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Shift 2 Unleashed Hands-on Preview: In the Cockpit

on 24 February 2011

Shift 2: Unleashed has a bold slogan. “This is real racing” it boasts, as if to imply that recent racers like Gran Turismo 5 and Forza 3 are nothing more than meager knock-offs. Developed by Britain’s Slightly Mad Studios, Shift 2 Unleashed contains 145 cars from 36 manufacturers — not quite as many as its direct competitors, but still a hefty amount of horsepower. Based on my time with the game, it’s clear that Shift 2 does a superb job at placing players in the cockpit. Shift 2 isn't actually real racing, but that’s easy to forget while blazing around a bend at 100 miles per hour.

At Electronic Arts’ recent spring preview event, I had the opportunity to take Shift 2 for a brief test drive. Wasting no time, I turned on manual transmission, flipped off a number of assists, hopped into the driver’s seat of the first car that popped up and took off. Like the original game, Shift 2 looks best from a first-person perspective. In addition to the faithfully reproduced interiors of each automobile, the first-person camera actually presents the view from inside the driver’s helmet, shaking and bobbing in response to g-forces and bumps in the road. It’s smart, too, mimicking a driver’s vision by shifting slightly to provide a better view during turns.

Driving on a dimly lit night course — night driving is new in Shift 2 — I relied on my headlights to see me safely around the track. Naturally, I messed up on a few turns, car sliding sideways into the barrier. The screen desaturates when the car takes damage, the unpleasant absence of color a clear reminder to round that corner a bit slower in the future. Damage modeling in Shift 2 is outstanding; windows crack, tires thin and ultimately shred, and debris litters the track after a big crash.

When I wasn’t smashing into walls, I was fiercely fighting to pass the improved AI drivers. AI opponents are surprisingly aggressive, but not to a fault; they work hard to ensure you remain behind them, but not so hard that they wreck their rides in the process.

Where Gran Turismo feels smooth and clean, Shift 2 feels raw and brutal. The improved rendering engine allows for a superb sense of speed, the helmet-cam view mimics the behavior of a driver’s head, and the realistic damage modeling will tear your car to shreds if you’re not careful. The jury is still out on which game is a more realistic driving simulator, but it’s overwhelmingly clear which one offers the most visceral racing experience: Shift 2.

Shift 2: Unleashed races onto store shelves on March 29 in the U.S. and March 31 in Europe.