Heavy. That's the best word to describe Need for Speed Shift 2: Unleashed. Perhaps 'weighty' too. Not in a sluggish way, mind. Don't get that into your head there. Nicely heavy, satisfyingly weighty. Especially when you crash, and you will, because Shift 2, like its predecessor, won't be your typical slick arcade experience where you can glide to victory after smashing into multiple barriers and coming out unscathed.
Surprisingly few of you actually bothered to pick up the first Shift, a rather radical branching as it was from the main NFS tree. Focused on gritty realism, it didn't strike the correct chord with the punter, even though it was well reviewed and is still highly thought of in journalistic circles. Cash is what counts in this business, of course, and EA have continuously been jabbing forks into the eyes of Slightly Mad Studios' development team in order to make them 'friendly' the game up for more mass consumption.
With this in mind, NFS: Hot Pursuit's Autolog feature has been integrated into Shift 2, bringing with all manner of time tracking and social networking-type things that are supposed to make you want to buy the game more. As one of the developers quipped during the hands-on, “It doesn't mean much if you've got no friends, of course”. Couldn't have said it better myself.
The demos the assembled journalistic throng were allowed to get their mits on were strictly fixed to probably the most visually exciting new addition, the in-helmet camera. Cranium Cam, anyone? This is designed to go further than a mere cockpit view might, fixing your viewpoint within the bonce of the bloke behind the wheel. The edge of the screen is even blacked out to indicate your viewing the race through a visor.
It's not going to be for the faint-hearted, as it's a tough view to race from. Aside from the obvious limited viewing range, the head wobbles about when you turn corners and do anything other than drive slowly in a straight line. Mildly disorientating at best, it leads to many a confusing moment when the inevitable collisions come along. To say your view is impeded is an understatement, with all sorts of G-Force whipping your camera around. To cut a long story short then, it's easily the most realistic-feeling in-car viewing angle we've seen in a game.
And if you think that's bad, try playing in this view at night. Slightly Mad are proudly claiming theirs is the darkest night racing mode ever included in a game, and it's hard to argue. Caution will be the watchword, because lose a headlight and you'll be crippled. Lost both and it might as well be race over. It's not going to be like a neon-soaked race track where it's almost as light as it would be during the day time. This is “proper night”.
As mentioned, it'll also feel heavy, in a good way. Your car feels substantial, like a big piece of metal on wheels should. It'll certainly take longer to get used to this style of racer than it would your more arcade-y fare like Dirt 2 or GRID. Slightly Mad, while introducing a few features to placade the publishers and the more casual observer, won't be swayed on their commitment to delivering a more hardcore racing experience. Tempered slightly, but still more rugged than most things appearing nowadays.
It's frustrating, as a very limited run through doesn't give us time to really get to grips with the way the game functions. However, despite mashing our cars into barriers on far too many occasions, it's clear there's a lot of good racing to be had here, just like there was in the first one. It won't let the fans down, you can bet on that. It's a different matter whether people will be tempted to invest in this if they ignored the first. If you asked us, we'd advise you to pick up Shift 1 on the cheap and see what you think.