When Forza Motorsport debuted on the Xbox, it was Microsoft’s first foray into the racing simulator subgenre and surprisingly, the first time was the charm. Forza Motorsport earned many accolades from reviewers and gamers alike for its emphasis on realism, numerous customization options and in depth online options. Some even said it was better than Gran Turismo 4, the latest in the long line of highly acclaimed racing simulators. This makes for a tall order to fill for the Xbox 360 sequel. It seems Turn 10 has risen to the occasion, tweaking the already fantastic driving model, improving on the career mode and giving the multiplayer a significant boost. Because of this, Forza Motorsport 2 is everything a good sequel should be.
There’s no shortage of high performance cars to be found here, as Forza 2 features over 300 cars from 50 manufacturers from around the globe. From the incredibly light and speedy Lotus Exige to one of the most iconic American muscle cars, the 1969 Dodge Charger, there’s a lot to like here. Forza 2’s strength is in its variety, offering up cars from the lower end of the spectrum to start, such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and slowly progresses upward to the exotic supercars everyone dreams of, such as the Enzo Ferrari and Porsche Carerra GT.
The career mode begins as Forza’s did before it, in which you choose which of the three regions (North America, Europe and Asia) to call your home. This choice weighs heavily as it determines which cars you’ll be able to access from the outset and which ones are unlocked and in what order as you progress through the game. It all comes down to a matter of choice, and what kinds of cars you prefer driving. This choice, while important, isn’t set in stone and once you find yourself flush with cash you’ll be able to switch regions. After you purchase your first car, you can immediately jump into a career race.
As you progress through the career mode, you’ll come across region-specific events, events with horsepower limits, events that restrict you to a certain make and model, and so on so there are a good variety of different race types. As you complete races, the amount of credits you win from each event are applied to your “driver level” and your car’s individual level, which maxes out at level 5, creating an RPG-like system in which you unlock new cars and events as you continue to increase in level. The later events have stiffer competition, longer heats and of course, bigger payouts. The longest, most difficult and most lucrative races are the Endurance series of races, which are unlocked last. These races, which can sometimes carry on for more than a dozen laps and easily surpass an hour in length require more than just racing skill, you’ll need an efficient pit strategy, changing tires, making quick tune-ups and refueling if you expect to win.
The on-track action is where Forza 2 really shines, as did its predecessor. You won’t find a more realistic simulation on consoles, or one that truly captures the essence of racing as well as Forza 2. Taking your favorite car around the track for a few laps, feeling its power and weight as you carve out that perfect line feels sublime. Each vehicle has a different sort of “feel” to it, in part due to Forza 2’s incredibly deep physics model. Throughout the game’s development, Turn 10 has touted their improved physics engine, which runs physics calculations 360 times per second. While the difference between Forza 1 and 2 doesn’t seem amazingly profound, hardcore players will quickly notice the subtle nuances. Plug in the Xbox 360’s wireless racing wheel and prepare yourself for one heck of a challenge. The wheel reacts perfectly as you carefully thread the gas and brake alongside subtle steering inputs as you guide the car around the track.
Controller rumble is used to great effect here, among the best applications of the often niche feature in recent memory. The rumbling you feel allows you to truly get a feel for the power under the hood of your car, but beyond that, it actually gives you information about the car’s handling. As you navigate the turns, the controller will begin to rumble the instant your tires begin to lose traction allowing you to react almost instantaneously to keep the car under control. Using the wireless wheel’s force feedback adds to the effect, as the car fights against you as your tires struggle to hook up after a drift around a corner or take a trip off the track and into the dirt.
Once again, Forza 2 features full damage modeling, which is far more than just cosmetic. Crashing in this game isn’t taken lightly and will have a very profound effect on your car depending on the damage setting you’re playing on. The effect a crash has on your car ranges from cosmetic to simulation. On cosmetic, the damage is just that, cosmetic, and you can continue driving as you would with no effect on your car’s performance. On Simulation, even small impacts can have a noticeable effect on your car’s performance and handling. Of course, automakers don’t want to see the virtual representations of their cars completely twisted and mangled, so driving headlong into a barrier at 150 mph won’t tear your car apart and the worst that will happen will be a bumper or wing falling off. Under the hood however, the car will most likely be totaled, practically irreparable and completely incapable of winning a race due to the extensive damage done to the engine, suspension, driveline, etc. It really goes a long way to providing incentive for driving defensively and safely.
Like its predecessor, Forza 2 has a number of driving aids to help ease casual players into its brand of simulation racing such as stability and traction control, as well as the almost required anti-lock brake system. The number of driving aids you have enabled factors into your winnings throughout the career mode, offering the incentive for hardcore players to turn off the driving aids, dial up the difficulty and turn on manual shifting. Of course, this makes for one incredibly steep challenge. Forza 2 also offers a few notable improvements to its trademark dynamic driving line aid, which paints a never ending line of arrows on the track showing you the ideal racing line and changing color from green to yellow to red to indicate acceleration and braking points. Forza 2 now offers a “braking only” version of the line, which only appears near turns and where it is recommended that you hit the brakes. This version of the line actually helps to wean you off of it entirely, as these optimal braking points will eventually become second nature.
The opponent AI is a mixed bag in terms of intelligence. For the most part, the AI drivers seem to know your position on the track as well as the other drivers, relative to their own. They know how to pass efficiently and take advantage of every mistake you make. The AI can be punishingly tough at times and can push your skills to the limit in the later races. On the other hand, the AI can be incredibly stupid as well. On occasion, they seem to get a bit overzealous as they ram you from behind in turns to spin you out, often taking themselves out of the race as well. On other occasions, they seem to forget where you are on the track as they slam into you from behind on the back straight.
Should you decide that you don’t want to race in a certain event (or series of events), you can hire drivers of varying skill levels to do the race for you. Well, this works out surprisingly well in practice. The higher skilled drivers absolutely dominate the field when put behind the wheel of the right car. The know how to set up the pass, they know how to follow the optimal racing line and even seem to be much smarter than the normal AI.
Forza 2 carries with it a decent track selection, featuring eight real-world courses including the newly introduced Sebring Raceway and other famous race courses such as the Mazda Laguna Seca and legendary Nürburgring. There are 47 tracks advertised, but this is a bit misleading. While there are indeed 47 tracks to race on, many are simply shorter variations of the larger tracks. Disappointing is the removal of the point to point tracks and races as well as a few circuits from the original Forza, which takes a bite out of the game’s track variety.
Graphically, Forza 2 is a bit inconsistent. One graphical detail I’m not particularly fond of is the dirt collection on your car. As you drive around the track, you’ll notice dirt collecting around the bottom of your car, particularly on the front bumper and around the wheel wells. It’s a nice touch (although the dirt builds up all too quickly) but it sullies the visual appeal of the car, which is very important. The car models themselves are gorgeous. A great deal of effort went into even the smallest of details making them look as realisitic as possible and sparkle with an amazing sheen. Sadly, there is a fair bit of aliasing, especially throughout the car’s lines, which mar the visual quality but it helps that the game runs at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second.
The environments are nicely detailed, although if you take the time to look at all of the set pieces you'll notice a lack of detail in some areas but it's hardly going to matter as most of the time, you'll be driving too fast to notice. It's worth noting that the sense of speed is great, especially when barreling down the road at 200 mph. In part, due to the lighting, some environments look much better than the others. On some tracks, such as the Maple Valley Raceway and Suzuka Circuit the lighting is quite good, while on the Sebring track in particular, the lighting seems overdone.
It’s a shame however that Forza 2 doesn’t feature a dashboard camera similar to that seen in Project Gotham Racing 3 or Test Drive Unlimited. This feature can be incredibly immersive when used correctly, and considering the number of games on the market that utilize it, it’s disappointing that Forza 2 doesn’t have this feature. The camera options it does have, strapped to the bumper, on the hood, and two angles of near and far distances away from the rear of the car are good, but having used this feature extensively in other racers, I’m disappointed it’s not included here.
For the grease monkeys out there, Forza 2 carries over its very in depth tuning and upgrade system, which rewards those who put much of time and effort into tuning their rides. This of course goes deeper than simple cosmetic changes. There are a series of advanced telemetry reports available at the touch of a button during replays and races themselves presenting data on tire temperature, lateral g’s and other technical jargon that would confuse the average player while being incredibly useful to advanced users. To make things easier, Forza 2 also includes the ability to test drive your vehicle, affording you the chance to see your tuning changes and hop into the tuning menu right on the track and make adjustments to see which setups work best for different situations and multiple setups can be saved for each car.
Lending even more to the customization element of Forza 2 is the highly in depth vinyl and paint job editor. While most players may only fiddle with it, adding a few decals and paint customizations, those who invest a significant amount of time into their cars can produce some amazingly artistic and creative designs. The toolset may not be the most intuitive and will certainly take some time to get used to in order to get the most out of it but many of the best things in life require this effort right? To top everything off, there’s even a fairly in depth photo mode which can be entered during races or in the paint job editor to take photos that can be uploaded to the Forza Motorsport 2 community website and shared with others. You’ll want to spend a bit of time with it regardless, if only for a few moments, before heading online for that custom look to set you apart from the other racers.
Speaking of the online play, Forza 2 is more in depth than the average online racer. Going a step beyond merely delivering eight player online races and leaderboards like…pretty much every other racer out there, Forza 2 offers a few modes that go a long way towards setting it apart from the crowd. The first of these modes is borrowed from sister racer Project Gotham Racing 3, named Forza Motorsport TV in which you can tune in and view on live races.
One of the most innovative and community-focused modes out there is one you don’t actually race in. The Auction House, as its name suggests is a place players can bid on and auction off their high performance or highly artistic rides. Using an extensive search engine which allows you to search anywhere from the car’s specific make and model to its performance index, you can quickly and easily find the exact car you want (provided it’s been uploaded) and place your bid.
The audio is another area Forza 2 shines, treating you to a symphony of screeching tires, powerful engines and turbo whine during each race. Everything sounds just right. Forza 2 also has an excellent licensed soundtrack to listen to in the menus and such but unfortunately, there’s no option to enable the music playback during the races themselves. Here is where the Xbox 360’s custom soundtrack feature takes center stage, unless the extra music would serve as a distraction, in which case, the lack of music can do nothing but help.
To wrap things up, Forza Motorsport 2 takes its rightful place as the quintessential racing simulator. It may not look as good as some of its major rivals but it makes up for it for its incredibly realistic, engaging and challenging gameplay. The extensive tuning and options should satisfy even the biggest gearheads and the vinyl/livery editors should satisfy artistic gamers out there. It’s not perfect but its flaws are easily overlooked in the face of everything it does right, and what it does right, it does especially well. It’s not common that a racing simulator makes significant strides towards easing new players into the genre, but Forza 2 does an excellent job in that respect. To put it simply, if you enjoy racing games, especially simulators of this caliber then you should feel right at home.