Shift 2: Unleashed doesn’t want to be a Need for Speed game. The Need For Speed name is completely missing from the side of the box and only appears on the front in a small font at the very bottom. But if EA really wants Shift 2 to compete with such popular franchises as Forza and Gran Turismo, it’ll have to do a lot better than this. Shift 2 is confused about its audience, puts a lot of effort into things that don’t ultimately matter, and is easily the most user unfriendly game that I’ve ever played from a major publisher.
My normal approach to racing sims is to start with every driving assist turned on, making the game nice and easy, and then slowly turn them off as I get better until I can race on my own. This isn’t possible in Shift 2 because the assists don’t actually assist you, they replace you, taking away so much control that it doesn’t even feel like you’re playing anymore. Driving with the braking assist means that I rarely have to touch the brake, and with steering assist turned on, the car practically drives itself, turning around corners on its own. The end result is that instead of acting as a teaching tool, the assists become a crutch. You’ll never learn to drive if you use them. To actually play Shift 2, the assists must be turned off. This forces any player that would normally use the assists to play at an uncomfortably advanced level from the outset.
Before you can worry about the assists, however, you have to navigate the menus. There are so many sub-categories of races and so many layers of menus that you have to click through that just finding your way around becomes a chore. The race menu itself isn’t any better. It is a mess of numbers, names, and symbols splashed across the screen with no clear separation between them. The Autolog (a leaderboard of your friends) is displayed so prominently that it’s easy to confuse your position on the Autolog with your position in the actual race. It’s hard to tell what any of it means until you’ve spent a couple of hours with the game.
When selecting a race, you might be told that you don’t have any eligible cars, but you’re not told what makes a car eligible. Thankfully, you can purchase a car from the race menu and only eligible cars will be displayed, but you’re still not told why these particular cars are accepted while yours is not.
Upgrading is poorly executed so as to not appeal to fans of sims or arcade racers. Each part only has three possible upgrades, a dearth of choice when compared to other racing sims. Yet parts are described with so much technical jargon that their actual benefits are unclear. There are stats for your car that go up when you select a part, but without context, these higher numbers are meaningless and don’t help you choose between parts.
Once you get into the actual racing (sans assists), things get better. The cars feel properly distinct; the more powerful machines feel powerful. Traction is measured on each individual tire, an impressive level of detail. If anything isn’t to your liking, you can tune your car for better handling, and thankfully there’s a “quick tune” option that simplifies the whole process so anyone can get into this level of depth. It’s clear that a lot of effort has been put into this game, and the driving shows it. Shift 2 is at its best when all you have to care about is the turn ahead of you and the driver behind you, but sadly so much of that effort went into things that don’t add to the experience.
The damage modeling is great, but because there’s no rewind mechanic, and because races last just three laps on average, one crash can ruin your whole race. If you ever wreck your car enough so that you can see and appreciate the damage modeling, you’ll probably have to restart the race. There’s nothing more annoying than leading for an entire race only to mess up on the last lap and lose your podium finish. Other racing sims have learned how to compensate for this, and Shift 2 fees like a step backwards. Even worse, if you wreck your car so badly that you can’t continue, the game just keeps going. It doesn’t reset your car or take you out of the race, it just leaves you sitting in a broken vehicle until you restart the race yourself. This disregard for the player gets annoying.
The “helmet cam” is the most hyped hook of Shift 2. This camera view puts you inside the helmet of the driver, and it turns and bounces just like a real driver would in a real race car. There’s no doubt that it’s impressive, but it also makes the game harder by handicapping the player. Since your “head” moves independently from the car, it always turns to look ahead of each curve, which gives you the impression that you’re turning more than you actually are. Successfully racing in this view means constantly under-steering or feeling like you are. You have to ignore the instinctual reactions that you’ve learned up to this point. One could argue that it’s more realistic, but in real life, you have peripheral vision and the tactile feedback of being in the car to tell you how much you’re turning. You can’t get that level of extra feedback in a game, even with a steering wheel.
In addition to normal racing, you can take part in drifting competitions, but the game still suffers from poor explanation and a seeming dislike of the player: The drifting tutorial isn’t helpful. It gives you instructions in a cut scene then lets you loose on a track with no feedback. I’m told to do figure eights but just end up spinning in circles, and because I still earn drifting points for doing that, I end up passing the test despite being clueless about how to actually execute the maneuver.
There’s a lot to do in Shift 2. It’s a completionist’s dream (nightmare?), but it’s also utterly impenetrable. It assumes you have a certain level of knowledge about cars going in, yet it’s not made for fans with that kind of knowledge. It’s not as complex as its racing sim peers, but it’s too complex for any fans of arcade racers, and for anyone looking to get into racing sims, it’s so user unfriendly as to turn them away from the entire genre. The driving itself is good, but there are so many caveats that can be added to that statement. Shift 2 just isn’t worth that kind of effort.