It was a risky proposition: taking a series as fabled for its antics as Need for Speed and placing it into the cold, calculating hands of a simulation developer. That developer is Slightly Mad Studios, which has roots to the SimBin team that created the groundbreaking GTR on the PC. The resulting game was the first Need for Speed: Shift – truly a fresh title and, more importantly, a truly great racer, managing to straddle the console racing and simulation genres and do both admirably well.
Now, it's sequel time. Ian Bell, sim-racing guru and co-founder of Slightly Mad, said that this game has the "most advanced physics system ever released." We're not sure we'd go quite that far, but in testing this one we're quite confident in saying that this is certainly the most realistic Need for Speed game yet, which is perhaps why it's officially shedding that prefix and just billing itself as Shift 2 on the PS3, xBox 360, and PC. Still, not everyone will enjoy the punishment this game can offer, so read on to see whether this is one supercar sim that's for you.
The overall structure of Shift 2 is much like its predecessor: starting you as a rookie driver and tasking you with earning your stripes through a series of open and closed events. Sometimes you'll be in cars that came out of your garage, sometimes in rides borrowed from someone else. Regardless of whether or not you own them, rest assured that all of the 140ish cars represented here all fully detailed – inside and out. No "premium" vs. "standard" tiers here.
You'll start in one of a few tepid hatchbacks, like the Ford Fiesta, but quickly work up to healthier fare, things like the Lotus Elise or Nissan GT-R. The ultimate goal of the game is to work your way up to the FIA GT1 class, where you'll be competing in and around the Aston Martin DB9, Corvette Z06 and the Maserati MC12. And there's one more supercar here you'll want in your stable even though it hasn't earned its race license yet: the Pagani Huayra.
As you're working your way through the circuit classes, you'll also get to try your hand at drifting, which is either a rush or a distraction depending on your proclivity for vehicular ballet. Your guide through this section, and through much of the game, is Vaughn Gittin Jr. In fact, he's never far away, giving you some spoken encouragement before every event or laying written words of wisdom across every loading screen. Based on our experience, they'll lose whatever charm they held long before you're out of the rookie leagues.
Thankfully, the gameplay feel never will. There is definitely some punishing realism here if you want it, and it's no further away than the toggle switches on all the driver aids. Flip them all off and you have what can only be described as a very realistic feel. This is definitely a level above your Forzas and Gran Turismos, genuinely delivering the dynamic sensation that comes from a game with a proper, fully-speced physics engine under the hood.
That's not to say that this one hasn't been detuned slightly from its days of sending newbies into the wall on the PC in GTR, as some of the sharper edges have been filed down a bit for safety's sake. Still, there are plenty of ways to get it wrong – to get it spectacularly wrong. When was the last time you drove a race sim that would have your car do a barrel roll and then fly into a million pieces for merely sliding through the gravel sideways? Shift 2 sure will.
Crash physics are top-notch. It's incredibly easy to get it wrong and nudge an opponent or, perhaps more commonly, to get nudged by an opponent. Do this and there's a good chance one or the other of you is going to spin. The 'ol Gran Turismo technique of bouncing off opponents in the corners to stay on track just won't work here.
Driver AI is reasonably good, too. The digital opponents don't necessarily race realistically and have a tendency to make the same little bobbles in the same places at every lap, but they will still keep you mighty honest, not needing much of an excuse to stick their nose inside in the braking zone.
Wholly new this year is the Autolog functionality, which originated in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and is just one letter short of either a fantastic brand tie-in opportunity or a lawsuit, depending on how you look at it. Autolog essentially adds some social networking into the mix, letting you send challenges to friends or recommend tracks and events
Unfortunately, we weren't able to sample the game's proper, competitive multiplayer action, which still isn't live as of this writing. However, rest assured that the standard racing events will be there, with the ability to configure what cars will be allowed on what tracks, even filtering what views are allowed by competitors.
That means you can, if you like, force everyone to use the improved helmet-cam, which purports to be the most realistic view in all of racing gamedom. It takes the shaky, bobble-head view from the original game and turns it up a bit, now actively turning the perspective toward the apex of a turn. At first this is hugely disorienting, the car feels like its drifting when in reality it's just your vantage point that's gone all askew. But, before too long, it'll feel natural and, in the drifting events, absolutely necessary – there's no way to keep an eye on the apexes otherwise. And yes, you'll still get treated to one brutal shake should you make the misfortune of hitting the wall accidentally. Or intentionally, for that matter.
As things heat up in battle, you'll also notice other effects, like the edges of the screen darkening or blurring, increasing the sensation of speed and giving you something of a visual indicator of just what the "red mist" that drivers talk about looks like. It's definitely an immersing effect, though overall the graphics in the game are not much improved. It's a good-looking game, but not a great one, especially not compared to the almighty Gran Turismo 5.
That's not to say there aren't some hugely impressive effects on display here, especially in the new nighttime racing. Sure, other games let you drive in the dark, but the lighting here is phenomenal. You can tell exactly where your competitors are behind you just by looking at the shadows of your own car cast by their headlights.
Those shadows will be shown on a combination of real-world and fanciful tracks. Some are good and some are bad, and for the most part, those two sets of two groups are perfectly aligned. The real circuits, like Brands Hatch, Donington Park and Spa, are fantastic. The fake tracks are, generally, ornery.
In terms of controls you have your selection here, with the default of course being a gamepad. But, depending on your platform, you have plenty of wheel options. The PC version quite naturally has the broadest support, including offerings from Logitech, Thrustmaster and Fanatec. On the PS3, again Logitech's offerings are widely supported, but the new T500 RS wheel from Thrustmaster is unfortunately not on the list. For the xBox 360, your choices include the official Microsoft wheel and the compatible Fanatec options if you want full force feedback.
Is Shift 2 the most realistic sim racer on the planet? That's an awfully hard thing to say because so much more goes into making a game realistic than just physics, but this update to the original genre-bender certainly hits all its marks. It has the eminent playability and thrilling intensity to wow simmers and more casual racers alike. If you don't mind relying on a few driver aids, this game has the chops to keep the attention of just about anyone who likes going fast in cars, whether they're usually doing it in iRacing or on their iPhones.