Forza Motorsport 2 (Xbox 360)
British car maker William Rootes once noted that "no other man-made device since the shields and lances of the ancient knights fulfills a man's ego like an automobile." This concept is what drives Forza Motorsport 2 ever onward, pushing you to literally drive in circles on your way to cars that are better, faster and even more customized to suit your style. Rootes' remark is a canny insight into why these sorts of car games play almost like RPGs. Or, if you will, "carPGs." In a typical RPG, your knight strives to get better armor and swords. In a carPG like Forza, your avatar is a car, and you're racing for new and improved cars. It's just as much a game about leveling up as World of Warcraft. You're always chasing the next ding.
Not just a Sunday drive
You start out selecting your first car, a rite of passage most of us recall as fondly as a first kiss. It'll be something pedestrian, like a Ford Focus or a Honda Civic. And then you're in at the ground level, doing the basic races in the Proving Grounds. The graphics push comfortably against the envelope of photorealism, dappled with great features like dynamic tire marks, visible damage and accumulated dirt and exhaust during a long race. The sound design is full of personality, with distinct engine noises like a voice for every car, including the inflection of clutches and intercoolers and whatnot.
A unique feature to the Forza games is the context-sensitive racing line superimposed over the road, indicating whether you'll lose grip at your current speed. This will tell you by its shade of red whether and how much you need to brake or downshift before a turn. You're essentially surfing a color-coded gravity indicator. Other serious racing games require that you learn a track before playing competitively, but Forza's line lets you learn on the fly, substituting nicely for the feedback you'd get driving in the real world. New in Forza 2 is an option to only show this line when you need to brake, so it's not a constant ribbon underneath your car.
As you drive in races, you earn money based on how you place. A penalty for damage encourages less of the "racing is rubbing" ethic you can exploit in other games. There's an option for damage to impact performance, which is an even greater disincentive for roughhousing. After the race, your cash winnings also apply as experience points, and as you level up, you'll unlock tougher races. Meanwhile, you're spending your cash improving your favorite cars and buying new ones. You'll be driving upscale fantasy cars in no time. Forza 2 isn't stingy.
The overarching point of the game is to collect cars. Placing first in a series of races will earn you a new car, but there are plenty to buy, as well. To encourage a little variety in your driving, many of the races have restrictions, some of them very specific. For instance, there are races limited to certain horsepower or manufacturers. There are grudge matches between traditional rivalries like Imprezas vs. Evos, Porches vs. Ferraris, or Vipers vs. Corvettes. There are even factory-spec races that ensure a level playing field. This variety means that finishing Forza 2 will require skill instead of overwhelming horsepower.
But for the most part, Forza 2 is as difficult as you want it to be. You can enable driving assists or tone down the artificial intelligence, which will apply a penalty to your winnings. Most of the races, particularly early in the game, give you plenty of leeway to bring in a powerful car so you can clobber the competition with sheer horsepower. This is also a great way to grind for money and experience, as compelling and/or pointless as any MMO.
My car. Let me show it to you.
Even more than the previous game, Forza 2 is about customizing your car. Each car is rated according to a Performance Index, which divides cars into different classes. So, for instance, you can upgrade a Mini Cooper to the point where it's in the same class as a Mitsubishi Evo. These ratings determine your opponents in many of the races. There's a fine art to rigging your car with just enough upgrades to bump it into the upper limit of a given class without going over. You can track the practical effects of your changes with a handy indicator for the car's acceleration, speed, braking and handling. This is a big part of the gameplay, so it's a bit disappointing that kitting your car with custom parts is such a hassle, spread out over several screens and sub-screens, with no easy overview. It would have been nice if this was as convenient as the finer art of tuning your car for a race, where you can easily adjust settings like gear ratios, downforce and suspension.
There's enough detailed gearhead stuff in here to satisfy the most hardcore driving sim fans, and not just in terms of the tuning. The physics model fully supports all the minor adjustments you can make, and driving without any assists can be a delicate matter. You can study detailed telemetry while you're racing or watching a replay. Most of this stuff is beyond the ken of the average player, and the little manual is no help explaining it. However, the great in-game documentation will guide you through the tuning if you want to learn it. It's entirely optional, given the variable difficulty level of the game, but it can be rewarding. At the very least, it's easy enough to figure out how to shorten or lengthen your gears based on whether the track is mostly straight-aways.
Just as important in Forza 2 is the ability to visually customize your car. In addition to painting cars and adding custom doodads, you can create detailed designs from scratch. This may very well be the most powerful paint program to ever ship with a game, as you'll be able to see from people's cars online. The artistry that's gone into Forza 2 is a joy to see, and there are options for online gifting and an auction house so people can share and show off their designs. If you feel like admiring your custom design -- and who wouldn't? -- you can pause a race or replay, freely reposition the camera, and save a screenshot. You can even upload screenshots to the community Web site. Forza 2 is pure unadulterated car porn.
Unfortunately, it's not just car porn. There are no moderators for online artwork, so even a cursory browse of the auction house is likely to turn up naked anime characters with their legs splayed open across the hood of a car. The online experience may change, indeed.
Online road trips
But when it comes to the actual driving, the multiplayer support is as thorough and sleek as you'd expect from a first-party Microsoft developer. It's easy enough to jump into ranked or friendly games. Since matches are set up and hosted by players, you'll mostly find races open to tricked-out top-tier cars, which requires a whole different type of skill than most of the racing you'll do during the career mode. You'll earn money online, but Forza's economy is a bit silly considering how easy it is to earn money (you can even hire AI drivers to race for you, effectively earning money without even playing). The real sense of gratification comes from leveling up, unlocking new cars, and finishing races.
Picking up where the Gran Turismo series went cold, the Forza games are warm and friendly, and Forza 2 sets a new bar not just for driving games, but for hardcore driving sims. Perhaps better than any other pure driving game, this one straddles the divide between simulation and game. When it comes to wild, wacky or stylized racing, there are plenty of far better games, such as Burnout and MotorStorm. But when you're ready to get serious behind the wheel, Forza Motorsports 2 is the definitive game.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.