My advice? Don't bother with any of the exterior cameras when playing Shift 2: Unleashed. Just don't. Play it as you'd drive a real car; perched behind the windscreen, head dancing to the contours of the track. Be the driver, not the car. Because in terms of making you believe that you're sat there in the driver's seat, fingers curled around the steering wheel as the car screams around a track at 150mph, Shift 2 has no equal.

Suffice to say, Shift 2's cockpit views are unparalleled. Yes, better than Gran Turismo 5's. As you tear down a straight, the camera shakes and the dashboard blurs, and the odd bit of dirt flicks up from the track onto the windscreen. From the texture of a driver's gloves to the upholstery reflected on the windscreen, it's clear that Shift 2 is in a league of its own in terms of cockpit design.

It's more than just eye-candy, however. A flick of the right-stick will move your driver's gaze about the vehicle. This has practical purposes: if you need to know what the car behind you is up to, you can steal a glance at the rear view mirror. This is what you'd have to do in real life, after all, as real drivers don't have the luxury of a button to swap their whole perspective. This could all be done in the original game, of course, but a new helmet camera takes immersion a step further. As well as offering a slightly higher view of the track, the view slides in the direction of a turn as you enter the corner, just like a driver's head would in real life. While I tend to stick to the standard cockpit view, the helmet cam offers the most true to life experience the game - any racing game, for that matter - has to offer.

Realism was clearly of chief importance to Slightly Mad Studios, but - despite dropping the words Need, for, and Speed from the title - Shift 2 retains that element of excitement and spectacle that has defined previous games in the series. The new night races are a good example of this. Your view of the track never extends further than a few metres in front of you, demanding quick reflexes and unyielding levels of concentration. Not knowing what's around the next corner, or even knowing it's there at all until the last second, is a nerve racking but exciting experience.

The bulk of the game's content is tied up in a hefty career mode, which spans a range of different events, from standard races and time attacks, to eliminations and drift challenges. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and Shift 2 has built its career around this sentiment. As you work your way up from grass roots races to the FIA GT1 series finale, you'll sit behind the wheels of sporty hatchbacks, prestigious supers and all-American muscle cars. You'll drive cars designed specifically for drifting and others stripped to the barebones for extreme time trials. With over 145 cars from 36 manufacturers, Shift 2 boasts the biggest roster of any Need for Speed game to date.

Petrolheads will be pleased to find equally extensive customisation features under the bonnet, too. Money earned in the career can be used to upgrade engines, tyres, suspension and brakes, amongst other bits. As your car's performance index increases it'll improve in class, making it eligible for more races. Interestingly, Shift 2 allows you to tinker with your setup in the very midst of a race, too, making it easy to immediately appreciate how changes affect your car.

Throwing these vehicles around the 40-odd tracks the game has to offer is incredibly satisfying. Make no mistake, this is a technical racer, and you'll become well acquainted with the barriers during your first few races, but the controls are tight and the cars feel suitably responsive. If you do find yourself getting a little too friendly with the gravel traps, there's always the option to turn on steering and braking assists. Rival drivers defend parts of the track where they're vulnerable to being overtaken, exploit your mistakes and, importantly, crash every now and again of their own accord. The AI is great, which means you have to fight for your victories, and with no rubber banding in sight, the last lap is no more important than any other.

Should you spin out in the final stages of a race, you'll curse the game's lack of a rewind feature. This isn't a criticism as such, but after playing the likes of GRID and Forza 3, you start to appreciate how nice it is to correct the occasional mistake at the tap of a button. I found myself restarting a lot, especially during the cramped city races where crashes are most frequent. It could be that such a feature would have interfered with Autolog, which I'll get to in a minute, but many people will find the absence of a rewind difficult to acclimatise to.

Tying the game together is an XP and level system similar to that on offer in the first Shift. By sticking to the racing line, nailing corners, drafting behind rivals, and displaying other acts of good driving, you'll be rewarded with experience points contributing to an overall level. When you 'rank up', you'll be showered with new cars, parts for customisation and increasingly large amounts of cash.

XP can also be earned online, where players will spend increasing amounts of time once the career has been polished off. Slightly Mad Studios has made a point of listening to its community, incorporating a mode called Catch Up in addition to the usual ensemble of multiplayer racing modes. Here one player jumps into one of the less powerful cars and races off thirty seconds or so before the competition. Everybody else takes control of faster cars, tasked with catching the car in front before it reaches the finish line.

Menu screens are backed by an accompaniment of chilled out remixes from the likes of Jimmy Eat World, Anberlin and Biffy Clyro. The race itself is then undertaken in comparative silence, with only the sound of roaring engines and screeching rubber offering much in the way of a soundtrack. The original versions kick in as you cross the finish line, with heavy guitars and hearty bass lines. It's motivational stuff, and if you're a fan of these kinds of bands - as I am - you'll appreciate it all the more.

So, the game looks and sounds great, handles well and offers solid multilayer to boot. So what? Gran Turismo and Forza do these things, too - well, Gran Turismo was somewhat bewildered by the notion of online play, but I digress. In my eyes, Shift 2 is separated from the competition by the extensive social features surrounding the game. Anybody who has played Hot Pursuit will know how much Autolog adds to the experience. While a notification that you've been beaten by a friend can be intensely frustrating, it also incites competition like nothing else. Pressing the back button at any point in the menus will take you to the Autolog screens, where you can check your recommendations, news and leaderboards - or speedwalls, as Autolog calls them - in one handy location. As with Hot Pursuit, all it takes is the tap of a button to accept a friend's challenge and get to work on beating it.

Shift is a much better fit for the technology than its Criterion-born counterpart, too. Spike strips, helicopters, EMP blasts and other extraneous variables often meant that times and scores were outside of your control. In Shift 2, it's all on you. If you can't beat a friend's time, there's nothing to blame but your own incompetence behind the wheel. And your friend will know you're struggling, too, because it tracks each and every attempt you make. This is singularly the best (and worst) feature of Autolog.

There's an argument that racing games are becoming stagnant. With this generation of console, graphics and car handling are reaching a plateau, and innovation needs to come from elsewhere. To my mind, Autolog is doing more for the genre than anything else right now, and other developers are going to have to conjure up something similar to remain on equal footing with EA. Shift 2 is technically very impressive, but like Hot Pursuit, it's the social features surrounding the game that define it as an experience. If you're a serious fan of the genre, know that Shift 2 does several things better than anything else on the market right now, which makes it an essential purchase.