The word 'Visceral' is often abused in the games industry. Used to describe every realistic experience in a video game since the advent of 3D gaming in 1997, it's a term that I often attempt to sidestep when writing a preview.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Shift 2: Unleashed, there's only one way to describe it: Unleashed is brilliantly, horrifyingly, brutally visceral.
Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat. I'm not a fan of simulation racing games. Forza, Gran Turismo 5, Colin McRae Rally... they simply don't appeal to me -- I'm always the guy who prefers arcade-racing series. As evidenced by my love-letter to Burnout: Paradise and my review of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, I love the impossible feeling of driving at ridiculous speeds, and achieving insane drifts around corners that are a mile long. If I wanted to know what a real car feels like to drive, I'd go out and apply for my driver's license.
So when EA invited me down to their Guildford HQ last week, I was a little apprehensive. The original Need for Speed: Shift was billed as a title that would drag the arcade racing franchise kicking and screaming into the simulation genre - and, subsequently, was a title I missed out on as a result. Would Shift 2: Unleashed convince me of the series' worth?
Shift 2: Unleashed does a brilliant job of straddling the line between hardcore-simulation and just-for-fun arcade racing. For those who are so inclined, there are mountains of menus, each allowing you to tune your car to the infinite degree, and for those who simply want to race? Well, there's nothing stopping you. Pick a cool-looking ride, decide your track, and hit 'Go.' If you're part of the latter group, Shift 2 also does a great job of teaching you what each of the customizable qualities will mean for your racing time. You might have no clue why it would be a good idea to relieve pressure in your tires, but glance over to the right-hand side of the screen, and the game will tell you in a clear, concise manner exactly why it is an option to consider.
This helpful hand is not to say that Shift 2 is an easy game, however. During my first thirty minutes with the title, I consistently found myself in last place, wondering what on Earth was going wrong. No matter which line I took, no matter which car I chose, nothing seemed to be going my way. I wasn't deterred, however. There was something intriguing about the game that left me wanting more, even if I couldn't quite place my finger on it.
"Try using the Helmet-cam," A friend and fellow journalist suggested. "it's the way the game is supposed to be played." Moments later, my mind was blown. As suggested by the name, Shift 2's 'Helmet-cam' places the camera inside your driver's helmet, and you see the world as a real racer would. The engine's roar becomes a muffled haze, the visibility of the road is hampered slightly by the outer edges of your protective headgear, and Shift 2: Unleashed suddenly becomes a stirring, ferocious, wonderful experience.
As you begin to approach corners, your driver instinctively begins to look in the right direction, aiding your ability to handle the turn. It's an interesting, and incredibly well-implemented, dynamic. No longer is your viewpoint static, perpetually facing forward - now your driver begins to react naturally, as a human being -- when the speeds begin to creep over the threshold known as 'Insanely Fast', the rest of the world becomes a blur, and only the center of the screen is in focus. It's a small touch, but a believable one that truly adds to the experience.
Taking advantage of the driver's instincts is a useful skill to learn, too. As you progress through the campaign, Shift 2 awards bonus experience for certain goals achieved in game. Master every perilous corner, accelerate down every straight, and smash/crash/bash your way into first place for the extra XP. Experience will level up your driver, and with that comes access to more tracks, more cars, and an overall better playing experience. When wandering around the press room, I was surprised at the handsomeness and large variety of different tracks on offer: whether it was a night race through the rain-trodden streets of central London, or a sun-baked drive through the roads of sunny San Francisco, the game (as evidenced by the screens littered throughout this preview) was a beauty to behold.
While I was thoroughly impressed with the majority of Shift 2: Unleashed, that's not to say that it is a game without fault. When attempting to race with extreme precision on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the title, it seemed that the analogue control wasn't quite up to the task. Incredibly minor adjustments to the racing line were handled fine, as were extreme, last-second "Oh-blast!" swerves to either side, but anything in-between simply wasn't as precise as one would hope in a racing simulation.
Shift 2 may straddle the line between Sim and Arcade-Racer, but it's definitely a title that leans toward the former, and sadly felt lacking when it came to the finer details. When playing with a racing wheel however, almost every problem I had with the game's steering was evaporated, and all the blame passed onto me. The poor times and low podium positions were down to my own terrible-ness, as opposed to any fault within the game build itself.
By the time it came to the end of our preview session, I'll admit that I was hooked. Playing Shift 2 was the first time I had ever actually enjoyed playing a sim-racer, and while it wasn't perfect, it felt like a truly nice car: it had soul. Sure, I found it difficult at first and, yes, the drifting was nigh-on-impossible and, hey, it didn't use any rubber-banding techniques to help me catch up when playing terribly, but it played brilliantly. Trading paint with a rival driver, cutting him off on the inside-lane, before finally pulling ahead on the final stretch of a 4-lap track... Hey, I felt like a racing driver, and it felt damn good.
Shift 2: Unleashed will be satisfying your need for speed on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 29, 2011.