Shift 2 Unleashed: Need for Speed Updated Hands-On

We go bumper to bumper in a nearly finished build of EA's simulation racer.

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Annual updates from major publishers, such as EA, may be nothing new, but two releases from the Need for Speed stable in just over four months has got to be a new record. Thankfully, Shift 2 Unleashed is a completely different beast from last year's Hot Pursuit--it's even more focused on simulation than the first Shift, with all the customization and authentic handling options that we've come to expect from competitors in the Gran Turismo and Forza franchises. EA invited us to its UK headquarters to get a fresh hands-on with an advanced build of the game ahead of its release in March.

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Once you get past the flashy front end, with a menu system that rotates around a beautifully modeled car, you begin to notice the prominence of experience points in the game. You're constantly rewarded for doing practically anything in the game, from winning a race to performing a number of supplementary objectives. Bonus experience points are on offer for mastering each track by sticking to the correct racing line or taking corners correctly. Building on what was started in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, you'll even get experience points for beating autolog time records from your friends, giving a tangible benefit to your progress in addition to bragging rights. The original Shift was a good game, but developer Slightly Mad Studios has recognized a number of key areas it claims it has improved for the sequel. It's hoped that the new elite handling model will take the game into the same authentic simulation territory as Forza and Gran Turismo, while the total crash damage tech appears to offer more realistic collisions than either of those games offer. Then, there are the new tuning options--you'll be able to save vehicle setups into tuning groups and then test and refine them on the track using the new live-tuning feature. You'll also be able to upgrade and add decals to vehicles, as well as take a photo and advertise them for sale online.

Another big new addition is real racing stars who, according to producer Jesse Abney, act as the game's bosses. These stars, including Vaughn Gittin Jr. and EA's own Patrick Soderlund, will introduce themselves in a video and talk about their particular racing discipline. These videos also aim to create a rivalry and add an incentive--if you beat the racer, you take their car. This new emphasis on what the development team calls the driver's battle is also reflected in the new helmet-cam option, which offers a visceral first-person perspective of the race. It also offers some driving benefit--your avatar looks into corners as you approach. It's an effect that can be off-putting at first because you have to adapt your steering to the off-centered view, but as you settle into it, it becomes a natural and even beneficial addition to the game's bombastic presentation.

While EA still wasn't talking about many of the features that will ship in Shift 2 Unleashed, we poked around in the game's menu system for clues. An option called driver duel championship looks to be available both offline and online, but Abney wouldn't reveal any more details at this stage. The store also looks like it will offer a mix of bonus content, vehicle packs, and time-savers, so in what's quickly becoming an EA tradition, you'll be able to unlock content in the game for a premium.

Shift 2 Unleashed looks comprehensive, even though EA admits it won't offer the same number of cars as some of the game's competitors. The races we played were challenging--an elimination on the winding roads of Tokyo in particular--but the promise of more experience points kept us coming back for more. Then, there was the Alpental circuit from the first Shift, now with the extra challenge of playing at night, which in combination with the helmet cam was a nerve-shredding delight. Shift 2 Unleashed: Need for Speed is set for a March 25 release in the UK and March 29 in the US. For more information, as well as a brand new video interview with producer Jesse Abney, check out more on GameSpot now.

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