Legends add-on for Shift 2 captures the joy of looking back

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Before they fell off the face of the earth (i.e. started making NASCAR games), developer Papyrus made a racing game called Grand Prix Legends back in 1998. It was brilliant for both the physics and the old timey subject matter of those cars that are like kazoos with wheels sticking out of the sides. They were thrilling for how they looked and felt like they were going to fall apart. There’s no rollercoaster quite so exciting as a rickety rollercoaster.

As I dig on the Need for Speed: Shift games, I think back to what Papyrus did in Grand Prix Legends. They captured that ineffable sense of speed and power where you’re pushing the edge of control. I’m sure physics has something to do with it, but you’d need a scientist, programmer, or race car driver to explain it. I’m just a videogame reviewer who knows words like “ineffable”.

I expect most of the downloadable content for Shift 2 will be cutting-edge supercars that I couldn’t care less about. This may be racist, but all those Italian sports cars look the same to me. And who can remember how to spell their names? Lam-BRO-ghini or lam-BER-ghini? And where does the H go? And how many pairs of Rs are in Ferrarri? And how is it that “Zonda” isn’t a typo?

So I’m elated that the first DLC for Shift 2 eschews all that nonsense and instead looks back. The Legends pack, as it’s called, doesn’t look as far or narrowly back as the legends of Grand Prix Legends, but at least it’s a step backward to more manageable cars on tracks with less product placement. And I don’t have to look up how to spell of Mini Cooper.

After the jump, fully functional and entirely useless rear view mirrors

Here I am, toodling around in my Mini Cooper S, hurtling along the gently winding length of Rouen’s mostly straight back end. I’m in fourth gear when the red shift indicator comes on. How cute. Because there is, of course, no fifth gear. Mini Cooper S never thought it would be going this fast. As I now know from first hand (virtual) experience, the Mini Cooper S is capable of speeds in excess of 60mph. If you’re patient. It might take a bit of time to reach that particular velocity.

Cars in Shift are assigned a letter grade based on their performance index. Anything over 500 is a C, anything over 1000 is a B, and anything over 1500 is an A. The Minicooper’s performance index is five. That’s right, five (5). So I’m in a race with other D class cars, but only in the most technical sense of “being in a race”. After the first lap, the MIni Coopers are segregated from the other cars, who run on ahead to have a real race. Us three Mini Coopers are left behind to our own devices. It’s as if we’re at the kiddie table during a holiday dinner while the adults talk about politics and R-rated movies.

One thing I love about the Mini Cooper is that it’s one of Shift 2’s rare cars with a useful rear view mirror. Normally, the rear view mirror is inexplicably cut off in the default cockpit view, like so:

So unless the car beind you is meticulously hugging your left rear fender, you don’t be able to to see it. Nice work, Shift 2. You go to all this work to make an awesome interior view and you gimp its basic functionality. But here’s the default interior view of the Mini Cooper.

Of course, there aren’t many occasions in a Mini Cooper when you can actually see anything in the rear view mirror. It’s a rare car that’s driving behind a Mini Cooper in an actual race.

The other cars in Legends aren’t quite as modestly powered as the Mini Cooper. A couple of them are even fast and hard to handle. Many of them have the strange retro-future look of what people in the 60s and 70s must have thought cars would look like in the year 2000. As a guy who isn’t really a fan of how cars actually look in the year 2000, I love how wrong they were. Check out this this ancient BMW:

It looks like a cross between one of the less stupid ships in the Star Wars prequels and the drop ship in Aliens. It’s also pretty powerful and a bit loosey-goosey. Sexy and demanding. I’m in love with it.

The new tracks are mostly reworkings of existing tracks, but when you get to know a track well enough, the differences matter. For instance, the chicane when you’re coming up out that basin at the far side of Dijon-Prenois is pretty familiar. But back in 1972, it apparently had really high curbs. It’s a veritable canyon in the Legends add-on. The bales of hay that lined the tracks back then are pretty easy to punch through when you misjudge a turn and swing a little wide. They’re slight enough that I wonder why they’re even there. To keep hungry horses from standing in the middle of the track? And you know that helicopter covering the race that you can hear hovering over a part of the track? If you can angle a view on it, you’ll notice an era-appropriate aircraft. Also, guess what hadn’t been invented yet in 1972. Those godawful air horns that the audience brings to a race in 2011. I’m almost willing to say that’s reason enough for this $10 add-on. The sense of identity beyond that is just gravy.

Electronic Arts is known for its share of underwhelming or flat-out mercenary tricks to get money from you. But I’m happy to report that the Legends add-on for Shift 2 isn’t one of them.

(Click here for the Shift 2 game diary.)