Tuesday, December 21, 2010

REVIEW: Need for Speed: Shift 2 – Unleashed

It's well past sunset and we're gridded up, awaiting the signal to begin our 1,000 kilometer race through the darkness, the engines pulsing as revs climb and fall in anticipation of the green, the headlights from the field illuminating each other and just a bit of the surroundings – the fencing, billboards and fans, just feet from the track's edge. How thrilling it must be for them, but not nearly as thrilling as it is for me to be sitting in the cockpit, having finally found sponsorship to pay for my ride.

We've qualified near the back of the pack but we're still confident that we have the iron to get us a lower number in the results. Our lack of experience here at Bathurst has us a bit on edge, but a few laps into this marathon and we know we'll have it worked out. The team has been great and if it hadn't been for a couple of small mistakes on my part, we'd have the same view in our rearview that we're facing out the windshield tonight. No matter, we'll just have a bit more work to do to bring home the trophy.

The butterflies in my stomach mirror those in the carburetors, as each stab of the throttle causes a surge of adrenaline. We see the needle on the tach twitch as the car heaves side to side and our chest rises and falls. Keep it cool, rookie. This is a long race and you know you have to stay focused and calm. Still, as the moment approaches, you know that so much is riding on this one event.

Revs build and the tension rises as the start nears. The green flies and we're away. We scramble for traction momentarily, but get away cleanly. A pack of 31 V8 Supercars thunders ahead, tires screeching and fenders banging before we even hit Hell Corner. Our vision is blurred by the speed, the vibrations of the engine and track surface making it even harder to grip the wheel. We take a cautious line into 1, trying to play follow-the-leader until the competitors string out a bit. After all, you can't win a race on the first lap, but you damn sure can lose one. We glance right and see someone trying to pinch us off. We stay focused on our line and keep on the throttle. Whew, that was tight. Still, we manage to get around three other cars and are barreling down on another small cluster as we make the long slow climb up Mountain Straight into Griffins Bend.

We pick the outside around Turn 2, choosing our line carefully as we stay tight to the left edge, just managing to slip past one, then two competitors before we feel it – someone has tried to follow us through and hasn't timed their braking nearly as well as we did. Before we know it we're in a sea of sheetmetal, the wheel and pedals ignoring our commands. We're pushed into one, then two, then three cars as the sickening crunch of metal and glass brings a wave of nausea over us.

Maybe it's not as bad as it sounds. Maybe we can get around to the pits and get it sorted before we lose too much ground. Heck, it might even help us at the end of the day as we'll likely be racing in open ground, and using an alternate pit strategy. As we get back under power and motor away from the melee, the truth of our situation comes crashing over us just as hard as the previous shunt. We've lost our whole front end. Not only are the aerodynamics going to be shit, but we have no lights and can barely make out the tail lamps of our competitors as they steadily pull away into the blackness, completely lost to the night as they round The Cutting. Fuck. This is going to be a lot harder now.

We play back the track layout in our head as the faint illumination from the trackside billboards helps keep us pointed in the general direction of asphalt. We start to feel the track under us and as confidence returns, speed builds. Soon we are clipping along at near race speeds, our muscle memory helping keep us between the curbs. Our eyes follow what we think to be the contours of the track, splitting the distance between the signs.

Maybe this lap won't put us as far back as we thought. We're probably only going to lose twenty or thirty seconds. That'll be easy to make up over 1,000 mile race. We can do it if we just keep focused and don't do anything stupid...like thinking we can drive this unfamiliar track at near race speeds in pitch black surroundings. Before we know it we're back into the gravel and dirt, bounding over mounds of earth feeling like we're at sea during a storm. This is going to be one long night.

We decide to hit reset and try it again. Now that we think of it, maybe we'll try Laguna Seca this time. We know that track a lot better from having run it in just about every other game. For this is a game after all, the next Need for Speed installment, Shift 2. It's much like every other game we've played in that we are using a paddle and a monitor, driving some incredible cars over familiar – and not so familiar – tracks, allowing the computer to control as much of the driving physics as we feel necessary for our skill level. But this game is like no other game we've ever played because of one thing – helmet cam.

The helmet cam view is the default view for gameplay in Shift 2 and will distance this game from any other the same way Sebastien Vettel would distance himself from you at the local kart track. The level of realism you get from actually looking through the visor of the driver is amazing. You're not having to wait for the car to rotate before you can see what awaits you as you exit. No, you are looking past the apex into the next straight, out the windshield or even the side window if needs be. This angle alone makes Shift 2 a must buy. But there's more...much, much more.

Vaughn Gittin Jr, Chris Rado and Tommy Milner

We were treated to a sneak preview of this game at the 2010 SEMA Show in Las Vegas in November. In a small room high above the Central Hall show floor, a group of journalists gathered with Tommy Milner, Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Chris Rado, three young drivers from different racing disciplines that had lent a hand in making this game the most realistic one ever. The NFS folks told us that they had decided to drop out of the race to make the best driving simulator ever. They saw that as a losing proposition. What they did instead was build the first and best racing simulator for a mass market console. By applying the physics of racing instead of trying to duplicate simple driving dynamics, they've raised the bar by an order of magnitude. The feel from inside the cockpit is as close to the real thing as any of us is likely to get.

Drift Champion Gittin helped design a special car for this game that the folks behind it decided to build for the real world too in some funky cross-dimensional, cross-promotion. It's the Mustang RTR-X that debuted at SEMA and took home a trophy or two. Vaughn told us that he was really pleased when he first saw the photos of the car because it looked exactly like he had hoped. While looking at the 4X6 prints, something occurred to him: he didn't remember bringing the car to VIR yet. He called the guys and asked when they had brought it out to Virginia for the photos. After a lengthy pause they burst out laughing. It was a rendering from the game, not an actual photo. Vaughn had been duped, but it was entirely understandable. This game is so realistic in detail that you might think you're looking at in-car race footage off of SPEED when you see the trailers. Seriously. It's at least as good as any pure racing simulator we've ever played before, including those $100,000 jobs they rent for parties.

 The Mustang RTR-X

The NFS designers have chosen to focus on hyper realism and exacting physics for the game, necessarily having to limit driving conditions in the process. No rain or snow here, no – just daytime, dusk or night racing, with speedometers that blur with speed, drifting action that has you looking out the passenger window to see smoke and rubber cascading through the air, and real damage that will have you trying to drive around Bathurst with no lights at three hours past nightfall. It is insane.

 Tommy Milner demonstrates Need For Speed: Drift 2 - Unleashed

While the version of the game we got to see and sample was an early development program, we have no doubt this will be the best racing game ever when it finally reaches stores sometime in early 2011. We'll put it this way – when Vaughn and Chris Rado flinch watching Milner bang a curb during his demonstration run, you know it's realistic. Even us jaded journalists and gamers we're cringing at the impending impacts once we saw the first brush with the wall. Need For Speed: Shift 2 should come with a health advisory warning for those that are weak of heart.

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