Need for Speed SHIFT is aptly named. Not only do you "shift" gears when you drive (clever, huh?), but it marks a complete "shift" in direction for the series. Thank god, we say. The last one, Undercover, was a bitter disappointment.

Really. Forget everything you know about Need for Speed. Forget all that cynicism. Forget all those ridiculous live action cut scenes with whatshername from thingymebob. Forget all the slowdown. Forget all the gangster silliness. There's no police. There's no open world. This is real racing. Need for Speed SHIFT is a serious racer for serious racing fans, and you'd better get used to it.

And it's being developed by serious racers too. Slightly Mad Studios in fact, which has been drafted in by EA to reignite the series following the hugely disappointing EA Black Box-developed Undercover. Never heard of Slightly Mad? Sceptical as to its credentials? Don't be. According to SHIFT's press release it's made up of guys and girls who worked on hardcore PC racing simulations GTR2 and GT Legends (although rival racing developer SimBin Studios begs to differ). Whatever the truth, what's not in dispute is the kind of racer SHIFT is going to be: bloody hard.

Well, at least a lot harder than previous Need for Speed games anyway, as a recent hands-on session with a pre-alpha build of the game proved. Perhaps not hard in a totally hardcore simulation GTR way - this is Need for Speed after all - but hard in a "I actually have to think about when I'm braking, how my car handles and the racing line I'm taking on this tight corner" kind of way. Let's be honest, most Need for Speed games aren't heavy work on the little grey cells. SHIFT will be.

So says Suzi Wallace, the game's producer, who calls SHIFT the simulation title within the Need for Speed franchise's three-pronged reboot in 2009, which includes the "casual" oriented Need for Speed Nitro on Wii and DS and the free-to-play Need for Speed World Online for PC. "There's lots of racing games out there, lots of titles on the market," she says, "but what we think most games out there tend to be is very focused on cars, what we term car collecting. It's all about getting as many cars as possible in your garage and upgrading to your next car. Where we're going with SHIFT is we want the focus to be on you as a driver, and we don't feel any game has properly achieved this." Bold worlds indeed.

The car models are the best we've ever seen

What Suzi is talking about is making you feel like you're actually driving a car, which is SHIFT's primary goal. Tied into this are G-Forces, which the team has attempted to simulate with a variety of clever camera techniques. You'll know what she's on about if you've ever been in a car that's had to slam on the brakes quickly, perhaps because of a surprise red light - you're catapulted forward. Or if you've been a tad too "enthusiastic" with your acceleration - your head is pushed back.

In the game, when you accelerate the camera will pull back, and when you brake it'll zoom in, simulating the driver's head movement in real-time. The camera will shake about when you drive over bumper strips, and, at higher speeds, will almost rumble, giving you a sense of hurtling along the track full throttle. In SHIFT, the camera isn't just a tool through which you get the best view of the action, it's intrinsically tied into the shifting G-Forces at play in the car.

Simulating G-Forces isn't the only gaming mechanic that helps put the sim in SHIFT. Crashes have been paid plenty of attention, too. In games, Suzi says, crashes don't mean much. "In games you don't care. You bounce off the wall, who cares. We want you to be afraid of crashing." In SHIFT, crashes will trigger all sorts of clever visual jiggery pokery in order to simulate the affect they have on your ability to drive properly. Slightly rub against the side of a track, for example, and you'll see very slight smearing of the side of the screen. Smash head-on into another car and the camera will grab you by the neck and virtually shake the eyeballs out of your head. The camera has a fit, there's loads of blur and post-processing effects and you'll even hear your driver's heart beat as his life flashes in front of his eyes. If you crash at a high enough speed you'll even wind your unfortunate driver, and you'll hear him panting for breath as he attempts to recover. The idea is to disorientate the driver and actually punish you for crashing, something we're not particularly used to in the Need for Speed series.

In the playable preview build shown, two tiers of cars were available: a Lotus Elise, Audi RS4 and a Shelby Terlingua made up one tier and, above it, a Corvette Z06, Pagani Zonda F and a Porsche GT2 made up the other. And two tracks we're playable: Brands Hatch and a fictional track around London (but is based on real streets). Brands Hatch, with its generous curves and racing lines, is a good starting point, as well as a car from the lower tier. Again, SHIFT is hard, and unless you have virtual driving skills honed by hours of play with Forza or PGR or the like, you're going to see all those flashy visual crash effects sooner rather than later. But you do get used to it. After a race or two, you get used to the realistic handling and the G-Force effects, and you feel confident enough to step it up. The London track is one hell of a challenge, with 90 degree turns aplenty. Taking it on with one of the top tier cars and winning an actual race will be one hell of a satisfying achievement.

It's already looking incredible

If SHIFT's difficulty surprises, its graphics blow you away. The car models are incredibly detailed, and full race kits make them look simply beautiful. Really, this is not hyperbole. SHIFT's cars might be the best looking ever seen in a game. There's full damage in there too. Front bumper, rear bumper, wing mirrors - you can wreck it all. As you'd expect, the handling and performance of the car is also affected by the damage. That the game is only in pre-alpha stage boggles the mind, really. Just how good can SHIFT's graphics get?

The cockpits are hugely impressive: full working gauges, soft shadows, fully animated gear stick changes, pedal pushing and wheel steering really add to the sense of driving a real car. Your grip on the wheel changes when you're at high speeds, simulating the concentration of the driver. And when you're pushing your mechanical monster hard the cockpit will start to blur out and the camera will focus on the track ahead. Subtle reflections display on the windscreen, which you don't really notice until you go into shade, but it's there. That you might actually want to play SHIFT in the cockpit view makes it potentially a rare racer indeed. From what we've seen, SHIFT's graphics are going to make it the Killzone 2 of racers. And there wasn't a snippet of slow-down in sight.

EA is taking the Need for Speed series in very interesting directions in 2009. Clearly with SHIFT EA is gunning for the Forzas, the Gran Turismos, the GRIDs and the PGRs of this world, and stepping back from the battle with Rockstar's Midnight Club and, to an extent, its own Burnout series. Playing it, you get a real sense of speed when you do have the opportunity to put your foot down, but the increased difficulty, the more sim-like feel of the game, doesn't afford that opportunity often. This will be a turn-off for some fans of the Need for Speed series, that much can't be denied. For them, the instantly gratifying, somewhat easygoing thrill-a-second nature of recent Need for Speeds will be missed. Really, SHIFT feels hardly like a Need for Speed game at all. But if it means it's not a rushed out of the door mess, then we're all for it.

Need for Speed SHIFT will be released on PS3, Xbox 360, PSP and PC in the autumn.