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Like a mountain road just begging to be driven, the Need for Speed franchise has had its highs and lows since its 1994 debut on 3DO. It seemed poised to leap straight off the map following last year's lackluster Undercover; there were even rumors the series was being handed over to the Burnout Paradise team for CPR.

Then up popped not one, but three new NFS games. Need for Speed SHIFT is front-most on the starting grid for a pack that includes a free online PC title, Need for Speed World Online, and the Wii-exclusive Need for Speed: Nitro.
We recently got our hands on SHIFT, a racer that's got the makings to potentially rival the likes of Codemaster's GRID.

Developed by UK-based Slightly Mad Studios -- home to many of the folks who worked on the critically acclaimed GT Legends and GTR 2 -- the game is 95% pure racing simulation, with a bit of arcade feel thrown in so as not to totally alienate players who aren't actual race drivers. (Though EA Games Euro SVP, Patrick Soderlund, is intimately involved with its development -- and he races for real, having most recently placed fifth in the TOYO 24 Hours of Dubai endurance event.)

The game is 95% pure racing simulation, with a bit of arcade feel thrown in.

At first glance, the game reminded us of Forza 2 -- at least from its visual style (and we don't just mean the real cars on an actual track). NFS tried this route with its ProStreet installment, but the gameplay (and a whole lot more) just wasn't there.

Sitting down to play, we were already sold on the look; gorgeous highly detailed car models, tracks that have a sort of Sega arcade racer vibe to them, a rock-steady framerate. But what, we wondered, would help this game stand on its own? So far we can point to two things: the focus on the "driver experience" (more on that in a sec) and really good opponent A.I. (ditto).

As an advisor on the game, Soderlund says he's not just interested in how cool the cars look or how you can tune them; he told us he wants to make a racer that makes players feel like real race drivers. Neat idea, impressive in execution.

Like PGR and GRID, the game has a very detailed cockpit view. Working gauges, hands on the wheel -- the usual. There's an extra layer of pretty in the form of realtime reflections from within the car. For instance, you can see your driver model's movements in the driver's side window. Another neat touch: the driver actually grips the wheel more tightly at the appropriate moments. This level of detail is important because Soderlund and the dev team want this to be a racer that is, first and foremost, played from inside the car.

We noticed the windshield, while it will crack, doesn't place a sort of screen over the graphics, something that's caused us to opt for the third-person in many others racers. A small detail, but it's good to know the team is thinking of stuff like this. There's also a nice looking and helpful effect when driving very fast -- the dash and car interior begin to blur out so that your eyes focus only on the track.

The dev team wants this to be a racer that is best played from inside the car.

In an early -- but still extremely powerful -- Pagani Zonda, the sense of speed was pulse-quickening. That was combined with opponents who realistically fought for positions, nudged back and would even slip up under pressure, causing a wreck. This didn't only happen when we were "engaging" them; at one point, we came around a turn into a straight-away and narrowly missed a pileup that had occurred moments earlier out of our view.

Even in its early state, SHIFT feels really good. The cars seem to have appropriate weight and noticeable performance differences. There's a perceivable hint of assistance -- hence the dash of arcade-ness -- in the steering beyond the usual traction control and braking assists. We were told that the game will essentially have a driving model that eases new sim drivers into the concept and one for seasoned pros.

What can we say -- we were really impressed by what we played. The two tracks were well designed and looked great in various times of day and weather conditions, the cars handled solidly and the cockpit view was intense and immersive. We're still waiting to learn of a complete car lineup, track selection and, well ... a whole laundry list of gameplay details. But if the team continues down this road, racing buffs are looking at a very good year indeed.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.