If you're coming into Shift 2: Unleashed expecting something like EA's previous Need for Speed effort, Hot Pursuit, you're in for one hell of a surprise. Shift 2 is more akin to Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo than it is to Hot Pursuit or Burnout. You're not going to be throwing down EMP blasts and setting up road spikes. Instead, you'll be following racing lines, hitting turning apexes and strategically waiting for your opening to blow past the jerk that's been blocking the road the last lap and a half.
Shift 2 is a much slower, methodical racer when stacked against its ADD brother's outlandish (but awesome) representation of the sport. You'll be spending a lot of time fine tuning your ride to perfection before hitting the track, not just picking a color and pressing "Go!" to see what types of carnage you can create in 10 seconds flat. But Shift 2's focus on simulation racing complements Hot Pursuit's emphasis on the ridiculous. The two titles work in tandem to give EA a fantastically-rounded racing portfolio.
There is no place that edge is showcased better than with the game's fantastic helmet cam. The authentic helmet camera is something that returns from the first Shift and it's as visceral, in-your-face experience. Quite honestly, the helmet cam solidifies the experience of Shift 2 as "balls-out awesome." Not only does it give the player the impression that they're actually behind the wheel of a car — which first-person cameras in racing games oftentimes fail to do — but it also differentiates Shift 2 from the rest of the racing pack on a purely visual level. If you were to bounce Shift 2’s camera out of first-person you would instantly feel like you’re playing any other racing simulator. So being as blunt as I can: don’t do that. Leave Shift 2 in the helmet cam mode and enjoy the visceral ride as it's supposed to be experienced.
Now I've spent the majority of this review talking up the point that Shift 2 is not Hot Pursuit. But that’s not entirely true. Sorry for the ruse. Both games share one important backdoor quality that represents the backbone of the experience: Autolog. Much like with Hot Pursuit, Autolog is the connective tissue that holds together all the modes of Shift 2. Being constantly connected to your friends and their personal best times means that you'll never run out of things to do. There's always someone's time to beat, whether in multiplayer or single player. Autolog makes races you've done 40 times over still to feel fresh because you need to beat your asshole best friend's time in order to rub it in their face in front of everyone at the bar. Believe it, that happens. Autolog can, and will ignite your competitive fire. To me, Autolog still ranks as one of EA's most ingenious ideas ever; they've found a fun and intuitive way to bring the social media crave to their games.
In theory, the XP system keeps players coming back to Shift 2 in order to level and earn that stellar new ride or fabulous new metallic paint job; however, now’s a perfect time to mention the game’s microtransaction system which casts an ominous shadow over the game’s incentive-based leveling system. Why work hard to level up your racer and gear when you can just as easily drop some real money to unlock everything in the game. This option is available as soon as you turn on Shift 2. You can purchase every car and track in one fell swoop, or buy individual cars up front as long as you have money in your digital wallet. Talk about an easy way out that kills incentive to play. That’s not to say everyone will use this microtransaction system to unlock their favorite cars or tracks, as I’m sure a lot of people who will be buying this game will want to make it last, as well as give them a feeling of satisfaction for the accomplishment of unlocking their personal favorite rides. However, the microtransaction system kind of gives an unfair advantage to players in online races, don’t you think? This is a clear cut case of EA incorporating this feature to further pad their wallet, but on the consumer level it feels like a cheap addition with more cons than pros.
The only other thing that bothered me about Shift 2 is the game’s HUD. It’s way too crowded. There’s some sort counter in every corner of the screen, as well as an XP bar in the top middle of your display. On top of that, the game gives you accomplishment notifications and time lapse pop-ups in the middle of the screen. With how fast this game moves, there is no time to look at any of it. I would love to meet the man/woman whose eyes move fast enough to pay attention to the mini-map while also keeping their eye on the road for upcoming turns.
As mentioned quite a few times throughout this write-up, Shift 2 is not Hot Pursuit. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It is. In my eyes, Shift 2 easily competes with the Forza and Gran Tursimo simulation racers of there. In fact, I might actually enjoy it a little bit more, as Shift 2 keeps me in the menus just long enough to make me feel like I have complete customization control over my cars, but then pushes me out the door to experience the real joy of racing games: being on the track and feeling the adrenaline rush of nearly hitting a wall at 200 mph. With Shift 2’s unique helmet cam, that experience can’t be replicated anywhere else.