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Shift 2 Unleashed preview: The new look of racing sims


Now that the dust has started to settle around Gran Turismo 5, EA is pulling off the sheet on its Need for Speed: Shift sequel. Simply Shift 2 Unleashed -- no "Need for Speed" in the title -- the racer represents returning developer Slightly Mad Studios' continuing effort to make players feel like they're actually driving some of the world's most powerful cars.

Gallery: Shift 2 Unleashed | 20 Photos

I recently played around with the game, if all-too-briefly. Shift 2 is still months away from its planned release next spring, but the standout addition, a new "helmet cam" view, was fully functional -- and something I think racing fans will be wowed by -- in the preview build. Evolving from the driver's eye camera system in the first Shift, the new camera view not only realistically recreates the effects of g-forces, bumps, crashes, acceleration and braking from an in-car perspective, but now integrates the portions of the helmet that you'd see (if you were a real, careful race car driver) and, most importantly, the camera now looks into turns, just as drivers do in real life.

What sounds like a neat gimmick proved to be a potential game-changer during the two races I competed in. The helmet cam shifted to always focus on the apex of a turn as I went into it -- essentially, an automated head-tracking system!

In addition to the incredibly realistic new camera view, Shift 2's presentation appeared to be a step beyond its predecessor, thanks to an entirely new rendering engine. The sequel is noticeably better looking than the original, with more realistic lighting, car damage, particle effects and an even greater sense of speed while still running at or a bit above 30 frames per second. Night driving is also something new to the sequel and plays to the game engine's ability to render realistic headlight beams -- often the only substantial sources of light in these races.

Looking beyond the presentation, an EA representative confirmed to me that, while the game will retain the XP system from the first Shift, it will ditch the nitpicky classification of players as either precision or aggressive drivers. Then there's the matter of the title itself: Shift 2 Unleashed with no Need for Speed to be found. EA dropped the franchise naming primarily to ensure that (casual) consumers didn't confuse Shift 2 as a sequel to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, especially since it'll launch relatively close to Criterion's arcade-style racer (which was released earlier this month). Shift 2 is still considered a Need for Speed title, though, right down to the series emblem in its logo.

While there are risks inherent in a complete graphics engine overhaul and the incorporation of a "realistic" camera system, Shift 2 left me impressed after a first, short encounter. The original is one of the best sim racers, well, ever -- and that's a lot to live up to. But this sequel feels right on track to finish just as strong.

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