It was a wise move for EA to subdue the Need For Speed in the title of its sequel to last year's first racing sim in the franchise, Need For Speed: Shift. That's not to say Shift 2 Unleashed is unworthy of the brand -- far from it -- but given how well received the last arcade-style NFS title, Hot Pursuit, was, there would surely be plenty of folks who'd think this was the sequel to that game. It's so very not that.

The original Shift remains one of my favorite racing games of all time -- and one of my most-played titles ever, too. So, to say that I've had some pretty high expectations of its sequel would be an understatement. Since last year, I've wondered how EA and Slightly Mad Studios were going to improve on the most realistic feeling, visceral and downright fun console racing sim to date. The short answer: They made it more realistic. The long answer is after the break. Whether you're a newcomer or vet of the Shift games, one of their core components is the experience of driving a real car. Yes, that's part of every driving and racing simulation, but where other games put most -- if not all -- of their focus on getting the handling and engine sounds just right, the Shift series goes after the feel of being behind the wheel of a very powerful, very fast car.

To that end, the real focus of their presentation is the in-car view. In the last game, I thought it was pulled off fantastically; I'd never played a racing game in which I felt so connected to the actual act of racing. Well, in Shift 2 that feeling has been intensified several-fold with the inclusion of a new view, the helmet cam. This is exactly what it sounds like: It's a driving viewpoint that recreates what it looks like to see through a driver's helment, complete with all of the bouncing, bobbing and eye movement that entails.

Not only does this view make things more visceral, but it also makes the game more realistic and, surprisingly, still playable. That's because the helmet view is disconnected from the car interior itself, just as your head is in real life, meaning that -- without cameras for head tracking -- you automatically "look into" turns at their apex, always keeping your eyes on the racing line. It may sound overly thought out, technical or just unnecessary, but let me tell you: it's not just cool, it makes playing the game that much more engaging.


The same can be said for the new graphics engine: The cars look better, the lighting's improved, the courses are more detailed and there's just more overall polish to the visual presentation. There's another payoff: crashes are more spectacular, and car damage, with its deformation and utter vehicular dismemberment, is some of the best I've seen.

The enhanced graphics were partly necessitated by the new night driving races, which rely heavily on the upgraded lighting. I'm not the best night driver in my sedan on a city street, so negotiating a race track at more than 100 miles and hour on a moonless night was terrifying. It won't be as tough for everyone, but for me the challenge was largely off-putting to the point that I found myself wanting to skip career mode races set at night altogether.

An easy recommendation for those who enjoyed the first game and great entry point to "real" racing in general.

Fortunately, they're not the majority of races, which are set across dozens of courses around the world at all other times of day. There's a much larger selection of venues this time around, and the returning ones have all gotten a fresh coat of pixel paint. There are more career events, they're better organized and more types of racing are showcased. Also, gone is the dividing of players into precision and agressive driver types. The RPG-style XP accumulation aspect of the first game returns, rewarding good driving, split-second timing and mastering corners with points for leveling up towards unlocks, bragging rights and new events. It was a great mechanic in the first game and it's better this time around for being simplified.

One area that's not more simplistic: upgrades / tuning. In fact, the entire customization aspect of Shift 2 is improved, though still not to the level of individual engine parts -- it's still set up so that performance is improved through the purchase of upgrade packages, but tuning, aero and visual tweaking improvements definitely help. The result of these enhancements and a generally improved physics make for an experience that feels even more like cornering, accelerating and braking in real cars.

That feeling carries over into multiplayer, which is fairly cut and dried, but still manages to be highly driving skill-reliant rather than just a matter of who has better parts. It's the other part of the game's online element, Autolog, that is the real standout. Brought over from Hot Pursuit and expanded on, it's Shift 2's own "social network," one designed to keep you at the top of your game (and playing the game) by updating you when friends beat your best times. There are message boards and screenshot sharing features but, as with NFS:HP, the real magic is the whole layer of challenges it adds to the game and the ease of which you can pursue them.

With the release of Shift 2 Unleashed, the Need For Speed franchise now holds the distinction of representing the best of arcade-style and simulation racing on consoles. It's an evolution of the original -- not a revolution, but still markedly improved across the board -- and a worthy sequel, easy recommendation for those who enjoyed the first game and great entry point to "real" racing in general.


This review is based on a pre-release version and final retail copy of Shift 2 Unleashed for Xbox 360 provided by EA.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.