery with the stunning FIA GT3 & GT1 racing cars at the sharp end of the field.
The choice of road cars offers everything from sporty hatchbacks such as the Renault Megane to full-on supercars like Porsche Carrera GT. The choice of cars includes both the latest models from the showroom floor as well as always popular classics like the BMW M3 E30 or the Mercedes Benz E190 EVO 2.
In terms of manufacturers, pretty much every make gear heads dream about is present, the notable exception being Ferrari due to licensing issues.
Unlike Gran Turismo, SMS has wasted no time on creating small cars like the Suzuki Cappuccino or the Honda Jazz that most players don’t even want to drive anyway, entry-level cars in Shift 2 are sporty production cars like the Seat Leon Cupra or the Ford Focus RS.
While, at first glance, 119 cars seem to fall short of what titles like Forza Motorsport 3 or Gran Turismo 5 offer, SMS has a more honest way of counting cars as not every single racing livery counts as an independent car. If you add up all the different teams from the FIA GT3 & GT1 series, the car count is much higher.. and taking the extensive upgrading options into consideration puts it through the roof.
Shift 2 Unleashed once again allows players to make extensive modifications to the street cars that transform road going cars to pure-breed racing machinery. Players can choose from a variety of upgrades regarding engine, drive-train, brakes, aerodynamics & more.
The feature allows for a lot of freedom as players can choose to only mildly update their car with better brakes, semi-slicks and a light weight reduction or dig deeper into the accessory list and create a full-on race car that only shares the base chassis with its road-going counterpart.
The most extreme upgrade is the so-called works conversion that creates a true racing car, including a brand new cockpit and completely new driving characteristics. Gran Turismo 5 had a similar but less extensive feature that allowed a conversion of certain cars, unfortunately that was limited to less than 15 models – In Shift 2 almost all road cars can be converted to racing vehicles.
SMS has not just doubled the car count in Shift 2 but also added plenty of new tracks as the new title no includes 36 venues with plenty of different configurations to choose from. The choice of tracks includes both a bunch of fictional tracks and street circuits needed for mass market appeal and real circuits like the iconic Nordschleife no racing fan wants to miss.
Luckily for fans of realistic racing, most of the newly-added tracks are real racing venues, including some spectacular additions like Bathurst, Dubai and Suzuka. SMS seems to have made some smart use of old licenses as several of the new tracks were already included in titles such as GTR2 and GT Legends.
Among those venues making a comeback are tracks like Dijon Prenois, Enna Pergusa, Hockenheim, Oschersleben, Monza & Zolder, allowing sim racers to revisit old faithfuls that now come with a spectacular optical presentation.
Speaking about graphics, Shift 2 Unleashed absolutely manages to impress in that regard as the PC version of the title is without a doubt the best looking PC racer ever.
PC users no longer have to be green of envy of the console folks as Shift 2 Unleashed blows Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5 out of the water in terms of optical presentation, featuring ultra-sharp textures and exceptional car modeling.
The cars in Shift 2 Unleashed are richly detailed and can take on GT5’s premium models any day, especially in terms of interior modeling. The first Shift already impressed with great looking cockpits and Shift 2 takes it up another notch as no other racing title offers such detailed car interiors.
Paired up with great-looking driver animations, the car’s inside feels remarkably alive with fully-working gauges and plenty of never seen before details such as windscreen wipers vibrating on the windscreen.
Thankfully, SMS has scaled back some of the overdone graphical effects of the first title as almost no bloom and sepia colors are present. Instead, Shift 2 Unleashed goes for a sharper and cleaner look with graphical effects such as blur only present in helmet view and during crashes.
The great graphics aren’t restricted to the cars as the tracks are beautifully modeled including rubber build-up and other dirt such as leafs that are both visible and kicked up by cars going off the racing line.
Unfortunately, lots of fictional trackside objects are once again present, an issue that PC users can solve thanks to the help of clever modders.
The single most impressive graphical feature of Shift 2 Unleashed is the new night racing as the thrill of driving in the dark has never looked better than in Shift 2. In some games, driving in the dark still allows you to see left and right of the road, in Shift 2 the nights are pitch-black dark, allowing you only to see what the headlights illuminate.
The graphical effects of headlights being reflected off other cars and trackside details are jaw-dropping and quickly remind you of footage from real-life 24 hour races as night racing has never looked better in any racing title.
While other console driving titles have a history of struggling with providing proper sounds, the first Shift was a pleasant surprise in that regard.
Shift 2 Unleashed picks up where the predecessor left of, equipping most of the 100+ cars with convincing engine sounds. Of course, no title of this size will ever get every single car completely right, the sounds are mostly very convincing though.
Unfortunately, some buyers will still be disappointed as EA chose to market Shift 2 Unleashed with video trailers featuring real-life audio samples that sounded more spectacular than what the title actually offers. The decision behind that is somewhat hard to grasp as Shift 2 has better sounds than the console competition, it’s hard to understand why the company would be setting up buyers to be disappointed.
Unlike Gran Turismo 5, the title also comes with decent collision and ambient sounds. The sounds are very detailed featuring effects such as gear whine and turbos whistling, upgrading your car with a more powerful engine will also have an effect on the sounds.
A pet peeve regarding the sounds is that some samples seem to be very generic, the gear whine in particular as the same sound is used in plenty of cars. Furthermore, some cars use these effects even though the real-life counterpart doesn’t, having heavy gear-whine on production class vehicles is a rather odd feeling.
The game features a decent musical soundtrack that is good enough to not annoy you after five minutes, also present is a spotter/race engineer who talks to you before the race. These samples aren’t very helpful and get quite repetitive quickly which will cause most players to turn them off after the first races.
Physics, Force Feedback & AI
With the praise for graphics and sounds out of the way, let’s get to the most important part – The driving experience.
Shift 2 Unleashed is putting buyers through a hard test as the first 30 minutes you´ll spend with the title will be the most frustrating for sure. That’s not because the game is difficult to begin with but you´ll spend that amount of time (at least) to get your controller configuration right.
Being a multi-platform mass market title, the majority of players will use Shift 2 Unleashed with a gamepad which is a straight forward affair. Getting your wheel to work correctly with the title is another issue as the base settings will leave you disappointed about the physics for sure.
Unfortunately, the title seems to struggle especially with Logitech wheels who require special profiler settings to completely match up with Shift 2. I´ve been using the Thrustmaster T500 RS that, even though Shift 2 Unleashed did not offer a pre-set profile for it, was correctly mapped using one of the other Thrustmaster profiles.
The title offers extensive steering wheel settings that players should take advantage of, I found that the sensitivity and speed sensitivity settings are the most important values to tweak. With the base settings, the constant sliding of Shift 1 was present as the car does not really feel connected to the road.
With a bit of tweaking, Shift 2 Unleashed offers a much better driving experience. PC users can also take advantage of several physics mods, I´ve been getting great results with Jules’ Minimod that improves the handling even more as Jules has changed some of the tire values to completely get rid of the floating and sliding.
These little changes are enough to make driving in Shift 2 Unleashed a pleasant affair as the cars handle both predicable and realistic with correct-feeling weight transfer and suspension reaction to bumps and curbs.
The physics can be monitored using a new real-time telemetry display that shows lots of car/suspension/tire-related values. The helpful feature isn’t exactly a new invention as a similar-looking feature can be found in Forza Motorsport 3.
The new elite handling mode is definitely a big step up from the first Shift which was downright frustrating without any mods. Shift 2 Unleashed is very decent out of the box and becomes even better with a bit of file-tweaking.
As most would have guessed, Shift 2 Unleashed is of course not a hardcore simulation. Aside from lacking features that are needed to properly simulate a race (pit stops, fuel consumption etc.), the physics are a bit too forgiving even in elite mode as spinning your car will require more carelessness than in real simulation titles.
Still, the physics in Shift 2 Unleashed are solid, helped by proper Force Feedback that is pretty detailed and very strong if desired. As one would expect from a mass market title, surface feedback is very much limited as, aside from street circuits, the tracks feel remarkably smooth and bump-free.
The oddest and most frustrating quirks of the physics engine only show in combination with other cars as Shift 2 Unleashed has rather weird collision physics. Compared to the first Shift, the AI has been majorly improved as the rubber-banding effect seems to be gone and the computer-controlled cars can be raced cleanly most of the time.
Unfortunately, something has gone wrong in terms of collision physics as making contact with an opponent car will send you off into a spin or worse most of the time. It’s not important at what angle or speed contact is made, the effect is mostly the same. Forget about leaning on other cars like it’s done in touring car racing, using this technique will ruin your race as you´ll end up in the next wall.
Oddly enough, the AI cars can race each other like that as the same effect is not visible without the players’ car involved. I´m not sure whether or not this has been done on purpose to force players to race cleanly but the effect surely isn’t realistic and by far the single biggest flaw of Shift 2’s physics engine.
Aside from these issues, the driving experience in Shift 2 Unleashed manages to impress with an unrivaled feel of speed that no other title delivers. The new helmet cam with blur and look-to-apex feature might not be everybody’s cup of tea but even with all effects turned off, Shift 2 manages to give you the feeling of actually going fast.
Like its competitors Forza Motorsport 3 and Gran Turismo 5, Shift 2 Unleashed’s single player mode is based on an extensive career mode. The player starts of with a rather small car, working up his way all the way to the FIA GT3 & GT1 Championships.
Along the way, the player steadily moves up in terms of levels and virtual cash. Higher levels unlock more events and come with rewards such as new cars while the cash is needed to expand your car collection.
The career mode is fairly non-linear, as every level comes with a bunch of events, not all of which have to be completed to advance. Don’t like drifting? No problem, simply ignore the drift events. The events vary from simple races to time trials, hotlaps and eliminator races often enriched with cut scenes to keep players entertained.
Unlike Gran Turismo 5, the career mode keeps players happy with plenty of reward as the cash and level points come in quickly. While GT5 becomes a frustrating grind in latter stages of the career, Shift 2 Unleashed is a smooth affair that allows skilled players to quickly advance without the need to repeat events again in again.
This is helped by the fact that the AI isn’t a match to talented sim racers even in the hardest levels, experienced drivers will quickly earn the cash to buy even the most expensive & powerful cars Shift 2 has to offer. Traditional sim racers who shy away from unlocking content should still give Shift 2 a go as unlocking the GT3 and GT1 cars will take less time than one would expect.
Shift 2 Unleashed is very fair when it comes to buying cars. Even though the cars can’t be tested before being bought, the title allows them to be sold for full value in case you end up being disappointed about your choice. What sounds rather silly is understandable for anyone who spend hours raking up hard-earned credits for a car in GT5 just to find out that it handles awful or doesn’t sound like expected.
Aside from the career mode, players can of course choose to do quick races of any kind or just hotlap, also included is a new photo mode that isn’t quite as in-depth as its GT5 & Forza Motorsport 3 counterpart though.
What Shift 2 lacks is the ability to simulate real racing. There’s no practice or qualifying or race weekends to speak of. Races always start right on the grid, there are no pit stops or fuel consumption either. The longest events in career mode won’t exceed 20 laps, keeping the racing rather short & sweet.
Platform Differences & Performance
I´ve tested both the PC and Playstation 3 versions and as usual, there are a bunch of differences between the two versions.
As one would expect, the PC version blows the console versions away in terms of graphics, a fairly-powerful PC provided. While the PS3 version struggles with the usual problems in terms of aliasing, flickering and low-resolution shadows, the PC version provides an ultra-sharp look that will leave console gamers envious.
Another obvious advantage is that the mod-ability of the PC version that allows for quick fixing of some issues sim racers will face. With mods already available to get rid of the blur & fictional trackside objects, these addons push Shift 2 Unleashed to even more realism than the creators intended.
The title runs absolutely silky-smooth on my i7 & Geforce GTX 570 using 1920×1080 resolution with 8xAA. SMS did a great job optimizing the night racing effects as driving in the dark does not cause any stutters or slow-downs despite the great quality of the graphical effects.
Taking everything into consideration, it is safe to say that Shift 2 Unleashed is not more of a simulation “than anything out there”, Slightly Mad Studios’ second NfS title is a major improvement over the first Shift in pretty much all regards though.
Shift 2 Unleashed finally offers believable physics that provide a good driving experience even without any community mods. Once you move past the hassle of getting your wheel dialed in, Shift 2 Unleashed manages to impress with unrivaled graphics & some of the best content ever packed into a racing title.
The title exceeds the competition with an exceptional sense of speed & immersion and an in-depth car tuning mode that will keep racing fans entertained for a long time.
The fair and straight forward career mode makes Shift 2 accessible even to sim racers who are used to just pick a car & drive with no frustration involved. Sim racers who consider everything but iRacing or netKar Pro to be arcade won’t like Shift 2 too much, everyone else should consider giving Shift 2 a go as the sensation of driving a powerful sportscar on a track like the Nordschleife at night is worth the admission price alone.
One can only hope that EA allows the Shift franchise to further advance in this direction as the title fills a big void especially on the PC as stunning-looking driving titles that offer lots of content and maintain a certain level of realism have been a console only-thing until now – Shift 2 Unleashed successfully changes that.