- Review Price: £39.99
”’Platform: Xbox 360”’
Few would argue that when it comes to console based driving epics, Polyphony’s Gran Turismo series sits head and shoulders above the competition. In fact, Gran Turismo was always such a triumph of accurate racing dynamics and beautifully rendered automotive pornography, that it wasn’t until after Gran Turismo 4 had launched that anything resembling a worthy opponent appeared. That game was Forza Motorsport, and it finally gave Xbox owners a retort, when their PS2 owning mates threw GT4 in their face.
Of course anyone claiming that Forza Motorsport was better than Gran Turismo 4 was skating on thin ice, because good as it undoubtedly was, it didn’t have quite the depth, realism or attention to detail as Polyphony’s masterpiece. But what Forza did have in its favour was a more accessible model. Gone was the need to drive a VW Lupo for hours on end before you could afford a decent car. Absent were the arbitrary challenges necessary to claim your racing license. Forza just got you behind the wheel of the good stuff long before GT, and despite the fact that many Gran Turismo purists will see that as a weakness, the less hardcore PS2 owners would probably whisper, when they knew no one could hear or criticise them, that they quite liked the idea of not having to work so hard in order to have fun!
Forza also added two key elements that were disappointingly absent from Gran Turismo 4 – car damage and online play. The former added significantly to the realism of the gameplay and made you think twice before attempting to squeeze through that impossibly small gap, mid corner. While the second allowed you to pit your driving skills against real life opponents from around the World, rather than the ever dubious in-game AI that seems to plague every racing game in existence.
It was therefore unsurprising that the vast majority of Xbox 360 owners have been waiting with baited breath for the launch of Forza Motorsport 2, with the promise of next generation graphics and physics engines leaving many racing fans weak at the knees. Now that the wait is over, the big question is whether Forza 2 lives up to expectation, but that’s not quite as simple a question as you might think. On many levels Forza Motorsport 2 is a triumph, but on an equal number of levels it falls sadly short of the mark.
One area where I really didn’t expect a game like this to come up short is attention to detail in the licensing department, but unfortunately Forza 2 has done just that. There’s one certainty with a racing simulation – any car nut who loads it up for the first time will try to find the car they own among the plethora of vehicles on offer and that’s exactly what I did. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my car, and at first thought that it hadn’t been included in the line up. Eventually however I realised that the licensing department at Microsoft Game Studios had made a rather glaring error!
When you first start the career mode in Forza 2 you can choose one of three geographical locations – Europe, America or Asia – naturally I chose Europe, one because I live there and two because the best cars in the world hail from that territory (cue abuse from around the globe). I was therefore quite disappointed when I found that I couldn’t choose a bright orange Ford Focus ST as my starting vehicle, nor was it even available to buy in the European region. Eventually I found my car lurking in the American region, with the game clearly stating that the origin of the Focus ST was North America. That’s quite an impressive mistake considering that the Focus ST isn’t even on sale in the US!
Now, before any of my eagle eyed US readers inform me that Ford does sell the Focus ST in America, I’m aware that there’s a car with that name over there, but it’s by no means the same vehicle. The US Focus ST is a dull four-door saloon with a disappointing naturally aspirated, four cylinder engine pumping out only 151bhp, whereas the European Focus ST is a rally derived hatchback sporting a turbocharged five cylinder engine putting out 222bhp, and it’s the latter car that is actually in the game!
There are slip ups elsewhere too, like the Lotus Elise 111S, which actually has the specification of the newer and more expensive 111R, with a 197bhp Toyota engine, as opposed to the 160bhp Rover lump that the 111S actually hides under its bonnet. OK, so I’m probably nit-picking, but with a game that lives and dies by its realism and car licenses, this is the type of mistake that will annoy much of the target audience.
Things definitely start to look up when you get behind the wheel though, and I do mean wheel, not controller. If ever there was a game that benefited from a steering wheel, it’s Forza 2, and lucky for Microsoft, its wireless steering wheel is one of the best around. It’s only when you’re using a steering wheel that you realise just how much effort Turn 10 has put into the handling of each car. Jump into a vehicle that you’re familiar with and it should behave almost exactly as you’d expect. Get into a powerful front wheel drive beast and floor the throttle off the line and the wheel will twitch and tug in your hand as the front wheels fight with the torque being directed through them.
The cornering manners are spot on too, with your average FWD ride exhibiting a nasty habit of understeering if you try to carry too much speed through a bend, although as long as you break hard in a straight line before turn in, and nail the throttle as you hit the apex, you’ll be amazed how much speed you can carry through even the most twisty tracks.
Likewise, if you’re driving a car with copious amounts of power going through the rear wheels, you can expect similarly copious amounts of oversteer if you overcook things through the bends. But once again, using the steering wheel really does convey just the right amount of feedback – lift off mid corner and you can feel the back going light as it loses traction and starts to slide, fight the oversteer with a handful of opposite lock and nail the throttle to drift the car round the bend. Powersliding may not be the fastest way around the track, but just like in the real world, it’s incredible fun and also looks awesome in the replays!
I can’t stress enough how much better Microsoft’s wireless steering wheel makes Forza 2, and if you’re seriously into driving, swallow the cost and buy both together, you really won’t be sorry. The problem is that without a steering wheel the driving dynamics in Forza 2 are pretty average at best, and anyone possessing even modest skill with a controller will have no problem at all lapping any track at ridiculous speeds.
And that’s my biggest problem with Forza 2, if you use the controller it’s just too damn easy. No matter how fast your car, no matter how unruly its handling may be in the real World, no matter how challenging the track, once you get the hang of flicking the left analogue stick at the right times, you’re pretty much sorted. Basically all the brilliant handling that Forza treats you with when using a steering wheel is completely lost when using the standard controller.
Unless you’re an unconvincing actor in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, you’ll be well aware that sliding a car round a sweeping bend is not easy. A tidy power slide requires pin point throttle adjustment and divine steering balance, something that is conveyed brilliantly when using a steering wheel with Forza 2. However, if you’re using the controller sliding, say, a Ferrari F430 around a bend is as simple as stabbing at the throttle and flicking the analogue stick in the opposite direction as soon as the back end starts to go. All sense of realism and challenge goes out the window, and pretty much any track in the game is no problem to navigate at high speed.
The control issue isn’t the only sign that Turn 10 has worked hard to make Forza 2 more accessible to the casual gamer though; the skill level of the computer controlled drivers also leaves a lot to be desired. First up, the AI is appalling, but to be fair to Forza 2, I’ve never played a driving game where the AI hasn’t been fatally flawed. Unfortunately, much like every other racer out there, the computer controlled opponents will follow the optimum racing line around the track, no matter what may be in the way. This means that if you’re trying to cut inside an opponent on a bend, they won’t brake to avoid hitting you, they’ll just turn in and follow the racing line, regardless of the fact that your car is in the way. This leaves you often making contact with opponents when trying to overtake on bends, something that would rarely happen in the real world. OK, I accept that BTCC racing involves a bit of contact, but most drivers will avoid hitting another car if possible, due to the detrimental aerodynamic effect that damaged bodywork will have on their race.
The poor AI isn’t the biggest issue though, it’s the fact that it’s all too easy to find yourself racing by yourself. Bizarrely, the grid layout at the start of each track is determined by who has the fastest car, so if you go into a race with the fastest vehicle on the track, you’ll start in pole and probably never so much as see another car for the rest of the race. I can understand why Turn 10 has done this, since a qualifying session before the race would probably produce a line up very similar to what’s seen in Forza 2, but it does leave you in a position where human error is often the only thing standing between you and first place.
Surely you won’t always have the fastest car right? Well you’d think that would be the case, but unfortunately it’s all too easy to make sure that you have the fastest car on the track thanks to the modding/upgrade feature of Forza 2. Obviously no driving game worth its salt these days would be seen without a method of customising your vehicles, but with Forza 2 it’s just too easy to create a completely unstoppable car that can leave all the computer controlled automobiles for dead. If you find yourself struggling in any race, simply drop out and upgrade your car then go back to the track and waste the competition!
And there’s absolutely no sense of realism with the upgrades either. I personally spend altogether too much time and money modifying my cars to get the best balance of performance and handling out of them. This usually invloves carefull upgrades of the induction system, the exhaust system, intercooler and ultimately a new ECU map that takes advantage of all the other physical modifications. Having been down this road with several cars I’m well aware that some potential upgrades simply aren’t possible, whether that’s due to a lack of physical space in the engine bay, or the fact that pushing 400bhp out of an engine designed with 200bhp in mind will result in a big bang coupled with a big repair bill.
Forza 2 takes none of the realities of automotive modification into account. Is that naturally aspirated engine not cutting the mustard? Just slap a massive turbocharger on it, regardless of the fact that there wouldn’t be space in the engine bay. Then there’s the small issue of whether other components in the car can handle all that extra power and torque. Forza 2 is happy to let you more than double the power and torque output of your car without forcing you to, say, upgrade your drives shafts or your clutch, or even your gearbox. Amazingly a gearbox that’s been designed for 200lb ft of torque can quite happily live with well over twice that searing through its cogs Forza-land. Ultimately, if Forza 2 was going to move the game on when it came to realism, it really should have adopted a more cause and effect attitude to modifications and upgrades.
It’s also not as if finances can keep your desire to upgrade your cars in check, because you’ll soon find yourself flush with cash without even having to try too hard. This means that not only will you be able to buy upgrades to your heart’s content, but you’ll also be able to buy some particularly exotic metal before long. Some effort has been made to limit your financial freedom, by limiting the value of cars that you win in races – so while upgrading your brakes will set you back over 3,000 credits, if you sell your pristine Jaguar E-Type you’ll be rewarded with a measly 100 credits. Of course you can auction the cars you win online via Xbox Live, but considering how easy it is to win the car in the first place, anyone would have to be terminally impatient to stump up cash to buy a car that they could get for nothing by winning a few races!
In many ways Forza 2 suffers from the same underlying issue as Project Gotham Racing 3, whereby it’s not difficult to be driving the car of your dreams after only a few hours’ play, which then leaves you wondering whether you can be bothered to soldier on through the rest of the career mode.
To be fair to Turn 10, there are some very impressive aspects to Forza 2, not least of which is the fact that the game runs at a constant 60fps, unlike the somewhat dead 30fps exhibited by PGR3. This fast frame rate produces a very smooth and believable feeling of speed, which is exactly what you want from a racing game. However, I can’t help thinking that the impressive frame rate has come at the expense of visual quality. There’s a worrying lack of anti-aliasing in the game that leaves what should be smooth curves looking jagged and rough. It’s hard to admire the beautiful lines of a Porsche 911 GT3 as you pull up next to it when the wheel arches and spoilers resemble bread knives. Likewise, the edge of the track can also end up being a mass of jaggies, while the textures on the cars themselves have a tendency to shimmer as you approach them.
On the plus side, there are some very nice lighting effects, with good use made of bloom as you round a corner into the sun, while the reflective surfaces offered by pristine bodywork are a joy to behold, especially when viewing a replay. On the whole Forza 2 doesn’t look bad, it’s just that I think anyone who’s been waiting for its arrival will be slightly disappointed that it’s not simply jaw dropping.
Audio is considerably more impressive than the visuals, with engine notes that sound pretty much exactly like the real cars. The five-pot rumble of the Focus ST is nigh on perfect, while the slightly rough, but utterly intoxicating roar of a Porsche 911 2.7 RS (one of the greatest cars ever built) almost brought the hair on the back of my neck to attention.
The arcade mode lets you get straight into the action, and you thankfully have a wide selection of cars at your disposal from the off. You will also win new rides as you dispatch each arcade race – most of which are run on tracks that will be very familiar to motorsport fans. If you’ve got a steering wheel there’s a lot, and I mean a lot of fun to be had racing in arcade mode, but the real challenge is the career mode.
Turn 10 has tried very hard to make the career mode compelling, but ultimately fails. Cutting each race series into a number of different events, with multiple races in each makes sense. It’s also very clever to have strict guidelines on what type of vehicle can race in each event, since this forces you to diversify your garage, rather than just sticking with the type of car you like. Unfortunately though, this format ultimately gets dull, and you start to look at each event as just 15 or 20 minutes of your time, since that’s likely to be how long it will take to win that prize car that’s up for grabs.
Of course things get more challenging as you progress, with more laps to complete and faster cars to compete against, but it’s just too easy for you to upgrade your own vehicles way beyond the ability of your computer controlled opponents. If you are finding it really easy, you can of course bump the difficulty level up, but in reality the Normal level should at least offer some challenge as you progress.
So perhaps the real challenge is with online play? Not exactly. The first time I tried to play online I spent 45 minutes trying to connect to games and then getting thrown out just as I was about to race. When I did eventually manage to get into some Xbox Live sessions, the result wasn’t really worth the wait. Compared to PGR 3, Forza 2 feels like a step backwards when it comes to online races. Network lag seems to be a major problem, with your opponents’ cars randomly vanishing and then reappearing a few hundred yards down the track. There’s also no point playing online with a steering wheel, since the chances are that all the other players will be using controllers, leaving you at a distinct disadvantage – although you’ll get the more rewarding experience!
Whereas the original Forza Motorsport took the Gran Turismo model and tried to open it up to a wider audience, Forza 2 seems to be trying too hard to attract the casual gamer, thus losing the driving enthusiast along the way. The slightly disappointing visuals could easily have been forgiven if the driving dynamics and AI were first rate, but unfortunately they’re not.
But Forza 2’s saving grace is its performance when using Microsoft’s wireless steering wheel, and ultimately that’s what keeps a respectable score at the top of the page. When you’re playing this game with a steering wheel, with a manual gearbox selected, it truly is an absolute joy. So, if you’ve been waiting to add Forza Motorsport 2 to your Xbox 360 collection, you better factor in the cost of a steering wheel too.
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