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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed (Playstation 3)

EA's latest Need for Speed title arrives only a few months after Hot Pursuit, and is itself another sequel. This time, it's the simulation-oriented Shift 2: Unleashed that takes up the flag. Somewhat less punishing than Gran Turismo, Shift 2 still challenges players with a realistic patina of racing techniques and strategies. There are dozens of real-life manufacturers and models to drive on real-world courses. The usual upgrade and career paths are available, but the now-famous Autolog feature returns. This is a fairly decent title that straddles the line between sim and arcade racers. Shift 2 will probably please casual gamers, but leave hardcore racing fans wanting more.

Need for Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed is an example of the art of compromise. It's basic structure and approach takes most of its inspiration from the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, but the actual racing is more tuned to the casual audience. The game's forgiving controls and predictable AI make the races very simple to run and its overall difficulty isn't nearly as hard as it could have been and definitely much easier than the first Shift title. This new balance makes the game feel more accessible, but comes with the trade-off that makes the game less challenging and shallower in terms of difficulty. The selection of vehicles is quite impressive and worth the effort. You'll find a variety of manufacturers such as Lotus, Chevy and Aston Martin to name a few. Each make is represented by several vehicles in the game, and its roster is decent, but by no means in the same class as its more ambitious rivals. Likewise, the selection of licensed tracks is realistic enough, but many of the courses, such as Japan's Suzuka have been featured in many other racing games before, making the game feel slightly old in this aspect.

As you might expect from an EA title, Shift 2 is fairly straightforward in terms of presentation and its straightforward structure eliminates any possibility of confusion. Players begin their career mode at the bottom of the rung, and begin by learning the ropes with a low-end production model. While there are some fun moments early on, these introductory levels become tedious in a hurry. You feel like you're stuck in first gear as you race these slow motion races against opponents. As you win races, you'll earn money that you can spend to upgrade your basic. The garage allows you to choose parts for the exhaust, drive-train, engine and, other elements. These performance upgrades allow you to win races easily and make progress to more advanced classes and courses. Career mode allows you to gradually move up to more advanced levels. Players can also customize their vehicles with a variety of paint jobs, rims and vinyls to give their vehicles a unique look. They don't add much to your performance but allow you to stand out, which is particularly important during online races. The races range from all-out battles on open-road circuits through city streets, to racing on traditional race tracks. Players will face off in both day and night races with different opponents. There's quite a variety in these courses and this gives the game plenty of depth.

Your path to unlocking additional vehicles is straightforward. You begin racing the lower class vehicles, but you can quickly advance to more advanced stages by winning races. Each driver level consists of several sub-tournaments which consist of different events. As you win these events, you'll be able to unlock additional stages and can race more advanced vehicle classes. Your driver level is the main indicator of your progress and can be increased with XP Points. These can be won by winning races, finishing in the top three, or performing other in-race requirements such as performing a clean lap, leading for a period or mastering corners. Most of these tasks are fairly straightforward, making it easy to quickly accumulate the XP to move on to the more challenging sections. You earn money and XP at the same time, so it's not as complicated as it seems. Additional rewards, such as additional vehicles, unlockable decals, and paints can be earned by completing sets of races within each class, so it pays to go back and earn podium positions.

Once you get on the track, Shift 2 Unleashed brings a mix of arcade and sim elements to the forefront. The control interface is fairly simple, you steer with the analog stick while the shift buttons handle acceleration and braking. Controlling your vehicle is somewhat dicey in the early going, thanks to the largely wonky controls that plague the lower-end vehicles. You'll find yourself fishtailing and skidding around the track wildly if you aren't careful, but after you've mastered the shallow learning curve, things get a little easier. Racing against computer controlled opponents isn't too terribly difficult since they usually run in predictable lines that make them easy to overtake. Obviously, the more you learn the tracks, the better you'll do, so it pays to go through a practice lap in most cases, which allows you to trim a few seconds off your lap. The onscreen HUD also helps things, allowing you to anticipate tight corners and brake well in advance. Most of the events in the game are straight-up racers, but there are a few time-attack modes scattered around where your objective is to beat the best time. Shift 2 also includes a couple of special events where you can race in some high-end cars to earn extra points and experience. There are also several bonus races that let you win vehicles you race, which can increase your garage in a hurry. This adds some variety to the racing events you can play, and the lack of tedious license modes that plague other sim racers makes Shift 2 Unleashed more accessible than some of the other racing titles on the market.

Unlike most other sim racing titles, collisions inflict a high price, and serious accidents can cripple your performance. Avoiding contact with other vehicles also helps, since unlike the bumper-car physics in other games, these can also significantly affect performance. Once your car is damaged, you'll definitely notice a large drop in your ability to steer and other indicator, which means you can't play it like an arcade game. On the other hand, going off the track is allowed in more instances in this second installment, unlike the first Shift title which was unforgiving of players who attempted to use this strategy. The game's physics are fairly decent and like the rest of Shift 2, straddle the line of realism and arcade approaches. There are definitely moments of high drama where you'll find yourself speeding along at breathtaking rates, while other sections of courses require more skill to navigate through. While the solo game is interesting and can be a time-consuming challenge, what really sets Shift 2 apart is EA's now-signature Autolog feature. Combining social-network with online competitive play, this new feature allows you to communicate with friends, try to beat their best times on your collective racing wall, and race them competitively in special recommended races. Its fairly easy to set up and use this feature and it definitely adds a new dimension to the online experience in ways many older titles don't attempt. It adds to the game's replay value somewhat and its smooth implementation and slick interface makes it work in smoothly with the rest of the game to make for a coherent experience. Between the offline and internet content, there's definitely plenty of different races to beat, but there isn't quite as much depth as found in some other racing titles - but who needs a thousand different cars to have fun.

In the grand scheme of things, Shift 2 Unleashes isn't a bad game, but one that doesn't really go far enough in either direction to provide a truly satisfying experience. The visuals are very good, though not as detailed as GT5, but more realistic than something like Hot Pursuit. The car models are nicely detailed and each vehicles looks and feels authentic in terms of visual fidelity and control. The game allows you to choose from several different approaches, and these offer some surprisingly action-packed views, particularly the in-cockpit camera angles. Its action-oriented approach means there is significant damage and more dramatic crashes than in other sim-oriented racing titles. Shift 2's track renderings are also above average and the real tracks and city locations have been faithfully recreated. One of the more interesting aspects of the game is its use of both day and night races. You can definitely see a higher level of detail in the daylight races, but the night driving events offer a different set of challenges, since the darkness curtails your field of vision, which adds to the challenge. Most of the game's visuals are fairly consistent, though the street cars suffer in comparison to the race cars, which seem to be more detailed and realistic. Its racing aesthetics were generally highly polished and made for a solidly entertaining and realistic driving experience. While NFS: Shift 2 isn't the deepest racing title ever made, it delivers its fair share of thrilling action and exciting finishes. There’s enough variety and fun in its solo content to satisfy casual players. Delve deeper into its extensive online modes and Shift 2's expansive online features add plenty of extra excitement. Add this to its already solid package, and you have a game that should entertain and challenge players for at least a few spins around the track.

- Michael Palisano 

Grade: B-

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