With the leader barely ahead of me I brake late into the penultimate corner and in an explosion of exhaust noise burst through the other side onto the short straight leading up to the final bend. The leader moves across to the inside to block my move, and smelling a win I try my luck round the outside. Just as I think the lead is mine, the back end of my Dodge Viper steps out and I’ve no choice but to lift off to keep control, allowing the driver in 3rd to pounce and pass me on the run up to the finish line. After 5 exhausting laps I’m drained and annoyed that I didn’t settle for 2nd, and not only that I’m instantly told I was half a second slower than my friends. Without hesitation I hit the track determined to improve. This is Shift 2, and although it takes quite some time to get the grips with you’re about to experience one heck of a ride.
At some point in the development process somebody decided to drop the Need for Speed part of the game’s name, instead giving it a much shorter, simpler name. This was a wise decision. After the brilliant Hot Pursuit, it would have been easy to think another Need for Speed was going to be much the same, an arcade racer with braking optional and ramming encouraged. But Shift 2 takes a huge leap away from arcade racing and this time round spotting your braking points and hitting perfect lines through corners is of paramount importance if you want to take that chequered flag in first place.
So what does Shift 2 bring to the party that other racers can’t boast? The new helmet-cam is an extraordinary and fascinating addition, showing a drivers-eye view of the action as it unfolds. You’ll look into the corner as you approach it, and feel every jolt and bump from curbs and collisions far more than your average in-car view. It’s an exciting way to race but it takes some getting used to after years of fixed camera racing, however stick with it and you’ll find its a unique and valuable addition to your racing box of tricks. Graphically there are few complaints, and although you won’t see the shine and polish of GT5 there is a fantastic damage system in place. Crunch into the side of another car and both vehicle twist and bend as they should. Come off the track a bit too quick and tyres and padded barriers around the circuit will also spring back realistically, something which can’t really be said of other recent sim racers. Following the bigger collisions your view gets shaken and loses colour saturation, which not only emphasises the feeling of being dazed by the impact but also causes issues if you’re relying on the colour coded racing line painted into the track. Shift 2 might not look as good as GT5 initially, it’s a far more realistic visual style overall. You’ll even get dirt splattering on the windscreen, and “marbles” of old tyre rubber off the racing line being blown around by the force of passing cars.
There are a wide range of events on offer during the single player career mode, with your weaponry ranging from lower power cars such as the Ford Focus and Seat Leon right up to high powered beats such as the Bugatti Veyron and McLaren MP4. Each car can be fully customised, upgraded and eventually turned into a racing version, and with the right parts bolted on will give you a surprisingly deep amount of tweaking and tuning. It’s easy enough to ignore the tuning and just get on with the racing, but if you want to squeeze every fraction of a second from your lap times you’ll be looking at lowering your suspension and changing your gear ratios.
Get a few friends with the game, and those extra tenths will mean far more. The Autolog is back from its debut in Hot Pursuit, and is just as addictive as ever. Even if you’re not normally a fan of online gaming, the Autolog will grab you from the start. After your very first race you’re compared to the times set by your friends, and even if you win an event it’s possible you’ll be half a second slower than one of your friends, making you desperate to get back into the race and take each corner a fraction quicker. You’ll get recommendations on events to take and lap record comparisons, all just a button press away from an instant attempt to better your rivals. Slick, addictive and very welcome indeed. The option for online racing is in place too and is a fairly standard affair, and although the aggressive racing style of Shift 2 lends itself to other players being a bit ram-happy, hook up in the right lobby and you’ll have some very close, tense racing with no obvious lag encountered during our races. There is however a Driver Duel contest, pitching you in a series of one-on-ones in the form of a knockout competition, which is great assuming you land with the aforementioned crowd of genuine racers. This proved a lot harder to come by in this mode though, with intentional ramming and corner cutting pretty much the norm, which is a great shame.
Shift 2 isn’t the type of game you’re going to switch on and instantly feel comfortable playing. Whether you use a wheel or a controller you’ll probably need to play with the settings in order to find a setup you’re happy with. Initially I found the game almost uncontrollable with the Sixaxis, with one of the worst input lags I’ve ever witnessed. Intricate cornering or skid correction was impossible as anything I did took half a second for the game to actually carry out. But I changed the controller settings dramatically and things improved ten-fold, and suddenly everything just clicked together and became infinitely more playable. Had this breakthrough not have come then this review would have ended up being very different and several marks lower, and I’m not losing sight of the fact I had to dig around to make the game playable, but at least it’s not a terminal issue.
Shift 2 surprised me. After I eventually got the controls to work properly, the racing was great. Night racing makes everything even more frightening than normal races, and the AI during races gives a sensible balance between being too easy and impossibly hard. Other racers will battle for positions and make mistakes; in one race I got taken out in the first lap by an over-eager Lexus that had hit a corner too wide and was spinning across the track. There are even a series of drifting events which, although didn’t really take my fancy, will please anyone who likes their replays to look good. It all adds together to a very intense and enjoyable racer, and providing you’re willing to experiment to get the game handling in the way that you like (and in a way which makes it playable) then you’ll be rewarded handsomely.