The second installment in the Shift franchise again tries to position itself as the Switzerland of racing games. Neither a hardcore simulation nor a full-blown casual experience, Shift 2: Unleashed is designed to appeal to the spectrum-spanning fan bases of both Gran Turismo and Burnout.
Instead of floating above vehicles like guardian angels, as gamers have done in every racing game since 1982’s Pole Position, Shift and the new Shift 2 plant you squarely behind the virtual wheel, for better or worse. Playing the game from this limited perspective can feel like a pointless handicap, akin to doing your taxes with an eyepatch on. But committing to that dashboard vantage point is the game’s sole reason for being. And while it will likely take an hour or two to feel natural, to feel the virtual car that surrounds you, that commitment is worth making.
After last year’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, the 40 or so hyper-realistic tracks of Shift 2—which are all linear and closed-off—make Shift 2 seem geographically miniscule in comparison. The game is less about lapping up the miles, and more about locating the gas-brake-clutch sweet spot on lap three of turn four. That change in scope and focus, that shift—pun intended—to articulating smaller, more realistic moments, will be the most challenging aspect of the game for casual racing fans. Instead of piling on the pyrotechnics and Jerry Bruckheimer-worthy wrecks, à la Split/Second, Shift 2 developer Slightly Mad Studios instead says, “Let’s find the drama and the simple pleasure in taking the next corner.” This is that rare videogame that actually has the sand to ask even casual gamers to expend effort and energy—physical exhaustion sets in after especially grueling races—and then repays them with a well-earned sense of accomplishment and mastery.
With more than 140 vehicles, most with tongue-twisting monikers like “Lamborghini Murcielago LP640,” Shift 2 should satisfy the car fetishists in the audience. Unfortunately, Career mode, as in the original, still feels less like a career and more like a shopping list of tasks. And while Shift 2 leans toward more-of-the-same rather than bona fide sequel, learning the value of a “clean lap” remains a soul-cleansing experience.