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Need for Speed Shift 2: Unleashed

The shift that keeps on giving

Review supplied by Xbox World 360 magazine issue 104 - buy the latest issue online now.

Shift 2 Unleashed's developers might have a passion for tuning and racing exotic sports cars (we can tell this because we don't understand a word of what's being said in the cut-scenes), but their real talent lies in wrecking them.

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Those who have played the original Need for Speed Shift will already be familiar with the series' benchmark-setting crashes. Spiral into a concrete wall at high velocity and the screen blurs as if broken by the impact.

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The driver grunts a guttural noise that can only be made while a lung is lodged in your throat, and the controller vibrates with such force that your living room detaches from mainland Britain and floats off to Greenland.

All that's missing is the guide button inflating IN YOUR FACE. As we unfortunately discovered one snowy night last December, it's an almost perfect likeness of what it's like to be in an actual high-speed car crash, and Slightly Mad Studios, not being a Totally Mad Studio, has seen no reason to fiddle with a winning formula.

Instead, they've been busy devising new ways to hurt the ones they love. The addition of full vehicular damage models was an obvious evolution for the series, but man, they didn't need to be quite so nasty about it.

Beaten-up cars splutter and wheeze their way around the course in a thoroughly distressing manner, shedding ground-up pieces of debris which mingle with the gravel on the race track, making for the most viciously hazardous terrain you can possibly imagine.

LEASHED LIGHTNING
Shift 2's appetite for destruction is precisely why it won't achieve its ambition of being seen as a serious rival to the likes of Forza 3, and precisely why that isn't necessarily a bad thing; Shift 2 Unleashed is a dirtier, meaner brand of racer than anything that has wheeled its way out of Turn 10 or Polyphony's paddocks and while it seriously lags behind in terms of realism or exhaustive features, it more than makes up for it by transposing the grit, tussle and excitement of an arcade racer into the sim racer realm.

With Project Gotham currently declared totally unroadworthy, there's no other racing game quite on Shift's wavelength, and there's definitely a vacancy on the Xbox 360's racer grid for a game that can expertly marry rigorous discipline with incredible wheel-to-wheel racing.

Not quite sure where they plucked the awful 'Unleashed' subtitle from, though. From a hat full of annoying marketing buzzwords, probably. But if anything, Shift 2 takes the youthful exuberance of the first game and clamps a leash on it.

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The wild oversteer of the cars is the first casualty; although screeching round corners is still more hectic than perhaps purists would like, the handling model has nonetheless been ratcheted down several notches to give it a crisper, more precise feel.

Although there was much charm in the way the first game made you feel like you were always pushing your car to the edge of its limitations, the sequel is all the stronger for this compromise, giving you more control and thus more confidence to push your battered genitalia extension around the course.

The interface, too, has been scaled back dramatically and the levelling-up system has been subtly reworked. Need For Speed Shift in its youthful innocence bombarded the player's eyes with a constant drip of feedback, but while they've retained the basic reward system framework for this sequel, it's taken a back seat to allow the player the freedom to adapt to the conditions on the track without getting constantly bitch-slapped for veering off the racing line.

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