With so many accomplished racing games on the App Store, it's difficult to know which one to buy without a test drive. Ahead of its release later this month, EA gave us the keys to Need for Speed: Shift for a quick run around the block.

After getting a feel for the tight handling and phenomenal new career elements, we're eager to buy this smooth ride.

Whereas Need for Speed: Undercover was a pony car, this newer model is the high performance tuner. Shift builds on the previous game in every way, promising better handling, flashier graphics, a deeper Career mode, and multiplayer. It's the foundation for what could very well become one of the best racing games yet on iPhone and iPod touch.

Thankyou for driving carefully

Career mode has undergone a lot of changes, and boy are they for the better. A new driver profile tallies your performance across 28 events. Wins and losses, medals and misgivings - everything is recorded to your profile. Stars awarded for completing events accumulate on your profile, which in turn are used to unlock new events and venues.

As you compete in Race, Drift, and Time Trial events, you earn driving points that raise the level of your profile. These points come in two flavours: precision and aggression.

Skillful driving manoeuvres, such as maintaining an ideal racing line or executing a clean lap, net your precision points. Drifting, slip-streaming, and dirty overtakes translate to aggression points. Your profile favours one or the other as you build up driving points and increase in level.

It promises gameplay far richer than any other racing game on the market and instills Career mode with depth beyond the linear progression of unlocking the next event. Other racers condone sloppy driving by making the conditions for success rely solely on whether you nab the chequered flag. Here you're motivated to perform well in each event because every move is being recorded to your profile.

Handle with care

Superb handling makes tackling these events both a joy and a challenge. There's a greater sense of mass and speed that translates to more realistic handling. It's not enough to make Shift a simulation: though there's a noticeable and much preferred distinction from Undercover.

Improved graphics always help and Shift is no shrug in that department. New effects hit the screen whenever you bash into an opponent's vehicle or grind against a wall. The shattering of your windshield is a startling effect, not to mention the rattling of the screen and draining of colour whenever you ram into an object with particular force.

Of course, the vehicles and venues have all been gussied up too. A new batch of 20 licensed vehicles roll out of the game's garage including Volkswagen Golf GTI, Audi R8, and Lamborghini Gallardo.

Tuning options are available using cash winnings. Instead of customising individual parts, however, you apply money to five attributes: Speed, Acceleration, Tires, Suspension, and Nitrous. It's not the nitty-gritty tuning of a simulation, but that's just as well - this system is straightforward and provides the right amount of depth.

Multiplayer makes its debut in Shift with both Bluetooth and local wi-fi supported. Four players can link up via wi-fi, while Bluetooth races are head-to-head only. Given that we only had a single copy of the game, we were unable to test either out.

You can be sure we'll be thoroughly examining multiplayer and the rest of Shift when it pulls into the App Store within the next couple weeks.

Want more? Check out our growing collection of Need for Speed: Shift (iPhone) articles!