Auto-racing is a genre of sports games that has a strong following on console system. From the Gran Turismo series, to various NASCAR titles, leading up to F1 Championship on the PS3. All of the titles have had various success in providing the right balance of simulation and gameplay to equal fun. To quote an internet meme: ‘A New Challenger appears’ on the starting line… Forza Motorsport 2. This title from Turn 10, and Microsoft Game Studios brings to the table a mix of what made the Papyrus NASCAR titles on the PC fun, combined with the variety and graphics of the Gran Turismo series. We are going to take a look under the hood and see how this one drives.

Before we do, I like to let people know what I am using on my 360, as I do not have a standard TV setup. I’m using the MS VGA cables on a Viewsonic 20 inch LCD display (1280×1024 widescreen setting). This is important as some games display differently on TV versus LCD/HD display resolutions.

This game is downright stunning visually. The tracks have the right balance of background detail to keep the game running smooth and quickly, even when racing with a full field of cars. Even the New York track looks amazing with all the buildings rendered in the background. I crashed on the first turn (the double 90 degree turns at the far end of the track) just getting caught up in the detail on the various buildings. Each track setting is unique and fun to drive through. Nurburing Nordschliffe has the right level of detail for racing through the hills of Germany, with forest trees coming right up to the edge of the track. Maple Valley (an original track not appearing on this planet) is a race through the hills and trees of a North American decidious forest. **** has you racing on a classic bent-oval course for high speed lap runs, complete with stands, fans, and recreational vehicles on the infield.

Even more so, the cars just add to the distraction. Each vehicle is rendered in very high detail, including interior seating and little details like manufacturer marks at various places on the car body. Added to this is the ability to place vinyl stickers to the body of the vehicle. The limit on the total number of vinyl placed on the car tops out at 4000 (1000 per section) which has let artists go wild with art. I’ve seen Scarface themed cars with Al Pacino staing back at me. I happened to purchase a very nice Metroid car off of the Auction House that has an image of Samus Aran firing her blaster down the side of the car. I’ve seen cars from popular anime series, Order of the Stick, and other webcomics on the Auction House. Even better, the car sellers can ‘lock’ the design so that you can’t modify it or save it and start reselling the design yourself on the Auction House. Not only is it nice to look at, it is a very functional feature.

This is game where I’ve found myself enjoying spending an hour in the Car Painter, or in the tuning screens. The background music is a great mix of current pop/rock/rap (not sure on the last one – need tracklist- author) songs that don’t blare at you. I don’t think I’ve heard a song during the menus I didn’t like, though I did not find a way to pick which songs did play, only a master music volume. Compared to Need For Speed: Most Wanted / Carbon, where I could adjust which tracks played during the menus and gameplay. Of course I usually turned off most of the hardcore rap songs on that title, I found that I didn’t need to do the same here.

Once the race gets underway, there are only two things you need to hear: Your engine, the road, and in the case of multiplayer, your opponents voices. Thankfully the game does a wonderful job with all three. Engines change sound depending on the upgrades you have placed in them, and in your transmission. At one point, after I was involved in a serious collision with the wall, I could even hear the damage to my transmission, even though my immediate performance at low gears was unaffected. A quick look at the damage display confirmed that the transmission was almost 60% damaged, and I found that 5th gear was unavailable to me. I was floored that I could just tell that from the noise and grinding sound as my car changed gears.

Who needs a wheel? Really? Only if you need it for the experience of driving with a proper steering wheel. I was worried that the 360 controller wouldn’t be up to the task of taking the reigns of this beast, but it turns out that the analog triggers on the controller combined with the left analog stick provide the right amount of control for your vehicle. The controls are very well laid out, though I had problems trying to access my telemetry controls on the d-pad unless I was on a straightaway. It is a minor detail, as the damage and heat pop-up (accessed through the right button) provide most of the detail you need at a glance. I did like seeing the actual percentages of damage to my tires to get a better feel of how long I have till I need to pit.

Outside of the races, menus are pretty fast to navigate, though I found my 360 pausing or catching when I switched between parts quickly. (As I am having a drive issue with my 360 that may require sending it in, this is not factored into the score.) Some of the menu choices are non-obvious or confusing. There wasn’t a way to quickly switch cars, unless a race required me to pick from a specific list of cars that I owned (aka: D class race only, or only American cars, and I’m currently in a British one.) Accessing the Parts screen required me to jump all the way out to the top career menu and then into the parts shop. The game implies that the Right Button takes you to your Garage in the upper corner of your screen, but it actually goes to your current car / racing stats. It seems that they didn’t completely factor in where people would spend their time (or they assumed people would have one version of a car for D class, then buy it again for C class tuning, etc…which is not how I play.)

So, after all that, how does the game play? Well, it really depends on how you set up your difficulty levels and options. At one end of the spectrum, you can run with all the assists on and the driving line, and get a great arcade style driving experience. This still has enough sim in it that you will learn how to play and enjoy career mode. At the other end, you can turn off all of the assists and driving line, and learn what it is like to really brake into turns and accelerate out of them. I found myself very nervous turning all of the assists (especially the ABS) off and removing the driving line, but then I ran an endurance race on Tsukbaki this way. 45 laps in a single race helped me get used to the track and learn where I needed to brake for the next turn. I was driving the track on instinct by lap 20, and by lap thirty I found myself almost not paying attention to the track as I drove the various laps.

Even better was the damage system that was included. When playing in ‘Full Simulation’ difficulty, it was easy to downshift too hard, and damage my engine. Or tear off parts of my car if I hit the wall. One impact with another vehicle (while I was trying to pass) damaged my rear brakes. Until I was able to pit, my car pulled to one side when I hit the brakes. Other times, I have been unable to shift down to a particular gear, or shift up. The damage model is wonderful, and having to deal with debris on the track, or the results of an accident until you can pit adds a level of challenge to the title.

With all the possible race event combinations, and various tuning opportunities, one can spend many hours racing in this game. I was worried that the 12 (? – Auth) tracks would not be enough, but they added in reverse runs, and some of the tracks are actually the track with the different paths blocked off, such as Sunset short / Sunset Infield, or the various Test Track configurations (four or more – AUTH). The game has enough different tracks that it will be some time before you feel you have run this title out of gas. A track that is run in D class (street capable vehicles) plays completely different when you use A, S, or R class vehicles. You also have to take tuning and number of laps into account.

One of the things that didn’t carry over from the original title is the use of the Drivatar. Gone is the training of the AI driver. Instead, in career mode, you can hire a driver to run the track for you. You will not earn any race achivements (such as hard driver – have the lowest PI of the race and come in first), but you can still earn achivements for level and completion of events. The tradeoff? The AI driver wants to be paid. The best drivers claim one hundred percent of your winnings, but I have not had the top driver lose…ever, especially when I give him a well tuned car. The lowest skill driver only takes fifty five percent of my winnings, but he doesn’t deal with the more finely tuned cars as well as the top drivers. It is a good trade-off, and works well in the context of the game.

This leads us into the replay value of the title. The sheer number of cars and track combinations make this game almost a toolkit of racing. I don’t doubt that Microsoft will find some way to sell us more tracks and cars on the Live Marketplace… in fact, I look forward to it.

Multiplayer, aside from not being able to switch out parts (only tune) during the MP session, is a downright dream. Lag is dependant on the host, but it has been pretty good even for home DSL users. I was able to host an eight player session on my standard AT&T home DSL, even with my wife playing Warcraft and a large download running. A nice feature of the hosting is that if the host quits, the game randomly hands hosting duties off to another player.

One of my favorite multiplayer features is the ability to run career matches online. This lets us earn money for our career mode, though it doesn’t let us complete events. The money awarded changes based on track, number of players, and number of laps. You can even earn levels for your driver and car (if you use a garage car and not stock) with these races. It gave us a good reason to sit down and play pretty agressively since the release of the game. It also helped us realize that the right analog stick is good for something. Looking around before changing your racing line was a sure way to hit another player online, and led to some really interesting races. Ducking through a recent crash site, and trying to avoid debris really makes this game exciting. I’m not saying we are playing the game to make it a destruction derby, but dealing with unexpected situations on the track really sets the game apart from just running the line and trying to pass other people, or draft them.

Add in the online auction house for new designs (a quick way to purchase a car you might need for your collection), online tournaments (still having some bugs), Forza TV and you have a winner for online play. Forza TV lets you watch other multiplayer matches in session, letting you see how other players run the various tracks. Online tournaments let you complete in series events in various heats with specific class restrictions. What little I’ve heard of them has some bugs still being ironed out (such as combining the times with another heat without informing the players, causing people who would have advanced to be dropped from the tourney.)

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