I never got more than a brief outing with the original Shift, but I wasn’t initially impressed with what was supposed to be a hardcore racing simulation. My only real lasting impression was that the car seemed to behave in a wildly unpredictable way.
So when Shift 2 came up for review, I figured I’d give it a go. It couldn’t be as bad as Gran Turismo 5, but could it be a challenge to Microsoft’s up coming Forza release?
To call Shift 2 a serious driving sim is still a bit of a stretch. The handling has improved somewhat over it’s predecessor, but rather than be a serious driving game, Shift 2 wants to scare the living daylights out of you. This is brought to stark reality when after only a couple of hours racing, you get invited to take a Mclaren super-car for a race around Germany’s notorious Nordschleife. With any other racing game I can handle myself around the high-speed twists and turns and flat out straights. But with Shift 2 I was genuinely scared shitless.
It’s not just that Slightly Mad Studios seem to have mastered the visualisation of speed, but also the fact that they have left a degree of unpredictability in the handling of the cars that makes them nightmarish to handle at these speeds. Sure with a fair amount of time and a lot of dedication, these beasts will be reigned in, but the purpose of a racing game is to be able to jump in and race.
This screaming sensation of speed works best in some of the slower paced cars and Slightly Mad have to be commended to their attention to detail, which includes the nasty marbles common in motor-sport and the audible clues and change in handling they bring that demand you stay on the racing line at all times. Add to this the monotone effect when you have a heavy collision, mimicking the temporary neurological effects of flattening your brain against the inside of your skull.
This along with a realistic damage model – slip sideways at speed into a sand trap and you’ll be treated to an animated overview of your demise – all add up to some awesome racing moments. There is at times a real sense of driving by the seat of your pants, just a hairs breath away from disaster, and this is to be commended, as no other racing game really comes this close to the thrill of racing.
But there are downsides to Shift 2 – the aforementioned handling at high-speeds, but also the fact that your opposition seems to be a tad aggressive from time to time and will think nothing of taking you out at a crucial point in the race. To say that this is no laughing matter is to make a massive understatement.
But then maybe Slightly Mad just wanted to prepare you for the world of online racing.
Online Shift 2 works amazingly well, with no noticeable lag during my time online. The cars handle just as well as they do in game, and you’ll even manage to earn XP that allows you to level up in game. A nice touch is that your friend’s lap times will be recorded against yours for every track, giving you a sense of real achievement when you take the top spot. The biggest issue however, is the sheer lack of races where everyone is serious about racing. I’m not sure it’s because the Need for Speed franchise doesn’t automatically scream serious racing games, but for some reason, there seems to be a high proportion of absolute dicks playing Shift 2 online.
Unless you have enough friends playing the game, it’s just not worth the effort.
The other aspect of racing online – and this plagues many other racing games, is that it’s hard to get a fair race online. The only racing game that I’ve played that handled online racing with a degree that rewarded competent driving over being the kid with the fastest car, was GRID. It would be a shame to deny players the chance to take their own creations on the track, but there was something more pure about GRID’s approach to giving you the choice of off the shelf cars to race with.
Graphically Shift 2 is impressive and lends itself to total immersion, which if Slightly Mad manage to sort out the unpredictability of the handling and the AI of the other drivers, will lead to Shift 3 becoming the king of racing games. It’s just not quite there at the moment, though will offer most racing fans a great deal of fun whilst they wait to see if Microsoft can improve Forza or if Kinect integration will be it’s demise.