In the 1971 film Le Mans, Steve McQueen plays an aging racing driver named Delaney who's been riding the edge for a bit too long. After a nasty crash the previous year, he's back, a bit broken, at the famous endurance race to try again.
Aside from a few snippets of dialogue and some intense staring contests between McQueen and the rest of the cast, there isn't much exposition. Instead, the story is told chiefly through engine noise, track dust, shredded tires, crowd reaction and zipping images of the French countryside. Like the sport it chronicles, Le Mans is a film that demands your focus at every turn.
There's a drama to racing that video games have so far failed to capture. Even when they blow us away with their realistic tire physics (Forza Motorsport 3), spam us with beautifully reproduced cars (Gran Turismo 5) and smother us in style (Grid), racing games tend to be about everything but the actual feeling of driving a car at realistically ridiculous speeds for a living.
Shift Unleashed 2 is a step by Electronic Arts and developerSlightly Mad Studios toward whittling away at that problem. The sequel to 2009's Need For Speed: Shift, it straddles the line between realistic racing simulator and just-for-fun thrill ride. If you like, you can treat it like an arcade-style romp through a series of stages meant to mimic a racing career. Bump the difficulty level down, ramp up the driving assists, and you get all the joy of whipping expensive race cars around Monza without crashing into every guardrail. But that's not really racing, now is it?
Shift 2 retains some of the most popular elements of its predecessor – experience points, leveling, badges for performance, visceral driver/track interaction – and piles on the realism. There's now a full Elite simulation mode that nips at the heels of Forza and Gran Turismo. Full damage is now available, allowing for race-ending crashes. Debris will litter the road after a wreck, and you can shred a tire if you're already worn too thin. The physics are improved, the artificial intelligence is smarter and there are stat meters, upgrades and tweaks galore. All these changes blend to form a mystical connection between car and driver. But Shift 2's true innovation is the helmet cam, an optional point-of-view that disconnects the driver's perspective from the body of the car and simulates a real head on a real neck.
Try texting while driving now.
Like throwing a bundle of steel and carbon fiber around a racetrack at 200 mph, the Shift 2 helmet cam is not for everyone. It's different. It's scary. It takes some getting used to. It bounces around. It forces you to pay attention. And it's the closest I've come to feeling the virtual fear of driving fast. The helmet cam isn't just a change in perspective. When you're nearing a turn, the camera gently looks toward the apex, pulling your field of vision into the right racing line. Once you're there, it reorients to straight ahead in the exit. The cam also blurs your vision at the edges as you reach high speeds, simulating the tunnel vision effect racers feel on the track. It's exciting, but it's a thrill that blinds you. While you're grinning at your speedometer, someone could be overtaking you. Focus.
I've only played about an hour of Shift 2's career mode, so I can't make a judgment about the final game yet. But what I've seen made me want to grab the game and lock myself in a room. In the final minutes of Le Mans, McQueen's character tries to explain to his love interest why he risks his life to drive faster than everyone else.
The ultimate helmet cam.
"When you're racing, it's life," he says. "Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
I'll be playing more Shift 2 in the weeks ahead, and I'll be curious to see if it can truly tap into the experience of racing to live. That's a tall order for a video game, but it's worth aspiring to.