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Learning to drive a stick shift on my mother's BMW 325 was one of the most maddening experiences in a teenage life full of them. I just could not figure out what the hell that thing's clutch wanted out of me. It defied all verbal instruction. It was a car of undeniable quality, and a bad one to learn on. I feel the same way about Electronic Arts' Shift 2 Unleashed on the iPhone.
Ultimately, I got both pieces of engineering to work. But in neither case could I take anything for granted, including just getting going safely. From there, yeah, learned how to downshift, subtly overtake a friend, and glide through the next turn, and both experiences grew on me. But it took a hell of a lot of time, including getting up and walking away, in both instances.
Shift 2 Unleashed ($4.99 on the iTunes App Store, for all iOS devices) assumes a good deal of prior knowledge in its racers. There's no tutorial other than the four starting races and if you haven't played a Need for Speed title on the iOS, you'll be replaying these events four and five times to get the hang of basic controls when a simple slide-based instruction manual would have done nicely. I uninstalled and reinstalled Shift 2 Unleashed just to make sure I hadn't missed an instruction level. I hadn't. While I'm good on most everything now, like the clutch on mom's car, I still can't understand what the hell the thing wants me to do in a drift race, especially since so few of the turns seem to actually demand drifting.
Acceleration and gear shifting is automatic by default, though you can manually enable them through your options menu. On the iPhone, this is just not advised as the screen is so small that all the swiping and button-holding will constantly obscure your view. Braking is difficult enough as it is. Feathering the brakes takes a good deal of touch as there's enough lag in the control that rapid-fire presses don't automatically register (you can see this in some menu selections, even.) Normal brake depresses have the disadvantage of not really feeling connected to deceleration, visually, until it's too late. In multicar sprint races, frameskip (which I encountered on an iPhone 4) is a silent adversary as well.
If you have no experience with the Shift series on mobile, it'll take you a good dozen of the preliminary races to get comfortable with the track. Then it's off to your career, which unfolds conventionally: Win races, get cash, tune your car, buy a better one, win higher-ranked races. As you ascend in classification the field gets tougher, which provides a passive-aggressive means of forcing you to replay lower level events to ace them and put the proceeds toward a winning ride. You can skip that messiness, of course, by laying out actual money to fill up your account. Even if I had greater familiarity with Shift Unleashed as a mobile racer I doubt I would avail myself of that option.
In terms of multiplayer, human head-to-head play is through local connection only. Otherwise, most everything goes through leaderboards and challenges in the relentlessly pimped Origin, constantly reminding you to check in and see what others are up to. Sorry, I just don't yet have a network of friends on that service and I'm not interested in maintenancing yet another one right now.
If you're looking to graduate from another iPhone racer, even Need for Speed: Most Wanted into serious mobile driving, expect to spend some time with Shift 2 Unleashed because it will not communicate its expectations very well at the outset. You'll then hit a rut or two trying to three-star a clean-driving event to get enough cash to buy an essential upgrade for the next race. The good news is the races are pretty brief, so there's not the agony of driving four clean laps and wiping out on the fifth.
You'll still feel like you're handling a game with legitimate heft, in the visuals, the deep control set, and the overall production values. Yes, Shift 2 Unleashed serves bite-sized challenges and experiences and even now I feel like I'm on the verge of getting it. But in terms of engrossing fun, no. It's just too intellectual and demanding to be a pick-up-and-play racer, which is still my expectation of this genre on this platform.
Shift 2 Unleashed [iTunes]