Shift 2 Unleashed First Look Hands-on

Electronic Arts announced Shift 2 Unleashed in mid-November, right around the time Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit came out. Not that the two have much to do with one another. Shift 2 follows as the sequel to last year's simulation racer, Need for Speed: Shift. And yes, they did intentionally drop the 'Need for Speed' from the title to reflect its orientation as a sim rather than an action game; though, it remains in the NFS "family."


Whatever combination of title words wind up on the box, the game looked to be already well along the way when I played it at a recent event. Yes, played it. The team felt good enough about their work--and eager enough for feedback--that they let attendees play the game at its debut with the understanding that it was still early in development and a lot of work remains to be done.

Like its predecessor, Shift 2 aims to find its niche in the market by focusing on the racing action out on the circuits more than anything else. To accomplish this, the first game worked hard to convey the raw violence of throwing a race car around at speed. That emphasis returns in Shift 2. I drove a range of cars from a Porsche Cayman to a race-prepared GT-R and they gave me the impression of wrestling with the car to make it do what I wanted.

One of the keys to their approach comes from making the car always feel like it sits on the brink of flinging itself apart. Much of this comes from making the ride jump around with increasing severity as the speeds climb. Even the most put together cars noticeably skitter and jump when carving through the apex of a curve at speed; run over the curbing and it gets really interesting. Managing this movement requires the patience to know when not to mess with the steering and let the car naturally regain its composure, and when a little touch is necessary to avert an off-track excursion.

The next step to this immersion comes from the enhanced helmet camera view being introduced in Shift 2. It builds on the behind-the-wheel cockpit view in the first Shift which simulated the effects of inertia on the driver by moving the camera in response to braking and accelerating. Helmet view adds the rim of the visor, which gives a better frame of reference to the movements. It also introduces more natural movements, like the subtle turn to look around the bend at a corner, and more intense response to the jarring ride of a race car than simply lurching toward the windshield under heavy braking.

In action I found the helmet view an interesting and potentially very effective camera; but one still in need of much tuning. The current implementation works best for forces along the centerline of the car. Getting pushed back into the seat or pulling against the restraints leaning forward does a good job of creating a sense for the acceleration and deceleration of the car, particularly working in concert with the game's other special effects like motion blur.


But many other forces act on a car being driven hard and in its current state I didn't feel like these came across nearly as well. Lateral g-forces--the side to side push experienced during cornering--did not feel in balance relative to the front to back movement from longitudinal ones. So while hard braking from 150mph to enter a corner made me wonder if my head might go through the virtual windshield, turning in did not make me similarly fear it might go through the side window. The end result felt like my head was restrained between bolsters--which it theoretically could be in a racing seat, but that would defeat much of the potential sense of being thrown around in the car.

To help with the sense of looking through a helmet, the view includes the rim of the visor around its edges. This includes a little hump in the center where the driver's nose would be. That center point also gives away another weakness in the current setup. Instead of my head moving atop my torso, so both leaning to the side and moving a little lower as it does; the view more pivots on the center, as if my neck stayed fixed while my head mechanically turned to look around.

If they can improve on these issues and create a more natural feel of being in the driver's seat, the helmet cam holds the promise of an intense racing experience. Out on the track I almost felt my teeth clattering together as my head bounced to each bump and dip in the pavement. Shift 2 also introduces full night racing and with the dark shadow of my helmet in my peripheral vision, looking out on the dark road with only headlights to guide me made for an intense race.

I sat and talked about my experience with Marcus Nilsson, the game's executive producer, for about an hour afterward. He listened closely to all my points and reminded me that this was still a very early build with lots of time left for refinement. I'm interested to see how evolves to the next time I get to give it a spin. In the meantime, we've got the first batch of screens to check out to hold us over.