First impressions of Shift 2 Unleashed

I have console envy. That's difficult to admit as a PC gamer. In my defense, this envy has nothing to do with hardware. The best consoles on the market were barely cutting-edge when they were released several years ago, making their underlying hardware laughably anemic by today's standards. Even a budget gaming PC is capable of pushing modern titles at higher resolutions than an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and it's just as easy to hook up to your big-screen television and control from the comfort of the couch.

Despite having a game-ready PC in my living room, some of my favorite titles and franchises remain frustratingly restricted to consoles. Rockstar's Table Tennis is easily my favorite sports game, but it's exclusive to the Xbox 360 and unmatched on the PC. Ditto for Ninja Gaiden, whose brand of virtual violence can be enjoyed on multiple consoles but not from within Windows. Microsoft appears particularly disinterested in cross-pollination with the PC, having kept its excellent Forza Motorsport franchise on the Xbox from the very beginning.

Of all my console favorites, I miss Forza the most on the PC. Top Gear has heightened my lust for cars I'll never be able to afford, making me increasingly eager to live out my automotive fantasies with realistic driving sims. Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo have defined that genre on the Xbox and PlayStation, respectively. Sadly, there really hasn't been a PC equivalent with the same graphical fidelity, realistic physics, and deep car catalog.

Need for Speed spin-off Shift 2 Unleashed is the latest shot at unseating driving-sim royalty, and there's a PC version that costs $10 less than what you'll pay to play the game on consoles. Naturally, I had to give it a shot. Things got off to a bit of a rocky start when, while downloading the game via Steam, I learned that Shift 2 is saddled with an auxiliary DRM scheme that caps the number of active installs to five systems. This limit is unlikely to inconvenience the average gamer, but it's a pain for those of us who use games to test performance on multiple rigs. Piling another layer of DRM on top of the anti-piracy measures built into Steam certainly hasn't stopped cracked versions of Shift 2 from appearing on torrent sites, so it's hard to see the point.

The next twinge of disappointment hit when I fired up the game. Even with all the eye candy cranked, antialiasing and anisotropic filtering included, Shift 2's graphics don't look as realistic as what's offered by the latest iterations of Gran Turismo and, to a lesser extent, Forza Motorsport. Shift 2 is still a good-looking game, but it's definitely a step behind in visual quality.

Graphics don't count for everything. Still, it would be foolish to discount the contribution that realistic visuals can make to games that attempt to closely simulate real-world experiences. The better that simulation looks, the more immersive it can be.

I say can because immersion is the product of many different factors. Shift 2's graphical detail may fall short of the realistic standard set by its competitors, but the game has an effective visual twist that very much pulls you into the action. In addition to the usual selection of external and in-car cameras, a helmet cam provides a unique view of the action. Your eyes aren't locked forward like with a standard cockpit view. Instead, the camera shifts to focus on the apex of approaching corners. While drifting, the camera pans in the opposite direction to better keep tabs on what's in the path of your squealing tires.

This driver's-eye view can be a little disorienting at first, but it started to feel natural to me after just a few laps. There are other elements to the helmet cam, too. The faster you go, the more your peripheral vision fades as you focus on the road ahead. Hit a wall, and things plunge briefly into black and white while your head rattles around the roll cage.

Shift 2's cars and tracks may not be picture-perfect, but the helmet cam makes me feel like I'm right behind the wheel. Crucially, I also feel like I'm the one turning it. Shift 2 steers well clear of the arcadey handling of some NFS titles and feels much more like an accurate simulator—accurate enough, anyway. I don't have enough experience clipping chicanes in a Lotus Elise or Porsche 911 to really be able to tell whether Shift, Forza, or Gran Turismo does the best job of conveying how those cars handle in the real world. Having spent some time with all three games, though, I can tell you that Shift 2's physics engine feels like it's in the same ballpark as the other two.

To avoid scaring off casual audiences with realistic handling dynamics, Shift 2 is loaded with the usual assortment of driving aids. With a little help from traction control and a superimposed racing line, the game is easy to play with a controller while lounging on the couch. A number of different wheel peripherals are also supported for folks who want their controls to be as realistic as possible.

The more time I spend with Shift 2, the more I enjoy the game. The racing gets quite intense when viewed through the helmet cam, and the events staged at night can be particularly thrilling when you're unfamiliar with the track. You'll encounter plenty of unfamiliar corners among the generous collection of real-world and custom tracks included in the game. There are loads of cars, too, although not nearly as many as you'll find in the likes of Forza and GT. Shift 2 also bristles with tuning and customization options, and there's a substantial online component when you get bored with the career mode and quick races.

Add everything up, and Shift 2 looks like the best racing sim you can buy for the PC. I still think Forza and Gran Turismo are more complete examples of the breed, though. The Shift franchise is going to need more than a helmet cam to make up for being behind on the graphics front in a genre built on realism and attention to detail.

Because Shift isn't beholden to consoles, let alone one in particular, I do get the sense that the franchise could spawn a driving game that would surpass Forza and GT. Even budget PC hardware has considerably more computational and pixel-pushing resources than the consoles, which are effectively several generations behind. Exploit that potential with a game built on Shift 2's solid foundation, and you could end up with something that would make console gamers more than a little envious.

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