Shift 2 Unleashed – Hands-on

EA’s latest title in the Need for Speed series is trying hard to blur the line between racing sim and reality. Shift 2 Unleashed does everything in its power to put the player in the driver’s seat. Spatters of molten asphalt hit the windshield, the driver’s vision blurs with the G-force of turns and the controller shudders with every gear shift. It’s a truly immersive experience and I was lucky enough to get to try it out at their launch event.

When EA debuts a racing game, they do it right. There were so many pimped out rides set up in the parking lot that I half expected Xzibit to be in attendance. Inside the venue were two D-Box simulator chairs, console versions of the game and even more amazing vehicles. I made a bee-line straight for the D-box simulator chairs, hoping to experience Shift 2 in all its glory. The setup they had put together blows away anything you might find in an arcade. The simulator chair featured a wheel with paddle shifters, a traditional gear shift, chrome pedals, and of course, enough pistons to make sure you felt every turn and crash. I hopped in the D-box, waited for the green light and floored it. The wheel fought me as I attempted to control my 210 horsepower monster. Speeding into the first turn I saw the guide line on the track change from green to yellow and then red. I hit the brakes as fast as I could and cranked the wheel to the left, but not in time. My car slid into a wall and the entire chair rocked with the impact. Perhaps a bit more caution was in order. My next lap went much smoother. I paid attention to the guide line and my track map to finish out the lap in just over 60 seconds. Not too bad, considering this was my first experience with a simulator of this caliber.

The D-Box simulator was exhilarating, but most people aren’t going to be spending thousands of dollars on this kind of setup. I made my way over to the Xbox 360 consoles to see how the game felt in a more traditional format. There are two main single player options in Shift 2, career mode or a quick match. I decided to warm up with a quick match. There are several types of quick matches to choose from and I was intrigued by the lap eliminator. In this mode, the last racer to cross the finish line is removed every lap. There’s five racers at the start, after the first lap it’s down to four, etc. I opted to play in helmet cam view for the full experience. One D-pad controlled the camera while the other controlled the car. This allowed me to look to the left or right during sharp turns, a handy option to have. Of course, there were also drawbacks to being in helmet cam mode. I found that out first hand as my windshield glass developed some disturbing cracks following my run in with a wall. Vision obscured, I soldiered on. I muscled my way into 3rd place only to find that racers weren’t the only thing being eliminated. I kissed the hood of my car goodbye after a T-bone collision and saw the rear bumper of one of my opponents go sailing past me. After three laps I was finally eliminated and my digital driver must have been relieved as the camera pulled back to reveal my decimated car that looked in no way safe for operation. On to career mode!

Upon entering career mode I was greeted by Vaughn Gittin Jr, the 2010 Formula drift champion. (I got to interview Vaughn) He serves as your mentor throughout career mode and he explained how experience points work in Shift 2. Each race gets you complete nets you experience points which you can then use to unlock tracks, cars and upgrades. The game has several types of racing including drift racing, drag racing, circuit tracks and retro racing. But you don’t need to progress through each type in order to unlock everything in the game. For instance, if you spent enough time earning experience points in drift races, you would eventually be able to unlock all the cars. In fact, you don’t even need to be in career mode to earn XP, you can earn them entirely through multiplayer, if that’s what you’re into. However, if you do opt to play career mode, you get to race against the likes of Chris Rado, a real life pro driver who serves as the boss of the drag racing mode. If you win enough races you can challenge Chris and beating him will earn you a digital version of his car. It’s a Team Need for Speed all-wheel drive Scion TC packed full of all the upgrades that Rado’s real life ride has. I didn’t get to race against Chris but I tried out a couple of the different tracks, including a drift track. When drifting, time isn’t the only factor involved. Points are awarded for linking turns, avoiding walls, length of drift, etc. It’s a very interesting way to play the game but it has a steep learning curve. I also tried out a few more races without the helmet cam view, but the game loses something upon exiting the driver’s POV. Before leaving career mode I checked out the shop where I discovered that a massive amount of customization was available.

I was very impressed by the quality of Shift 2 but I can see the title not going over well with some gamers. This game is for driving sim enthusiasts, people who enjoy Gran Turismo or Forza. For those who enjoyed the older Need for Speed titles, like Hot Pursuit, the Shift series may disappoint as it puts an emphasis on realism and customization over action and police evasion. Still, it’s hard not to love this game. I’m usually not a fan of racing sims, but the gorgeous graphics, attention to detail, and realistic damage system made me a believer. Shift 2 Unleashed comes out on March 29th for the PC, PS3, and Xbox360

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