Shift 2: is American muscle too hard to handle?

, | Game diaries

While talking to someone recently about real time strategy games, I was trying to explain the distinct appeal of Company of Heroes as opposed to Starcraft II. They’re both excellent games, they both look fantastic, and they both reward skilled gameplay. But they’re hugely different in an important way.

Starcraft II is designed as an e-sport. It rewards skill above all else. It’s based on the placement of a sentry shield, the crucial seconds spent moving drones between resources, and the timing of a chronoboost. It’s a gorgeous game, to be sure, but it was built primarily for its long and arguably infinite learning curve.

Company of Heroes is a war movie game to end all war movie games, and it captures the feel of World War II action as well as any shooter. You can’t help but be awed by the destructible terrain, the animation, the voice acting, the explosions, and the spectacle of it all. It requires skill, to be sure, but it’s one of those rare RTSs that lives in your gut more than your head.

This idea of a skill vs. spectacle is a spectrum. I can’t think of any RTS that doesn’t appeal to both skill and spectacle. It’s just that some lean one way or the other.

After the jump…wait, did you paste the wrong text into this entry?

Now that I’ve bought plenty of cars, I suppose it’s time to start upgrading them, which will eventually lead to tuning them, which is probably where I’m going to hit the limits of my involvement with Shift 2. But that’s still a ways off. So, let’s see, looking over my garage, I consider which car needs some upgrade love.

Ah, the Dodge Charger. What a gorgeous slab of Americana that I can barely drive to save my life. Muscle cars in a typical racing game are all power and no finesse, sitting high and heavy on their suspension, with more horsepower than sense. It’s like playing a barbarian in an RPG. Let’s see if I can put a few points into the barbarian’s dexterity, wisdom, and intelligence.

Apparently I can’t. Because after slapping in various parts willy nilly, I’ve pieced together a Frankenstein monster of a car. That’s what happens when you have money in inverse proportion to your technical know-how. Whatever cams, valves, differentials, and intakes are, I just gave this Charger the most expensive ones. So when I press the accelerator, it just spins out. This car has enough torque to power the Eastern seaboard. I seriously can’t even make it around the first bend in a race. Just the breeze of a nearby car sends me into a tailspin and then I’m doing donuts in the dirt, which is a terrible way to win a race. I don’t even think I like this Charger anymore. Did I really call it a gorgeous slab of Americana? Who says that about a car? So stupid. In fact, I don’t even think I like American muscle cars anymore. It’s time for an Impreza or something.

But as I’m backing out of the upgrade screen, I notice the new system for works conversions in Shift 2. I don’t really know what “works conversion” means. I suspect cams, valves, differentials, and intakes are involved. In Shift 1, you could upgrade certain cars in each of three areas, and that would unlock the works conversion option. I think of it as the fourth skill in a League of Legends hero, or a Warcraft III hero before that, or a capital ship in Sins of a Solar Empire if that’s your bag. Works conversion is a car’s ultimate power.

But in Shift 2, once you pour enough money into a car’s upgrades, a bar fills up until it reaches the point where the car qualifies for a works conversion. My misshapen undriveable butt-ugly Charger is now eligible. This resets all the car’s other upgrades. So rather than strip them off one-by-one (Shift 2 is the Wal-Mart of racing games, letting you return any upgrades you don’t like for a full refund), I figure I’ll just give the stupid thing a “works conversion” to be done with it before moving on to my Impreza.

So, stupid undriveable Dodge Charger, here, have a works conversion.

Whoa, that’s interesting. It looks a little different. Maybe sexier. I wonder how it handles.

The track is the Glendale Club, which is a pleasantly curvy and undulating drive in a class D or C car. But in anything faster, it’s a rollercoaster ride. And this newly converted Dodge Charger, which is now class A, actually stays on the track as I run a few tentative laps. Obviously, I don’t know enough about cars to just slap upgrades onto them, but this works conversion hooha has a sense of balance and control. It’s like an upgrade from someone who knows what he’s doing!

The Charger lurches, but I can rein her in. The tires squeal, the chassis sway wildly, the engine alternately growls and purrs. But she holds the road. In the replay, I’ll later admire how the rear spoiler rides high and proud like a rooster’s tail. I had tried to paint the Charger black by fiddling with the hue and saturation settings, but in the Glendale sunlight, it’s dark red, like a vat of blood.

For some weird reason, when I load the replay to grab screens, Shift 2 has decided my Charger was candy red. I’m slightly offended.

No car I’ve driven handles like this works converted Dodge Charger. It might as well be a whole other game. And now I’m doing laps on Glendale over and over again because I want to get better, not necessarily at the game, but with this car. Which has the side effect of getting better at the game. While I wrestle pleasantly with my Charger — this is what riding a horse in Red Dead Redemption should be like! — I get a sense of physics. Are they realistic? Probably, but who cares. I couldn’t give a wooden nickel whether driving physics are realistic. I just care that they have personality. And with enough personality, I want my driving game to appeal to the skill side of that skill/spectacle equation. Personality is something to parse, to understand, to master. I may not become a better race car driver. But I will be better at playing Shift 2.

Criterion’s latest driving games — well, “driving” games — are almost pure spectacle, and as such, they couldn’t be less interesting to me. The latest Burnout games and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit were chores to me. Point down the road and just watch the graphics happen. That’s obviously fine for some people. But here I am circling Glendale in an unruly and mighty Dodge Charger, getting far better at a driving game than I ever meant to get.

Up next: the color of gravity
Click here for the previous Shift 2 entry.