With 2009’s Need for Speed: Shift, Electronic Arts did the unthinkable; not just producing the first decent Need for Speed game in donkey’s years, but a sim-style racer that was a credible rival to Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo. Sure, the handling was a bit iffy in places, but Shift was fast, good-looking, packed with brilliant, immersive visual effects and genuinely challenging in a way that Forza 2 and GT5 Prologue were not. Of course, since then we’ve had the incredible Forza 3 and the rather less incredible GT5, with the first setting a new benchmark for this kind of game. But now Shift is back, with the Need for Speed branding relegated to a sub-subtitle and even more attitude than before. And you know what? It comes pretty damn close to stealing Forza’s crown and making GT5 look tired.
The secret is that Shift 2 realises that, no matter how many cars you have and no matter how accurately they’re rendered on the screen, or how many real-world tracks and how lushly detailed and realistic they are, it all means nothing if the racing itself isn’t gripping. And Shift 2 grips with a vengeance. The sense of speed is overwhelming, the various visual effects - the blurs, the jarring knock into monochrome when you hit something - are even more skilfully employed than they were in 2009.
The AI is manic and aggressive, arguably to a fault, with your CPU-controlled rivals taking risky racing lines, nudging you off the track and sticking close in your slipstream, ready to pounce when you make an error. Normally we’d moan about any game where some git can knock you flying in the crucial final lap, but the more you play and the better you get, the more skilful you become at avoiding this. Call it cheating if you like, but it’s just another way Shift 2 keeps you on your toes.
The handling still isn’t quite as convincing as Gran Turismo, but it’s in the right area. The smaller D-class cars can be thrown around with impunity, but C and B class vehicles need to be treated with respect. The best thing we can say about Shift 2 is that it’s a game that leaves you feeling satisfied when you merely get a podium position, and delighted when you’re lucky enough to grab first place. Play it safe, and you don’t have a chance. While GT5 encourages you to splash out on new gear and coast your way to victory past a predictable, subservient grid, Shift 2 pushes you to go out there and grow a pair. Not everyone will like this, but if you like your racing to deliver a decent challenge, you certainly will.
Yet this isn’t just a racing game for the hardcore player. The easiest difficulty level is reasonably accommodating, and the optional driving aids give newbies a fighting chance without wrecking any feeling of control. The car upgrade options are both comprehensive and well laid-out, making it easy to buy something relatively cheap and cheerful and boost it into a pocket-sized supercar. Plus, it’s a game with an intelligent single-player career structure. As before, racing accurately and aggressively, winning events and achieving set objectives, will earn you RPG-style experience points, and when you get enough of these you level up. Levelling up unlocks new tiers of events, while cash prizes will give you the wherewithal to buy the cars to compete in them.
Because each tier contains a range of events of different styles, ranging from straight races to elimination races, themed championships and hot-lap time trials, you always have a choice. If you can’t get past a certain race, just skip it and try something new, or maybe come back to it later? There’s no need to get stuck bashing your head against a brick wall.
This is lucky, because the one major area where Shift 2 hits a false note is in its adoption of trendy, rather US-focused forms of racing. We were hoping that, with the awful Need for Speed: ProStreet, we might have seen the last of drift racing, but sadly it’s back, with a spectacularly dull tutorial and irritating guest appearances from champion Vaughn Gittin Junior. Luckily, while there are equally irritating things about the Retro and Muscle series, where you’re racing revamped 80s and 90s classics or rear-heavy, big-engined favourites, the actual racing is a lot more entertaining, and, as we said, you can always skip these events if you really can’t stand them.
Car-wise, Shift 2 doesn’t offer a massive selection, but if the quantity is low then there’s still plenty of quality, from the likes of the Focus ST and the Seat Leon Cupra to the Lamborghini Reventon, Gumpert Apollo, Pagani Huarya and Bughatti Veyron. Compensation comes in the fact that Shift 2 allows damage, and plenty of it, with a choice of visual-only or simulated effects. Again, it’s about creating a feeling that you’re racing on the edge, and once you’ve seen a Gallardo take off, roll and crumple against the barrier because you hit a chicane at 200Mph plus, you’ll start to think a bit more carefully about how far you stretch the risk.
Shift 2 also delivers an excellent set of tracks. It’s heavy on GP tracks, raceways and city courses, which usually means you get bored by the lack of scenic variety (see Forza 2 for details). However, the racing is so demanding, and Shift 2 packs in so much texture and background detail, that this never happens. It’s also worth mentioning the night racing, which makes familiar tracks feel dangerous once again as sharp corners hit you suddenly and the beams of rival headlights creep up on your rear.
Surely the praise has to stop, you ask? Well, we haven’t even got to the game’s online features. Most sensible people agree that the Autolog feature introduced in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, which constantly kept you updated on how friends were progressing and whether they need to be shown that, actually, you were the best and always would be, and here was the record time to prove it. Now, most sensible people can rejoice that this feature has been added to Shift 2 as well, meaning that you’re nearly always competing with someone, even when you’re playing on your own. And when you do race with others online, the action remains impressively smooth and frantic, with XP points accruing just like they do in the single-player game.
The icing on the cake is the presentation. Graphically, Shift 2 is a treat, with superbly detailed cars and tracks and fantastic, over-the-top lighting effects. The new helmet-cam, which automatically tracks where you would be looking were you actually sitting in the car, is a brilliant new spin on the standard cockpit view, and one we can expect other racers to emulate. Shift 2 also gets a big pat on the back for the soundtrack. It’s not just the fantastic, big and grunty engine noises that impress, but the way that the audio is moulded into the immersive experience, shoving you in the cockpit in the midst of all that automotive sound and fury. Even the music is brilliant, merging snatches of rock with orchestral cinematic soundscapes that up the atmosphere one more notch. EA has clearly lavished some money on this one, and it has all been well spent.
Let’s stick a bit of neck out here. Shift 2 is a superb sim-style racer, thrashing Gran Turismo on everything but car numbers and handling, and giving Forza 3 some real competition. If Forza edges slightly ahead on the car list, handling, track variety and long-term depth, then Shift 2’s online features, visual effects and thrills keep it in contention. Overall, Forza 3 holds on to its pole position, but for Shift 2 to make the race so close is a real achievement, and a sure sign of exactly how brilliant EA’s new racer is.