Shift 2: the Lotus position

, | Game diaries

I hate the Lotus Exige S. It’s small, whiny, twitchy, unreliable, full of energy, but not solid enough to really harness that energy. It’s like an overpowered slot car that’s jumped its slot, or an annoying yipping dog hopped up on meth, or a rollerskate with a V8 engine. It feels so bantamweight. It slides when I don’t want it to. I cringe when I approach gravel. Are these loose stones going to throw this tiny skirling thing off the track? It looks like a faux sports car some rich daddy’s girl would drive.

So why am I driving it over and over and over?

After the jump, the thin finish line between love and hate

I have to drive the Lotus Exige S, because it’s the car I’m assigned in an early event in Shift 2. They call it a loaner, but that’s misleading. A loan is something you can turn down. “No thanks,” you’d say patting the hood of your gleaming reliable Audi TT, “I have my own”. But no such luck. After a series of idiot-proof D class races, the Modern C Invitational forcibly crams me into the driver’s seat of this Lotus with no option to tune it, much less swap it out for a car I don’t loathe.

The track is the Suzuka Circuit. The starting line looks out over a long straightaway that turns into a deceptively shallow bend to the left. I say deceptively, because I can’t get a handle on how to accelerate through this bend. I always swing wide and go over the little red-and-white bumpy edges of the track (I call them burrburrs for the noise they make when I drive over them, but that probably isn’t the technical term). Fortunately, there’s an asphalt apron instead of dirt on the other side of the red-and-white bumpy edges, so I can recover easily enough. But having to finesse this temperamental little diva over the burrburrs adds precious tenths of seconds to my lap time. The Lotus even makes me scared of Shift 2’s new gravel technology, because I hear those little rocks pinging into the bottom of my Lotus and wonder if they’re going to mess up my steering.

Furthermore, the objective of this race — and frankly, this should be the objective of any serious race — is “do not whiff a corner and spin out, because that means you’re going to come in last place”. So when this little spoiled brat throws a fit because I’ve misjudged a turn — sheesh, sue me, you stupid car; I’m only human — that’s pretty much it for the race.

Now to be fair to Shift 2, it’s not like I absolutely have to play this race. I can easily skip it. The career progression lets me jump around among events at will. Once you’ve got a few levels under your belt, which happens really quickly, events bloom like flowers in the spring. It’s a veritable race buffet and there’s no reason to drive races you don’t want to drive. Unless, of course, you’re like me and you’ve gotten sucked into a battle of wills with an inanimate object called the Lotus Exige S. A virtual inanimate object that you’re determined to whip into shape and show who’s boss.

The first order of business is adjusting steering sensitivity. I figured that early on. I have a slickly responsive Fanatec Porsche wheel. The setting for steering deadzone automatically goes to 0% when I plug in the wheel, but for some reason, Shift 2 suggests a little leeway for steering sensitivity. Nothing doing. If I so much as tilt the wheel a millimeter to one side, I want the car to know it. Steering sensitivity 100%, baby!

But once the Lotus gets up to speed, she starts swaying drunkenly, which is making the straightaways even more white-knuckled than the intricate turns. This isn’t how racing should be. The straightaways are where you mash the accelerator and breathe easy and thrill to Shift 2’s fantastic speed tricks. The cockpit blurs and the distance comes into sharp focus in a videogame approximation of tunnel vision. I can’t enjoy this effect if I have to juke and feint with the steering wheel. I eventually discover the speed sensitivity setting, which for some reason suggests the wheel should be less responsive at higher speeds. I’m not sure who invented that, but I rebuke whatever engineering principle he was trying to model and I bump speed sensitivity to 100%. Once again, if I so much as tilt the wheel a millimeter to one side, I want the car to know it. I don’t care how fast it’s going.

So now I’m getting a better handle on this excitable little princess of a car. I start in third place out of eight cars. I’ll be ready to move on from this event once I get a podium finish. Which means replaying this race until I get 3rd place or better. Which means not screwing up and letting one of those other five cars that starts behind me get in front of me.

Part of what I love is that Shift 2 understands me. It knows I’m going to play this race over and over. Any racing game worth its salt knows better than to waste my time with a wasted race. So Shift 2 gives me experience points, money, and track completion bonuses even when I don’t place. As with the previous Shift, every curve I drive flawlessly (i.e. follow the line smoothly and accelerate out appropriately) gets ticked off the map, like an achievement. In fact, there are badges for completely mastered tracks, and achievements tied into badges, just like the first game.

So me and this spoiled diva of a car race a few races. And by a few, I mean at least ten. Sure, I fail over and over. Well, “fail”. Shift doesn’t believe in failing. I’m basically choosing which type of advancement is important to me. If I want to just plow through the different events and beat my friends’ times, I could do that. If I just want to accumulate cars, I could do that. If I just want to work on badges, or level up, or upgrade cars, or set up tuning configurations for time attacks, I could do all that. But what I want to do now is get this annoying temperamental little brat over the finish line in advance of at least five of these eight cars.

So I’m on my tenth race or so, convinced I’ll eventually make a mistake, at which point the Lotus will punish me and let the other five cars zip ahead. But so far, so good. I spend most of my time staring at the ass-end of a Nissan 370Z in second place. Ahead of him, a BMW Z4 has a stranglehold on first place. I manage to trade second place with the Nissan a few times, but I’m being cautious. On the fourth lap out of five, I pass the Nissan on the penultimate turn, a hairpin that involves some serious and carefully timed brake mashing. The turn pushes the limits of my steering lock and requires careful timing for when to straighten out the wheel. It’s a bit like not hamfisting a flight simulator: smooth movements, anticipate the direction of the plane in advance of the control position, guide it instead of reacting to it, learn to trust the stick, and various other zennish things you learn flying fake airplanes. After this hairpin turn, it’s just a matter of holding second place in advance of this Nissan. I have no intention of trying to pass that BMW way up there. He can have first place. And, really, I could have let the Nissan have second place. But I’m here, so it’s mine now, dammit.

So we all take a gradual turn into the straightaway and across the starting line for our final lap. And there’s that gradual curve to the left. I need to get through it smoothly, because if I swing wide as usual, the Nissan is just going to take second place back from me. Sure enough, I choke, just like I always do when the stakes are high. I suck at anything with high stakes, like poker, dating, and final laps. So here I am, swinging wide over the red-and-white burrburrs and inching out over the wide asphalt apron, giving the Nissan just enough time and space to get back into second place.

But here’s where I know what real racing is like. Here’s where I like Shift 2 so much that it’s about more than just powering forward, which is pretty much what I do in even the best racing games. Here’s where me and Shift 2 click in a way that I’ve never clicked with a serious racing game that wasn’t called Need for Speed: Shift. Because here’s where I make a conscious decision about when and where to pass that Nissan, and when and where to not pass it.

Our cars are really close now. Close enough that I just need to stay on him and not let him pull ahead. I know the track by now. Damn, do I know the track. I know that my car is a twitchy little bitch and that I can’t afford anything risky. I know how his car is behaving around the turns. He seems to take longer than me to brake*. And I know that on the penultimate hairpin turn, I can afford a little extra time to shoot past him before I brake and pull around inside his turning radius.

And that’s what I do on the final lap of the Modern C Invitational at the Suzuka Circuit in my Lotus Exige S, which I used to hate, but that I instantly loved once she gracefully slipped past that Nissan on the next to last turn, cruising easily if not stridently (god, that engine sound…) over the finish line in second place. Like all the best racing games, there’s more to Shift than just winning.

Up next: Viper envy

* Later, checking the stats, I see that the Nissan actually has a slight edge on the Lotus Exige in terms of braking. I’m playing on the medium difficulty level in terms of driver skill, so I’m guessing the other cars’ performance is dialed down a touch. Lucky for me.