I understand it’s not a game most readers of PRC.net would like to hear about, but over the past week or so thanks to a crippling intestinal infection, I’ve had enough free time to sit down and figure out how to install Shift 2: Unleashed. There are indeed people who swear off products by Slightly Mad Studios for one reason or another, but nobody can deny the stellar list of content available in this game – it’s really the last modern racing simulator where all major car brands and a few major racing series were willing to play nice with one another, and the track list rivals even the most hardcore of rFactor packages. If you can get past some of the casual elements sim racers tend to scoff at, the title boasts three complete seasons of racing as you progress into the higher tiers of career mode – those being the FIA GT1, FIA GT3, and Historic Touring Car championships. It’s not a stretch to call Shift 2: Unleashed the spiritual successor to GTR 2 and GT Legends, one which Ian Bell desperately tried to shoehorn into the market under the Need for Speed badge.
Is the vanilla game every bit as awful as people make it out to be? Absolutely. As I’ve mentioned, this is a game that takes hours to configure, and I’m not just taking about the time spent yanking a copy of the Limited Edition from one of several Torrent sites. There are numerous community patches and additional bits and pieces to snatch from NoGripRacing.com, most of which simply unpack the game and fix errors made by Slightly Mad Studios during the game’s development – such as the fuel cell being located outside of the car. I will say though, that once you’ve actually sat down for the upwards of two hours it takes to finally get everything into a functional state, Shift 2 is basically the Forza-like experience for the PC you’ve been looking for, and it earns bonus points thanks to how Shift 2 turns into GTR 2/GT Legends later in Career mode.
It’s just a pain in the fucking ass installing these mods. Seriously.
So while you’re going through the steps to inject all of these fixes into your root Shift 2 folder, you’re actually faced with a choice when it comes to the game’s tire model, because this is one of the few updates that isn’t mandatory. Look, you can choose to play Shift 2 with the default set of physics, but to get any sort of enjoyable experience out of the executable file, you’re forced to again consult NoGripRacing.com for one of several different tire model modifications. And they basically all advertise the same effects – a much more realistic driving experience than the one Electronic Arts and Slightly Mad Studios originally built.
The first, and most popular tire model modification, has been dubbed the Polish Tyre Mod by brrupsz. I’ve been following the community surrounding Shift 2 Unleashed from afar since the game’s release in the spring of 2011, and this is the package that most people flock to by default. Not only does it fundamentally change how Shift 2 drives, there are also little pieces of bonus content that come bundled with the download if you’re looking for just a little bit more of a challenge from Shift 2. Most notably, brrupsz has completely re-worked the artificial intelligence in terms of competence, aggression, and pace, producing an offline racing experience that can be quite enjoyable compared to some of the more traditional racing simulators.
This is the modification I prefer, as it drives very similar to RaceRoom Racing Experience. Even in the high-end GT3 machinery, you really have to concentrate on hitting your marks each corner and choosing when it’s the appropriate time to push, carefully balancing weight transfer with limited tire grip. I think the street cars were exceptionally well-done, as the stock Chevrolet Cobalt handled in a very similar fashion to my own shitbox Cavalier as I was progressing through the early races within Career mode. However, lap times were over six seconds off pace compared to these same cars in other simulators. I took the Audi R8 GT3 to Road America for one of the game’s Endurance events, and was only able to muster a 2:07.250. The same car in Automobilista could sit in the 2:02’s quite easily. I personally enjoyed the driving style and offline racing this mod produced because it really made me pay attention to my pedal inputs in a way that was benefiting me, but we were lapping much slower than what these cars are capable of. It was like how MLB players warm up with a weighted bat – not realistic, but I enjoyed having to concentrate on the fundamentals of race car driving.
The other popular mod that’s managed to attract the attention of the Shift 2 community would be the G-Tyres release by B7ake. If you are looking for pure, unadulterated simulation value, this is the exact mod that will satisfy your virtual auto racing needs. I jumped into a Quick Race at Brands Hatch with my newly acquired McLaren MP4-12c GT3, and busted out lap times on-par with these same cars in rFactor 2 – sitting around the 1:22 to 1:23 range. Physically, it felt like I was playing Project CARS, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if this guy was contacted in some fashion to help out Slightly Mad Studios with last year’s controversial release. To verify that it wasn’t just a bullshit placebo effect making me jizz myself over this tire model, I went back to Road America, and promptly set lap times in the 2:01 range with the McLaren, just a hair faster than the Audi GT3 in Automobilista – and that minuscule difference is something I’d chalk up to the powerplant difference rather than the physics engine.
But the speed difference is what kills this mod. Shift 2’s AI, as well as the changes made by third party AI mods, are typically built around the slower lap times turned by cars using the original physics engine, or the Polish Tire Mod. While I double and triple-checked to ensure that any remnants of other AI mods had been uninstalled properly, and the readme for the G-Tyres mod claimed to be bundled with it’s own set of AI tweaks by default, what I saw out the front windshield simply did not reflect any of the alleged changes. Sure, the lead pack of four cars tried to put up a fight against me throughout the opening corners, but with this mod, I didn’t just beat the AI; I made them not want to show up to the race track anymore, and I didn’t feel like I was going all that particularly fast. So what the G-Tyres mod appeared to have done, at least from my standpoint, is turn Shift 2 into a very competent and somewhat realistic hotlap simulator.
This is fine for some people, as the both the vehicle and location rosters are beyond excellent – as well as the realistic upgrades system, but Shift 2 ships with a Career mode and progression system that are both fairly satisfying. It was hard to justify leaving out such a major portion of the game in favor of hot lapping, and therefore I went back to the Polish Tire Mod in the end.
What I find interesting, is that if this is the guy they had helping out with Project CARS, or Slightly Mad Studios were using their own tweaks to achieve a similar result, I’m starting to understand some of the AI issues seen in Project CARS. Considering both games are built on the Madness engine, I believe the AI simply weren’t coded to handle their vehicles at a real world pace. Honestly, they’re totally fine to drive against when running six seconds off pace using either the default tire model or Polish Tire Mod, but when you jack up the realism and start laying down real-world times, that’s when the AI begins to struggle and do a bunch of fucked up things. If SMS had to manually code in that extra pace to keep up with the new batch of realistic physics, I’m not surprised the end result was as poor as it was.
I will hopefully get around to doing a full review of Shift 2 Unleashed in the coming weeks, as it’s a vastly different game with all of the community mods injected into it compared to what you’ll see at your local GameStop for $19.99 used, but this just goes to show the depth of changes people have been making to this game in an effort to turn it into their vision of GTR 3. And I think it’s been enjoyable in a unique way to test out Shift 2 in this third-party state; you really get to see how Slightly Mad Studios handled the transition between Shift 2 and Project CARS. It’s a feeling equivalent to combing through YouTube and stumbling upon the demo tracks of your favorite rock band’s landmark album – you’re given a bit of insight into the internal conversations that helped shape the product.