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Shift 2: Unleashed - The best sim racer yet?

Don't look a Shift course in the mouth...

A simulation racing series by trade, NFS Shift is jostling for the same stretch of tarmac as technically-minded driving games Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5 - that's a pair of daunting pacesetters right there.

But although Shift 2: Unleashed can't compete with its more illustrious rivals in terms of number-crunching, it has one thing that they lack: impact.

Broadside someone in Gran Turismo and you'll collide with all the force of a couple of lawn bowls clunking together in the park. Broadside someone in Shift 2 and it'll take seven firefighters two days to cut you out of the wreckage of your sofa.

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Fans of the first Shift will know exactly what we're talking about: the screen blurs, the driver wheezes as if it was it were his last breath, and the pad rumbles as though it were attempting lift-off.

But now, your car crumples in tune with your spirits, thanks to the addition of a fully-realised vehicular damage system. Although we didn't manage to critically damage our car during the playtest session (and heavens, did we ever try), boisterous racing swiftly leads to mangled car innards, which in turn leads to revised race expectations as you're forced to nurse a broken-down comedy car to the finish line.

Careful, clean racing is the way forward in Shift 2 - perhaps that's why Slightly Mad have removed the 'aggression v precision' scoring system in favour of one single catch-all XP pot.

HEAD GAMES
Shift 2's sheer physicality is exacerbated by the new Helmet Cam viewpoint, which sets the camera right behind the driver's visor. It's similar to the traditional cockpit view (which was by far the best way to experience the first game), but offers a slightly higher perspective, allowing you to see more of the road ahead.

However, sunlight reflects off your visor, forming an overpowering bloom effect on its surface which means that on certain stretches of track, your visibility is reduced to that of a Premier League linesman.

Helmet Cam conditions also make high-speed collisions even more traumatic than before - spin into a wall and the camera will rattle your brain around as if it were a caged parrot in an Arabic Bazaar. The Helmet Cam viewpoint is the self-styled expert's choice.

Its visual idiosyncrasies might make it a poor choice for beginners, but it offers hardened racers an extra edge; the right analogue stick can be employed to 'lean' into corners as you turn, allowing you to out-brake the opposition or shave vital milliseconds off your lap time.

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SNOOP LOGGY LOG
EA have also updated their Autolog system (as seen in the recent Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit) so that it now persistently displays your friends' lap times, ensuring that there's always an achievable target in view.

It's similar to the system used by Bizarre Creations' Geometry Wars 2 (which the developers have cited as a direct influence) and turns the game on its head; now every race is a constant battle for Monday morning bragging rights in the office/school/oil rig/prison/wherever it is you hang out.

The time trial-obsessed Autolog system was a poor fit for Hot Pursuit, with its randomised traffic patterns and weapon-based chaos, but it fits Shift 2: Unleashed's fetish for clean, precise racing like a leather murder glove.

It's a thrillingly compulsive framework for a sim racing sequel which fixes everything that was wrong with its predecessor efficiently and without fuss. It doesn't have 1031 variations of a Honda Accord. It doesn't give you the option of spray-painting your car's livery to make it look like a Chomp Bar on wheels.

But what it does do is offer some of the grittiest, most intense racing we've seen in a generation. Be sure to keep track of this one; it's firmly lodged in Forza's slipstream.

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