"Shift had a bit of an identity crisis", admits Jesse Abney, producer on Shift 2: Unleashed. That's why with its sequel, you don't see the words Need, For, or Speed anywhere in the title. "It's a way to differentiate Shift 2 from the rest of the Need for Speed brand", he explains. It's an important point to make: many people went into Shift expecting neon under-lights, spike strips and slow-mo car crashes, and they were disappointed when they got a rather straight-laced simulation. That's not a slight on the game at all; what it did, Shift did very well, but it was very different to what the rest of the series was doing. Dropping "Need for Speed" from the title is a polite way of reminding gamers that this isn't a game for boy racers and chavs. It's a technically accomplished simulation, and it demands time, patience and skill.
I found this out the hard way. Flying down the home straight of Brands Hatch, I was ready to tackle my first corner of the game - a hard right. I noticed the racing line had turned from green, to yellow, to red, but for some inexplicable reason I decided to keep my foot (finger) planted on the gas. At about 70mph - mere yards from the entrance of the corner - I let off the gas and attempted to turn, expecting to drift smoothly round the bend. What happened was a whole lot less elegant. I drove straight through the gravel trap and ploughed into a barrier. The windscreen of my Alfa Romeo (the default car I was expected to use) was a canvas of cracks and lightning bolt shaped fissures. I drove the rest of the way round the track with this as a permanent reminder to brake earlier next time.
Hot Pursuit was to blame, of course. I'd sunk a lot of time into it over Christmas, and muscle memory forced me to play in a certain way. This highlights just how different Shift 2 is from its Criterion-born counterpart. Abney is right, if you go into the game with the wrong frame of mind, you're not going to have a good time. This is exactly what real petrolheads are after, however. Once I'd got a few laps under my belt, I noticed I was becoming more in tune with my car. You really need to 'feel' the track underneath your wheels in order to know when to let off the gas, when to turn and when to brake. You can drift, but it's a very technical, precise kind of drift, and you'll lose control of it in an instant if you can't tame it.
As with the first game, the in-car view is pretty magnificent. The leather of the steering wheel, the needle of the speedometer, the ludicrously detailed upholstery; it all contributes to one of the most authentic cockpit views in any driving game to date, with only Gran Turismo 5 offering much in the way of competition. Things are slightly different this time around, though. The camera is pulled back, hovering above the driver's head. This helmet-cam gives a much better sense of being sat there in the vehicle. As the car slides around corners, the camera slides with it; you can almost feel the G's as you fly round a hairpin at 40mph. If you're planning on using any other camera angle, be prepared to miss out on a lot of what the game does best.
Of course Shift 2 does more than just offer a new camera angle. There are many fundamental changes to the formula, too. Slightly Mad Studios has increased the scope of the sequel dramatically, applying their impressive physics and lovely camera tricks to a bevy of new game modes. The career now spans seven different motorsports, all with their own 'bosses' in the form of real world racing drivers. The idea is to win the championship in each discipline, and eventually become the GT1 FIA World Champion. Achievement unlocked.
There are more new features in the way of night racing, but I'm sure you don't need me to explain what that's all about. More exciting, for me at least, is the inclusion of Autolog, which is now part of the DNA of Need for Speed. I liked Hot Pursuit a lot, but the racing itself really didn't let itself to time attack all that well. Competing against your own times is a lot more fun when you cut out the extraneous variables - the oncoming traffic, the spike strips, the EMP blasts. In Hot Pursuit I often felt luck had just as much to do with some of my times as skill. It's a completely different story in Shift 2, where it's all on you. There are sharp corners, hairpins and chicanes, where Hot Pursuit largely just had straights. Generally there's just more of an opportunity to shave time off a friend's lap. The original Shift was a good game, but Autolog could well be the feature that makes this sequel a great one.
It's interesting that EA is putting more coin into the simulation side of the racing genre, especially given how firmly Forza and Gran Turismo have staked their claim on the territory. I always assumed Shift would be a one-off for the Need For Speed franchise - like Most Wanted or Carbon were - but I'm now thankful this isn't the case. Shift 2 refines, improves and builds on all the right areas. The team is fully aware of Gran Turismo 5's shortcomings, too, and they're confident they know how to make a more enjoyable racing sim. Shift 2 isn't an 'encyclopaedia for cars' or a manager mode; it's a simulation with all the style and zest that defined other games in the franchise. Whether it lives up to its own claims remains to be seen, but my impressions of the game seem to reflect Slightly Mad Studio's hopes nicely.
Shift 2 Unleashed is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on March 25.