Racing to 31 – 31 racing game greats: #4 Shift 2: Unleashed (2011)

It’s that time of year again and I find myself racing toward another birthday and to the ripe-old age of 31. In celebration I thought why the hell not have a racing themed countdown – so here we are, down 31 racing games that have defined my enjoyment of the genre over the last 31 years. Enjoy!

I’m sure most publishers would kill to have a versatile brand name like Need for Speed within its stables.  To think it launched in the same year the Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm single was playing on Radios, Paul Keating was still Prime Minister of Australia, and Allan Border was still captaining Australia’s cricket team, is testament to the brand’s strength.  It’s easy to be at odds with EA’s treatment of the brand at times, but its equally as easy to recognise that as a pillar of the racing game genre, its been magnificent more than it’s been mediocre.  It’s been the gift that keeps on giving, and EA’s willingness to ‘relaunch’ it whenever they feel its getting a bit stale, has made it the enduring franchise its hard not to be in awe of.

The launch of Need for Speed: Shift represented probably the most radical departure from what the game has been known for, veering toward a more realistic take on racing, with a pretty overt aim to create the most immersive racing game around.  “You are the driver” urged the taglines and publicity material.  I’m not sure anyone could have believed how close to accurate that would be.

To put it plainly developer Slightly Mad made a game that felt like you were in the driver’s seat, with the game’s camera planted firmly on his or her helmet capturing every movement of their head, for better and for worse. And playing Shift in cockpit view was the only way to experience the game.  Feeling what its like speeding at 300 km/h as the game’s depth of field trickery was exhilarating, and seeing first hand the kinds of  G-force a driver experiences in every turn, every crash, and every spin out, was a sight to behold.  It took a big exhaust pipe to go after the big boys of the simulation genre (using that term loosely), but Shift signaled EA’s willingness to approach the genre and their brand differently, a move that paid out in spades.  Shift may not have majorly disrupted the order of things, but I’m sure it had people sitting around the table at Turn 10 and Polyphony Digital with a whiteboard, a few pots of tea and coffee and some gourmet sandwiches, thinking about how they could learn from EA’s racer.

Need for Speed: Shift was a great but not perfect game in 2010, and while Shift 2: Unleashed wasn’t a far sight different from its predecessor released a couple of years before, it dropped the first game’s bare bones career mode for a more guided and personal rise through the ranks, taking you from an almost amateur driver of sorts, to the top of the race driver pile as FIA GT1 champion.  Well, top of the pile if you don’t consider open-wheel racing like Formula One, at least.  I’m not the kind of guy that begs and pleads for a meaningful career in a racing game, but Shift 2‘s certainly got its hooks into me, and saw me through the cold Canberra winter.

The Shift series wasn’t the best racing game on the market, but it sure as hell came close to being the best racing experience on the market.  It was a hard sell for EA, by the time Shift 2: Unleashed hit the market was well and truly saturated, with Forza Motorsport entering its third entry of the generation and Gran Turismo 5 still well and truly in rotation for most Playstation 3 owners.  But developer Slightly Mad carved out its own identity among the crowd, creating an experience that just could not be had anywhere else. And in a lot of ways, that’s kind of become Need for Speed‘s calling card.

#31: Stunt Car Racer   #30: Badlands   #29: RVF Honda  #28: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge  #27: Nitro  #26: Super Grand Prix  #25 Super Cars II  #24 Super RC Pro-Am #23 Sega Rally  #22 Wipeout 2097  #21 Micro Machines V3  #20 Gran Turismo #19 Need For Speed: High Stakes  #18 Colin McRae Rally 2.0  #17 Wave Race: Blue Storm #16 Grand Prix Challenge  #15 Project Gotham Racing 2  #14 F-Zero GX  #13 Mashed #12 Burnout 3: Takedown  #11 Ridge Racer  #10 Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast #9 Forza Motorsport 2  #8 Motorstorm: Pacific Rift  #7 Midnight Club: Los Angeles  #6 Dirt 2  #5 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit  #4 Shift 2: Unleashed  #3 Sonic All-Star Racing: Transformed  #2 Forza Horizon