For better or worse, Shift 2: Unleashed aims to please everyone. All genres can be broken into subcategories that offer a more precise representation of an individual title. Even though Kingdom Hearts II and Final Fantasy XIII are both JRPGs created by Square Enix, one would be hard pressed to describe the games as similar. On the surface, racing games seem a touch more predictable and the genre tends to be viewed with a “love or hate it” type deal. Does the thought of sprinting around a track on a highly detailed sports car sound appealing? If the answer is yes, then just take your pick of the various popular franchises currently on the market.
However, things are rarely so simple. In fact, the Racing genre boasts an especially significant divide between its two main subcategories; so much so, loving one considerably diminishes the other’s chances. Categorized as simulation and arcade racers, the former focus on crafting realistic and nuanced experiences that seek to capture the feel of sitting behind a Caterham CT03 or a VW Polo R WRC. Conversely, the latter drops the realism in favor of speed and thrills. That’s not to say arcade racers lack depth, but the core mechanics strive to be exciting rather than practical. Consequently, someone may love Forza Motorsport 7 and detest Forza Horizon 4. The reverse also holds true.
Starting out as a racing sim before embracing the arcade scene, EA’s Need for Speed franchise endeavors to toe the line between both classes, although accessibility nearly always takes precedence over authenticity. While the controls tend to be straightforward to grasp, those seeking to fine-tune the handling to suit their fancy are allowed the opportunity to play around with the settings. If executed properly, Need for Speed offers the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, many entries spread themselves too thin and end up lacking the refinement of a hardcore racer or the immediacy of a pure arcade racer. Shift 2: Unleashed strikes a finer balance than most.
Similar to 2009’s Shift, the sequel immediately drops users into a Ford GT before cutting them loose for a test run to determine the player’s expertise. Depending on the results, the game automatically adjusts the settings. These can be changed at any time, but Shift 2: Unleashed generally gets it right.
Unlike Need for Speed: Most Wanted or Payback, Shift 2: Unleashed omits an open world in favor of traditional tracks. Putting aside a few underwhelming introductory cut-scenes, the robust career mode removes any distractions to ensure a match is always a few seconds away. With multiple different types of events ultimately becoming available, the goal is to master each category on route to securing a qualifying spot for the FIA GT1 World and GT3 championships.
Compared to Gran Turismo 5 or the Forza games, Shift 2: Unleashed’s 150-odd cars may seem relatively puny. Luckily, each automobile looks absolutely amazing and controls uniquely enough to justify taking all of them out for a joy ride. Unlocking the entire collection necessities exploring other modes besides career, with the online component also rewarding cash and XP points. Along with multiplayer events, personal times are uploaded to an online leaderboard, so bragging rights are always one click away. Sadly, split screen is a non-starter.
As tends to be par for the course, users start out with a bottom of the barrel car and gradually earn the right to drive faster vehicles. Progression is quick and rewarding, however, be prepared to repeat several races in the hope of securing an improved placing or to get some additional bank. Shift 2’s replayability is greatly extended by the vast array of striking tracks set across the entire globe. The campaign should keep most people busy for around two dozen hours, which does not take into account all the extra time required to purchase all the cars. Graphically, the Need for Speed series seldom looks behind the times and Slightly Mad Studios’ Shift 2 compares favorably with any of its contemporaries.
Shift 2: Unleashed is simple to grasp but slightly challenging to master. Unsurprising, considering the game is principally billed as a sim rather than an arcade racer. Along with a genuinely intense and vivid helmet cam, hardcore fans should be mostly satisfied with the number of available options. That being said, Slightly Mad Studios has unquestionably constructed a game designed to please casual players. The incredibly aggressive AI ensures races are rarely one-sided or boring, although the game basically bestows the computer with a license to kill. Consequently, Shift 2: Unleashed strikes a middle-ground between sim and arcade racers, but falls short of both subgenre’s absolute greatest entries.
For those seeking a fun track racer with a decent amount of content, Shift 2: Unleashed is a wonderful place to start. Over the years, Need for Speed has produced its fair share of highs and lows, although the majority of games fall squarely in the ‘meh’ pile. While 2011’s entry does not quite replicate the success of 2005’s Most Wanted or 2010’s Hot Pursuit, Shift 2: Unleashed presents a convincing case for representing the franchise’s most respectable attempt to return to its roots and offer a genuinely realistic simulation of car handling.