In the grand tradition of Jeremy Clarkson or James May I'd like to begin this game review by talking about Rothschild Hardy, the 7th Earl of Branston. During several trips to India, the Earl of Branston noticed that the locals had a tendency to mix spices and fruit together with vegetables to make spicy preserves, which they would then spread on flatbreads as a tasty snack. Branston decided that this strange concoction might find accepting palates in the west, and thus began his journey to set up a huge pickling and preserve industry in the West Country. Sadly the Earl of Branston died of complications arising from a severe bout of syphillis before his vision could be realised, but Messrs Crosse and Blackwell took on the idea, and the name and today the pickle still bears the Earl's name.
What exactly does this have to do with Shift 2: Unleashed? Not a jot really, but that doesn't stop Clarkson comparing the gear shift ratios of a Noble Supercar to the warmth of a single droplet of honey trickling down the inner thigh of Kiera Knightley, does it?
No, the important questions to ask about Shift 2 (now dropping the Need for Speed prefix but oddly, retaining it just about everywhere else in the game) is how it compares to the original Shift. A game that sold badly, a game that failed miserably to lift the Need for Speed name out of the mud and back into the spotlight.
The simple answer is Shift 2 is improved in just about every way possible but stripping this particular supercar-laden title down to its bare chassis to have a look at its inner workings, you can already tell that it's going to suffer from direct comparisons with just about every other circuit racer currently jostling for a podium place on the market.
What it would be very unwise to do would be to compare it to the sublime Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. They may share a little of the same branding, they may even share the fantastic and innovative Autolog but they are poles apart. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is a pure-bred arcade racer built for thrills and spills whereas Shift 2 has been built to appeal to the sort of person who can tell you exactly why you need to install a carbon fibre drive shaft and lightweight flywheel in your racer rather than opting for drilled aluminium and steel plate.
Before we leap all over its polished bodywork like a hard-up supermodel touting for her next gig, an important question needs to be asked. Why did EA opt to not release a demo of this game before release?
The answer is simple really. It's not because of the trickiness of producing a standalone demo with Autolog enabled. It's not even because EA were secretly worried that Slightly Mad Studios might've turned out a donkey turd on wheels. It's mainly to do with the extremely lukewarm reception the original game received and the impossibility of removing the recent success of the NFS brand with Hot Pursuit from the average casual dullard gamer's mind.
Which is a great shame really because from the moment you put pedal to metal, it's obvious that Shift 2: Unleashed is a bloody good game, not without its flaws but still the sort of game that would've benefitted from a huge sales boost off the back of a demo.
From the outset though, the game's American stylings grate. You're shown around by an over-enthusiastic junk-food scoffing goatee-wearing nonentity who's probably the most important racing driver in some completely obscure US-only racing class. Reminiscent of DiRT 2's annoying tendency to whoop and holler like a drunken Duke boy being chased by Rosco P. Coltrane, Shift 2 Unleashed has bloody awful music (which you can mercifully switch off), detestable voiceovers (which you can mercifully switch off) and grating cut scene introductions to each new feature (which, mercilessly, you can't skip! Argh!)
The proof of this particular pudding is in the handling, though. Thankfully you don't start your journey to supercar stardom at the wheel of a production line Golf GTI. Your level of expertise is first gauged at the wheel of a Nissan GT-R with a couple of laps in a race to determine just how tasty you are when you've got your driving head on.
It's not hard to see Slightly Mad Studios' influences. There's a smidgeon of Project Gotham Racing in the handling, a little of Turn 10's Forza and perhaps even the slightest pinch of Gran Turismo. Suffice it to say that I got on with the handling straight away and was soon pushing the envelope on corners and trusting in the game's extremely satisfying balance between grip and slide.
There is a problem though, and this is a problem that I suspect is behind several players experiencing odd handling and visual conditions. The game is practically unplayable (for me at least) in its much vaunted Cockpit mode. Though the developers and the hype merchants all made a big hoohah about the game's attempt to auto-track your driver's head movements to give a realistic semblance of the movement while cornering, I just could not get on with cockpit view at all. It felt like driving when you've had one too many shandies (not that I've ever done this but the mere act of trying to sit up straight in a chair when you're pissed is what this felt like at times when you threw the car into a tight curve).
The default view was so not for me that I ended up in last place, twice, until I switched to my usual "Bumpers and clocks" view. Straight away I haired into first place for the test race run, and the game adjusted its difficulty levels and the car setup automatically to reflect this blistering lap. A nice touch, but you can also override these settings manually if you feel like wimping out a bit (and believe me, the game is as tough as old boots on medium difficulty level so if you want a real challenge, keep the settings on that).
Once you're done with the test lap, you're given a stash of cash to blow on your first car. Like all Need for Speed games you start off with the basics, but rather deliciously there are a couple of cars in the initial selection that won't cost you a penny - meaning you can pick up something to start customising.
Like most track racers, you get a decent set of tuning and customisation options, though the game's menu layout leaves a lot to be desired. Tuning, part swapping and exterior styling are all taken care of in different parts of the game so a little more care could've been taken to allow you to do all these things from your garage rather than forcing you to back up several menu jumps to get to where you need to. This aspect was handled far better in just about every other NFS game featuring customisation so why they didn't just opt for one of those tried and tested schemes is beyond me.
Each car can be fitted with a selection of engine, handling, bodywork and gearbox mods so you can turn your meek and mild production car into a snarling monster built for the track. If your car reaches a particular level of customisation you can opt to go "Works" with it, which effectively turns it into a purebred racing machine. Slightly Mad Studios promise that any car in the game can be turned into a "Works" racer and it's quite something to see what visual and performance changes take place with a fully upgraded model.
In career mode, races are broken up into different classes starting out with the basics and the low end D class cars, then working right up to the behemoths of the track. There's a vast selection of events in multiple disciplines, and this makes the game feel a lot like Codemasters' GRiD at times.
Shift scores bonus points for its plethora of interesting tracks. As well as the usual suspects (god how I've come to loathe the Nurburgring in games though thankfully it features here in its shortened race circuit form at first) there are several purpose built tracks in new locations like London and Catalunya. There is also a welcome return by a track that featured in one of the worst NFS games of recent years, Need for Speed: ProStreet. The game sucked but the Docklands track was excellent fun so it's good to see a version of it reproduced here (and substantially tidied up, visually).
Throughout the game, graphics are fairly polished if a little on the chunky side. Functional rather than beautiful is probably the best way to describe them but when the game doesn't tear and licks along at a substantial frame rate even in busy races, you'll forgive the slightly rough edges.
Autolog integration isn't quite as slick or satisfying as it was in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit but to be fair, I was number one in a field of one so perhaps it will come alive once more players start recommending races and thrashing my lap times. It's all there though, the same levels of community integration so it just needs a community to use it really.
Multiplayer modes are fairly good extending across most of the major disciplines available in Career or Quick Race mode. It's satisfying to note that you can make all your opponents tow the line when it comes to matching your chosen car's performance. Give or take a few horsepower, you can level the playing field during races so you don't get outstripped by some berk in a Veyron while you're stuck with a Ford Focus (a return to Focus-only races like in PGR2 is FUN FUN FUN).
Shift 2: Unleashed seems to be packed with lots of nice little touches. Anyone owning previous NFS games (well, Shift 1, Need for Speed Underground and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit) gets a nice little VIP bonus in the form of more XP, some bonus cars lifted from the other games (Lambourghini Reventon Stealth Cop Car FTW) and a chunk of extra cash. See? You thought buying NFS Underground was pointless!)
Ultimately I can't help thinking that the lack of demo, and the negative press the game's getting fairly early on will mean that it will repeat the sales performance of its predecessor - but for what it's worth, going in with extremely low expectations after reading all the negative stuff might've done me a favour when it came to this, as I was pleasantly surprised by the handling model, the visuals and the granularity of the game's features. If you can stomach the American-centric core at its heart, Shift 2: Unleashed is a damned good racer and is already a metric ton more fun than both Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5.
Once a few more players take the plunge with it, and if EA reverses the decision to issue a demo (as long as they don't do something daft like produce one featuring the shittiest car racing round the Suzuka track) perhaps it will be a slow burner. At the moment though I'm quite glad I didn't get a chance to cancel my preorder as this has shoved Crysis 2 aside quite neatly. Rock on.