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Shift 2 Unleashed preview: Night rider

Back in November, EA showed us an early version of Shift 2 Unleashed, which touts Autolog implementation and a new immersive helmet cam designed to make what was one of the most lifelike racers even more, well, lifelike. At a San Francisco hotel earlier this week, I was given full access to the game's Career mode, a series of progressively difficult venues that combine traditional races with more specialized events -- muscle car races, retro events, and elimination and drift challenges are sprinkled throughout.

Shift 2 Unleashed takes its predecessors shoes, shines 'em up and tries to pass them off as an entirely new pair. Yes, this is an evolution of the ideals present in Need for Speed: Shift, but it's obvious that Slightly Mad Studios was careful not to mix things up too much. Producer Jesse Abney describes it as "a refinement of the things we've done the year before," thus the game's biggest new features are Autolog implementation, deeper car customization, a new helmet camera system and the addition of nighttime driving.

Night driving isn't going to redefine the sport, surely, but in Shift 2 Unleashed, it poses its own unique set of challenges. Since the damage models are more dynamic this time around, you can actually break your headlights and be stuck racing in pitch blackness -- believe it, because it happened to me when I was drafting too close to a racer who slammed on their brakes when I was flying through a track in Dubai. An intense, and unexpected, wave of panic and confusion ensued. "So this is nighttime driving?" I thought to myself. Abney also told me that cars can break axels and even damage engines to the point where a race cannot be finished, which wasn't possible in the first game.

Nothing here is going to redefine the experience or take it to the so-called "next level" but considering Shift has such a great core racing mechanic, maybe that isn't entirely a bad thing.

Driving at night also amps up the difficulty of the course in question, since your sight distance is extremely limited. The mini-map in the HUD gives you a general sense of how the course is going to play out, but it's near impossible to keep an eye peeled on that when you're flying through a course, trying to block an aggressive driver or overtake one that's ahead. Honestly, I wasn't enthralled by the prospect of nighttime driving either (it's driving ... at night), but once I went through a couple different tracks, it felt like an entirely different experience. I was much more cautious than I normally would've been.

The career will once again utilize an experience point system; however, unlike the previous game, those who simply finish a race, regardless of pole position, will net themselves some points. Abney told me this was in an effort to make the game more accessible. By rewarding those who may not be the most proficient drivers, Shift 2 Unleashed lets them earn something besides the disdain of the CPU drivers around them. This also means that particular events that may not appeal to certain players don't actually need to be completed. For example, you can go through the entire career mode and never participate in a drift competition.

Shift 2 Unleashed felt great and was fun to play ... of course that is primarily dur to the fact that Slightly Mad Studios got the engine so right in the first game and is hardly indicative of any particular effort made here in the sequel. A strong foundation is everything and Slightly Mad Studios understands that, having created one of the most fresh and immersive racers out there today. Nothing here is going to redefine the experience or take it to the so-called "next level" but considering Shift has such a great core racing mechanic, maybe that isn't entirely a bad thing.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.