magic_b's Forza Motorsport 2 (Xbox 360) review

Forza 2 delivers. Fans of Gran Turismo should feel right at home.

The good:
Intelligent AI unique to each driver, damage modeling affects car behavior, well rounded variety of cars, excellent physics model, gameplay options make it suitable for all types and levels of drivers, car customization, integrated website to show off in-game photos

The bad:
Limited body mods, limited vinyl shapes and manipulation options - especially with groups, leveling system plays out more like an RPG rather than focusing on skill, range of AI skill levels and car classes in a single race is too large, not enough race tracks; can become repetitive fairly quickly

There's really nothing more to say about Forza 2 that hasn't already been said. It's a rock solid simulation racing game. And since comparisons to Gran Turismo are inevitable, let's just say that Forza 2 is a worthy contender if not the new king.

The game boasts over 300 cars, which is significantly less than Gran Turismo's 800 (or whatever). The biggest difference here is that Forza's cars are all designed for driving fast. You won't find any Japanese K class, 65hp "go-karts" here or quaint but useless Model Ts. Even the most common, daily driver cars that you'll start out in are ones that you'd be likely to find racing Solo II at your local SCCA event. In fact, it's difficult to find many cars with less than 150hp.

When you start up, Forza is divided into four sections: Arcade, Career, Multiplayer, and Options. Arcade is where you'll go to just get right to the action and is further divided into three more categories: Exhibition, Time Trials, and Free Race. Exhibition mode is just a single race. You'll have access to a pretty good selection of cars from the get go but limited tracks. As you race and win, you'll unlock more cars and more tracks. Time Trials puts you in a specific car on a specific track with a time to beat. Beating the time generally isn't difficult - but beating the players around you can be. A feature of Forza 2 is that it shows lap times for each track based on players on your Xbox, players on Xbox Live, as well as your Live Friends. It provides a great way to challange yourself as you try to get those last 10ths of a second off your time. It's also not limited to Time Trials as all courses, Arcade and Career, display this feature. Free Race is simply you driving around a course. It's similar to Time Trials in that after each race you can have a ghost car drive your last lap line and will record your best lap times, but you're not limited to a specific car and it's a great way to get familiar with tracks.

Multiplayer allows you to play against friends, play online, give cars to friends, or even sell cars to other players in the auction house. You can also take pictures of your cars and upload them to Forzamotorsport.net to share. Options is your standard array although Forza does include the built in ability to set up multiple screens - no hacks or mods required. It does require a hefty investment however as for each additional screen you want to hook up you'll also need another 360 as well as another copy of Forza.

The bulk of Forza however is its Career mode. It's here where you'll race in series events, purchase cars, buy upgrades, and paint your cars.

The racing is solid. But in case you didn't know yet, Forza, like Gran Turismo, is not an arcade style racer. You can change some options around to get it close but the engine here is designed to be a simulator; meaning that if you drive like a bat out of hell you'll be spending most of your time sliding across the grass and into baricades instead of winning races. Luckily, even if you're not about to spend $150 on a steering wheel, the Xbox controller is well suited for the finesse control that demanding driving requires. Trying to gently throttle or brake in Gran Turismo using the Playstation controller was nearly impossible. Using the Xbox controller's triggers for gas and brake, however, provide a wide range of control that allow you to brake without sliding, maintain speed around corners, and accelerate out of corners without spinning. And be sure, if you turn off the driving assists, you'll appreciate that extra level of control.

Still, the racing can be finicky at times and it's not uncommon to find yourself losing control because of a small over-correction. It's these instances that can be frustrating and you'll swear that the physics engine sucks. Is there any truth to it? Probably a little, but I'm not a race car driver so I can't say how a car should respond when taking a J-turn at 75 mph. If you can remain focused and drive with a smooth, consistant touch, however, you won't find many races that you can't win.

The exception would be races where the range of car classes and driver skill is just too great. The AI may be top notch but as long as you're driving well, you'll never encounter 2/3rds of the other cars - while the lead car will generally get a ridiculous lead. I would have really liked to have seen car class not dictate where an AI oppenent finishes or what kind of car they have to drive. Closer skill levels would mean closer races, regardless of car class. It's unfortunate that each race plays out fairly predictably according to car class, with drivers having little impact on each other.

Speaking of which, Forza 2 ships with a handful of driving assists to cater to different levels of drivers. Those that want to simply race and not have to worry about their brakes locking up because they hit a button too hard or think about the best line to take through a turn will enjoy the ability to turn on things like the Braking Line or Stability Control. Others that want the full experience of challanging driving can turn them all off - plus they'll receive additional credits for their trouble with each race.

The driving line is nice, especially that you can just use a braking assist line rather than a constant line that's always on, but it definitely becomes a crutch. It's easy to find yourself watching the line more than the road. That said, the line isn't a hard rule either. To get the best times, you'll have to drive faster when it's telling you to brake, and based on your own driving technique, you may find the line to be relatively out of place. Still, it's a useful tool, and one that's hard to ween yourself off of if you find yourself constantly relying on it.

The other assists are helpful as well (Stability Control, Anti-lock brakes, Traction Control) but my beef with these is that these are real things that many cars have. What car doesn't come with Anti-lock brakes these days? Most AWD vehicles have Traction control. They're nice features but I would have appreciated them more if they were implemented differently. Not as difficulty options but instead how Gran Turismo implemented them as purchase upgrades. And not cheap ones either. Just seems to make more sense this way. Why handicap yourself by disabling a feature that the car you're driving actually has?

As you race in the Career mode you'll unlock new race series, be awarded new cars that can be upgraded or sold, and up your personal driving level. This level affects your relationship with car dealers and part manufacturers. It increases based on how much money you make winning races and the higher it goes, the more discounts you get and more cars you have access too. Drive a particular car enough, and it too will develop a reputation with similar benefits. Personally I think its a good idea and I like the car rep thing. But to me this sort of thing plays out more than an RPG that only cares about how much you play rather than how well you play. Gran Turismo's license requirements may have been tedious, and in some cases, extremely difficult, but they rewarded you for actually accomplishing something. You simply weren't allowed to race with the big boys if you weren't qualified to do so. Forza takes the stance that, if you race enough, eventually, you can race whomever you please. For me, I prefer GT's take on this sort of game progression but it's only a small aspect of the game and as Forza has it set up, how you drive has very little impact.

Forza 2 looks gorgeous. There's a great attention to detail both during gameplay as well as in the interface. The cars themselves are very well modeled, although, along some curves, you'll still see hard points. The one thing that stands out about them is that the cars are immaculately clean. Too clean. They seem a little out of place on the tracks when they're not a spec of dirt on them - ever. The damage modeling is decent. It gets the point across and the job done but doesn't go to any great lengths to accurately represent the damage you've taken. You'll get some small dents, severly scratched paint, broken glass, and fenders that fall off but nothing beyond that. No crumple zones or anything that distorts the shape of the car. If turned on though, damage can be more than purely cosmetic and will affect how your car performs. Taking damage and trading paint with other cars also means that your car will have to be repaired and the costs for those repairs will come out of your winnings. Just another reason to drive with some intelligence.

The tracks looks good as well. They're well detailed with good lighting but there's something missing that makes them feel sparse. It could be that most of the courses take place in open areas on actual race tracks. There's very little driving done in cities or mountains. Perhaps the developers intentionally left out complex environments to mainain its smooth 60 fps. And while Forza does a decent job at making the most of the tracks that it does have, with different track configurations, there is just too little variety to those courses. There's only one course through a city (New York) and it's only a fairly straight-forward loop; as well as only one run through the mountains - the devilishly long Nürburgring. Which is really a shame because as much as I love the Laguna Seca, there's something to be said for driving through tight European cities or the "rolling hills" of downtown Seattle.

When it comes to upgrading your car, you're only limited by how much cash you want to spend. Each upgradable item usually has about 3 levels of performance (Street, Sport, and Race); depending on the initial performance level of your car. Upgrading your call will also affect its class. Make enough changes and you'll jump up into a new car class. Really this only affects what types of races you can run, although if you upgrade a car too much you'll probably find yourself racing against high performance cars that while in the same class, will rip you a new one on the track. Though well implemented, the upgrade system isn't flawless, mostly due to the games autosave. There's no way to throw on a bunch of upgrades to see the overall performance increase without committing to them. The game will let you see how a single upgrade affects your car before purchasing it but if you want to put on multiple parts you're going to have to buy each one. This is unfortunate. One of the things I enjoyed about Gran Turismo was fully upgrading cars I would normally never drive - such as the stupid mini-vans. Take them around the track a few times for fun then restart the game, recouping all the credits I spent. Forza on the other hand will autosave just about everything you do. You can't even leave the upgrade garage before it saves and it will save a couple times after every race. Heck, the game saves when you leave the home screen.

In addition to performance upgrades, you'll also have the option to make some cosmetic changes to your car such as unique paint jobs (individually painting brakes, hoods, and spoilers), tinting windows, and adding body mods. While it varies from car to car, there generally aren't a lot of options in the mod department. You'll usually get a couple good options but if you're looking for anything like Need For Speed Underground, you're simply out of luck. Yet, with all these options, I find it odd that the developers left out wheels with black spokes and chromed lips - or the ability to paint them as such.

Then of course, there's the painting system. Games like Need For Speed simply throw a ton of different designs at you called "Vinyls." With these you could change the color and layer a few on top of one another but nothing more. Forza takes the concept of vinyls and gives you complete control over them allowing you to change the color, placement, size (both horizontally and vertically), rotation, and even skew them a bit. Not to mention that each region of your car has a thousand layers. Although there are some interesting pre-built designs, most of Forza's vinyls are simple shapes and for those that are willing to put in the time, they'll be sticking mainly to the primitive shapes to layer together some truly amazing works of art. Check out the forums at for some examples. Keep in mind that there is no way to upload your own images into the game.

For the most part the layering system works pretty well. Manipulate the right shape enough times and you can create some pretty incredible stuff. Some additional options could have really made the system better however. Such as a way to mirror a layer without having to adjust size and rotation and better yet, providing the same options to groups that's available to individual layers.

If you're a long time Gran Turismo fan like myself that found themselves jumping platforms and need a fix for your addiction to speed, Forza is the answer. Frankly, I found GT lacking in its later iterations anyway. It lost its sense of speed and natural handling. Forza seems to pounce on all the things that made a driving simulator like Gran Turismo enjoyable to begin with and only improve upon them - all the while adding elements that GT has always lacked.

When it comes down to simulator superiority who knows what the future has in store for Gran Turismo, and it may be unfair at this point to say that Forza has won the next-gen war since GT has yet to make its next-gen debut. But for what it's worth, I have no problem crowning Forza the undisputed king.
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