Shift 2: Unleashed is a highly challenging and exciting racing game which improves greatly on its predecessor. New features, such as the first-person helmet cam and the reworked graphics engine, make the driving seat a more thrilling place to be than it was in the first game. However, the car handling continues to tread the line between arcade and simulation, without mastering either. While Shift 2 turns the corner from full simulation, a compelling single-player Career mode, great online features and new Autolog integration make it an exciting and well-rounded package overall.
Shift 2 begins very much like the original, with a quick two-lap practice session to help it decide what difficulty level and which driving assists you require. Keeping your car out of the grass and away from the barriers becomes considerably more difficult as you turn off the assists, which means you can increase the challenge as you progress. However, Shift 2 is definitely not a true simulation of driving. The cars have a tendency to understeer in fast corners and oversteer in slow ones. This makes the game more exciting, allowing for big slides and a frantic pace, but it can also cause frustration if you prefer pure simulation, because it's difficult to predict your car's behaviour. Faster cars behave inconsistently at the same turn on different laps, so consistent lap times can be elusive. The game doesn't have a rewind feature, which adds to the frustration if you crash during one of the longer races at the end of the Career mode. The unpredictable handling means you may need to spend a lot of time tweaking the advanced control options as well, especially when using a wheel and pedals because the default settings just aren't responsive enough.
It's not just the handling that can catch you out in Shift 2. AI drivers are aggressive; if you give them an accidental nudge on the way into a corner, they're likely to retaliate at the next turn's exit. Competitive AI is a welcome addition, but allowing them to ram you off the road without punishment is taking things a little too far. At least they fight just as hard with each other, which sometimes allows you to cut through and gain multiple positions after crashes. Accidents look spectacular as well, with chunks of bodywork, glass, and rubber flying across the circuit. They look so good, in fact, that it's possible to enjoy a little hostility from your rivals from time to time.
Career mode forms the main single-player challenge in Shift 2. You start out in grass roots racing with slow cars, aiming to earn enough experience and money to work your way to the top. In this game, the top is the official FIA GT3 and GT1 Championships. You don't get every car and track from these real-life series and there is no pit-stop system; thus, official championships add some credibility to the game, but they aren't as authentically represented as you may hope. Despite this, the Career mode offers enough variety and rewards to keep you hooked for its duration. Each new discipline is introduced with footage of real drivers explaining the rules, tracks, and types of cars available. Some of these cutscenes are over the top and presented by people who clearly don't look comfortable on camera. More unique series, such as Drift, are also introduced with playable tutorials from these drivers to help you understand the best way to exploit your car's potential.
Career mode flows very quickly from one event to the next, and after only a couple of hours, you will have progressed from hatchbacks to supercars. This isn't to say the Career mode is short; in fact, the pace at which you win new cars and unlock new disciplines make Shift 2's Career both varied and constantly rewarding. There are also now more ways to earn cash for any cars you may have missed out on in the Career, and the ability to earn experience points and money when playing online lets you avoid the grind of repeating Career events to earn extra cash.
Each new car in Shift 2 opens up additional races, but you can also gain access to them by upgrading your current machines, so that they can take part in higher-performance races. For example, you can upgrade a D class car with a new lightweight body, enabling it to compete in the C class. You can upgrade mechanical and aerodynamic parts for all of the road cars, as well as add race-specification cockpits and rims, thus reducing a car's weight. It's fascinating to transform your vehicle from a comfortable road car to a race-winning monster. Once you're happy with your new specification, you can add vinyls to create unique liveries. This feature isn't as powerful as a similar one in the Forza Motorsport titles, but you can use unlockable paint effects and also choose from about 10 real-world liveries for each vehicle. Shift 2's customization options are good, but there's not a lot of information to explain the impact your modifications will have on the track, which may make it difficult for newcomers to understand the changes they are making.
The competitive online mode contains a selection of traditional race types. The new race type is Catchup, where one player is given a head start in a slow car while the rest of the field chases him or her down in more powerful supercars. If one of the supercars beats the slower car to the finish, that participant becomes the slow car in the next round. This cat-and-mouse style of gameplay was actually created by the community in the original Shift, but it's now an official mode in Shift 2, meaning you can now earn experience and money from it. Your progress is also unified across online and offline game modes, so however you're racing, you're always earning experience and cash.
Shift 2 notably includes the magnificent AutoLog feature, which was first introduced in last year's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. AutoLog tracks a friend's best time across every event in the game and sends you an in-game alert whenever one of your own times is beaten. As in Hot Pursuit, this can create some fierce leaderboard competition and is often even more compelling than the online racing. Shift 2 also displays a friend's lap time on the heads-up display while you're racing in single-player. You can always see the next time to beat, thus adding great incentive to keep pushing yourself, even if you're way ahead of the AI cars.
The graphics in Shift 2 have undergone a significant overhaul. Car models are much more detailed, while the circuits look a lot better than before. The tracks get dirtier and dirtier as races progress, with rubber marbles, leaves, and debris littering the side of the circuit off the racing line. However, driving over the dirty parts of the track has no noticeable effect on the car's handling. Trackside detail is terrific for the most part, with plenty of grandstands, billboards, animated marshals, and helicopters flying overhead. Unfortunately, on some circuits, there is a little bit too much detail, with advertising that hangs dangerously close to the circuit in locations where it would never be placed in real life. It feels as if the placement of advertising was designed to be in your face while driving, rather than for realistic purposes.
One of the biggest new presentational features is the helmet cam. In this view, you can see the normal cockpit camera through your driver's visor, with the inside of your helmet silhouetting the edges of the screen. Like many first-person shooters, the screen will desaturate if you're caught in a big enough collision, which makes it feel disorienting and violent. Helmet cam is an interesting idea, and it has been used to great effect in some PC driving simulations, but it hasn't been executed as well on consoles. In Shift 2 it provides an incredible sense of immersion as your head bounces with the bumps and the screen blurs at high speed to draw your focus into the road ahead and away from the car's interior. The camera also moves while going around corners to focus your view toward the apex of the turn, rather than straight out of the windscreen. While this provides a deep sense of what it is like to sit in a racing car, it can hinder your ability to drive fast laps in the game environment. The extra screen space taken up by the helmet reduces your view of the road, and the look-to-apex feature can feel very unnatural. Most people will probably still revert to the normal cockpit camera or hood camera to set their fastest lap times. However, the helmet camera definitely offers a more exciting way to play Shift 2.
The cars in Shift 2 sound great. Engine noises are loud and convincing, while the sounds of metal and carbon fiber smashing during accidents are downright brutal. Unfortunately, some of the voice-overs from real drivers are poorly delivered and often end up becoming irritating and a little condescending. The soundtrack is also poor. It uses orchestral remixes of tracks by modern bands, such as Biffy Clyro and Rise Against, but they sound out of place and give the impression that Shift 2 takes itself a little too seriously.
Shift 2: Unleashed is a racing game that turns sitting behind the wheel into a roller-coaster ride. It offers a compelling single-player Career mode and great online features, allowing you to progress while playing through both. The return of the superb AutoLog feature furthers the replay value by creating a streamlined leaderboard competition that's focused on your friends. While the game has improved over the first Shift, fans of simulation racing may find that such new features as the helmet cam feel like gimmicks. They will also be disappointed by the sometimes unpredictable car behavior and the ridiculously aggressive AI. Shift 2: Unleashed is a good sequel that will serve as an enjoyable entry point to serious racing; however, more experienced racing game players should stick to Shift's more realistic rivals.