Shift 2 Unleashed is out to scare you. Its cars scream at you with the ferocity of a drill sergeant, and they hurl you about with all the aggression of a dog that's just had a boot planted between its hind legs. Visceral doesn't even begin to cover it; driving a car in this game is a full-on sensory assault.
It's a world away from the heavy yet gentle drifts of Hot Pursuit, the last game to crawl from Need for Speed's bustling garage. Slightly Mad Studios' heritage would have you believe that this is a sim, as would the pre-release hype, but don't believe a word of it – this is as exaggerated a take on driving as any on the series.
The wild handling from the first game has been reined somewhat, but it's still more about terrifying the driver than providing a smooth and stable ride, the cars lunging around with alarming violence. It's often more survival horror than driving sim and it's an approach that works, to an extent.
During the all-new night races tracks such as Spa Francorchamps are as packed full of scares as Dead Space's Ishimura; Pouhon, a fast left kink that can be taken flat by the very brave, is as frightening as the most savage of necromorphs when it leaps out of the dark at the last possible moment.
Such thrills are aided by the added layer of immersion lent by the addition of the helmet cam, a small but welcome revolution within the racing genre. It's a first-person perspective that does more than put you in the driving seat; it provides a genuine driver's eye view. Here the screen's lined by the helmet's lining, and the camera will actively tilt towards corner apexes.
Other games let you be the car, in much the same way that some first-person shooters let you play as a disembodied gun. Shift 2 Unleashed, with its innovative new perspective, can lay claim to being the first game to actually let you be the driver, a feature that works for better and for worse.
Thanks to the driver's eye view, Shift 2 Unleashed provides the most thrilling experience available in the genre. The excellent audio visual feeds into this; the cars growl with purpose and they're finely modelled too. Even better is the gory evisceration that waits at the end of a high-speed crash, with the cars shedding doors, bonnets and wheels with violent conviction.
Drive by night and expect to be terrified.
What it isn't, however – and here's where the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza steal a march on it – is reliable or consistently satisfying in its action. While the addition of an Elite handling model certainly points Shift 2 Unleashed in the right direction there's still an uneasy lightness to the car's behaviour, and even once accustomed to their more sensitive ways they're still prone to providing some nasty shocks.
The same can be said of Shift 2 Unleashed's AI cars. They're on the whole a smart bunch and are capable of putting up a fight more convincing than that seen in other racers; they'll defend their line and jostle for position in a manner that's fun to engage with.
Too often though, tailing drivers will disregard you at a corner, sending you face first into the nearest gravel trap. When you're several laps deep in a key race it's hard to find the funny side and moments like this make you wish for the rewind feature that's been creeping into other racing games.
It's saved by the fact that more often than not you're racing friends thanks to the inclusion of Autolog, the feature pioneered by Hot Pursuit that compiles online times on an advanced leaderboard that provides a thread through Shift 2 Unleashed's reams of content.
It's arguably not as neat a fit here as it was in Hot Pursuit – the spread of vehicles and the ability to dive under their hoods to upgrade them necessitates a performance index that can muddy the results – but it's still a compelling feature that's backed up by a strong online suite, with Driver Duel Championships fleshing out the staple races for up to twelve players.
If you race in anything other than the in-car view, you're a chump.
XP is earned both online and off, and thankfully the original Shift's often convoluted system has been streamlined. It works much better as a result and the worlds of racing and RPG here make easy bedfellows. Points are earned for mastering corners, swift starts and clean overtakes among other things, gifting a sense of achievement that can help grind away at the game's rougher edges.
Levelling up unlocks new events and earns new cars, and as ever there's a certain amount of satisfaction to be had in taking a standard road-going car and turning it into a thoroughbred racing machine. Indeed, the level of customisation excuses Shift 2 Unleashed's relatively paltry slim car list.
It also displays a judicious eye in its selection that's shared by the track list, which is bolstered by some fine rarities. Dijon-Prenois, the French circuit that hosted one of motor racing's finest duels, deserves special mention, and Shift 2 Unleashed's unique handling finds a perfect home amidst the tracks undulating sweeps.