Forza Motorsports 2: Initial Demo Impressions

Posted by Martin:

rx7_vette_tsukuba01.jpgI love racing. Whether it’s automobile or motorcycle, if it takes turns, I’m usually fascinated by it. I don’t know what it is, but watching a skilled driver or rider take their machine around a circuit, or watching someone outbrake his competitor into a turn in a brilliant passing maneuver, the ballet on asphalt that is competitive automotive sports has always had an allure for me that I cannot explain. As such, it’s only natural that I have an interest in racing games. In fact, Gran Turismo 3 is pretty much the only reason I bought my first console ever, the PS2. There’s been very few games I haven’t played, whether it’s SEGA Rally or GTR. As such, with my latest console, the XBox 360, I’ve been looking forward to the only “Racing Sim” that’s on the horizon for it with the recent news that GTR2 has been canned. With the demo released yesterday, I had no choice but to download and play for a few hours. So what’d I think?

In short, the real question is will I be buying the full game? The answer is a resounding yes. It was quite a bit of fun. However, that’s usually never enough, so I will expound a bit on my opinions and suggestions.

The demo features three classes of cars and a single track. I’m hoping that the lowest class in the demo (something akin to a Ford Mustang GT/Subaru Legacy 2.5GT/Nissan 350Z) is the lowest that’s in the game. While it’s impressive that the Gran Turismo series sports upwards of 700 cars, I’d rather not spend the first part of the game racing a 1980 Toyota Corolla. The other two classes encompass high end performance cars (Ferrari/Corvette/Dodge Viper/etc…) as well as high end race cars (GT Class Cars). The single track, a truncated version of the Mugello circuit is a relatively short circuit starting with a moderate uphill right handed hairpin leading into a set of two stretched left right chicanes and then wraps up with two rather sharp off-camber downhill rights.

First of all, people will ask about the graphics. And to be frank, they’re not exactly the greatest in the world. After being spoiled with Gears of War and Rainbow 6: Vegas, the bar for XBox360 graphics has been set quite high. Something that Forza does not manage to reach. With that said, the graphics aren’t exactly bad, though. The cars look real enough, the tracks look adequate, and it moves cleanly at 60 frames per second, so it’s quite smooth. The only real issue is that the cars look way too shiny. Waaaaaaaaaay to shiny. It’s bordering on plasticy. As a warning, a lot of people have complained about anti-aliasing issues, so unless your TV is set up properly, you’re most likely going to have some issues with jaggies (I had none with my properly set up CRT RP HDTV). With all that said, in this genre of game, the graphics should be last on the list of things to polish, and I salute the developers at Turn 10 for putting their efforts in the simulation engine.

As far as the simulation engine, I’m rather impressed. I absolutely abhor arcade racers and their associated physics engines, so my tastes reward realistic careful driving as opposed to aggressive passing with a last second e-brake turn at 120 mph to make the hairpin. I’ll say outright that I have turned off all the driving aids, so there’s no traction control, stability control, automatic transmission or anti-lock brakes. Without those, you’ll quickly realize that driving a 600 horsepower is about as easy as playing rocket powered lawn darts… adverserially. Unless you’re careful on the throttle as you come out of the turns, you’ll quickly be flipped around your front end as your rear tires get a bit too enthusiastic. Many of the cars seem eager to lose the back end a bit too easily under throttle, but I’m willing to attribute that to the default tuning set-up of the cars at the moment, and will reserve judgement on this until the full game comes out. Slowing car requires the same control. Too heavy, and even more importantly, attacking the brakes too quickly will result in a lock-up sending you hurtling out of control towards the weeds. In short, upon first impression, the physics engine is up to par as a simulation engine, at least compared to an arcade racer in the vein of PGR3. Whether it realistically reflects driving a car in meatspace I cannot say, simply as I’ve never had the pleasure of spinning a multi-hundred-thousand dollar Ferarri through the curves of Mugello. What it does do, however, is to force the gamer to think about the track and make braking just as important as the getting on the gas, and it is this which will make racing online a bunch of fun.

An offshoot of the physics discussion, and one worthy of compliment, is the dynamic braking line that you have the option of showing. The game will display the braking points on the map as a function of your speed. Approach the turn slowly, and you won’t be shown to brake at all. Approach too fast, and your car won’t be able to manage to keep the tires under both brake and lateral forces all the way through. While this isn’t something that I’m going to allow myself to become dependent on, it will most certainly help with learning the circuits. This is a very nice replacement for the full, and usually static, racing line most games (including Forza2 with an options change) allow.

Similar to the physics engine, the programmers must have spent quite a bit of time on the sound engine. It’s fantastic, to say the least. Engines rumble, tires scream, and everything sounds unique. The one thing I wish I had was rear speakers as it’s readily obvious that the game was designed for the full 5.1 system. I can’t say too much about the musical selections apart from the fact that they do not play while racing, and that is a good thing.
As for the controller, I do not have a wheel for my 360. It will probably remain as such, if only to protest the fact that Microsoft will not allow developers to support external party wheels (as in the Driving Force Pro, that I already have). Without the wheel, the game is more than playable. I have to give credit to whoever designed the XBox triggers. They are more than capable of delivering very precise gas and brake inputs. The joystick leaves a tiny bit to be desired in terms of steering input, but it’s more than up to the task. Rumble effects come through rather well giving you some additional useful feedback regarding how your tires are behaving. Unless something radical changes, I will probably be able to resist the call to buy yet another racing wheel successfully. I do hope the final game will allow you to remap the buttons, though. Right now, they’re not exactly intuitive to me.

The AI is also a refreshing change compared to games of yore. They will actually attempt to race a clean race, and more importantly, attempt to pass you cleanly. This is welcome when one thinks of previous console games where the AI simply held to the racing line with the finesse of a battering ram. Because they are actually reactive, they actually provide a challenge in that they race like actual people. Pass them on the brakes, you better make sure that you close the door or they will pass you on the inside. Definitely the most fun I’ve had racing an AI in a while, and it’s a refreshing change from “hotlapping with obstacles.”

However, the game could use a few improvements. The first of all would be some sort of indication that you’re about to lock your brakes. Right now, the only indication is the squeal indicating that your wheels have stopped spinning and you’re now at the mercy of the dynamic coefficient of friction. It’s kind of hard to push 10/10ths when you don’t know exactly how much more braking reserve you have. A subtle rumble effect, similar to the one as you’re losing traction due to overacceleration, would be nice. Also, there is no “shift now” light on the dashboard. It would be helpful to know when your car’s engine is spinning in the redline in a slightly more obvious fashion than having to keep an eye on the tach the whole time (made problematic because on certain views, the gauge cluster is off to the side of the screen). And finally, and perhaps the most frustrating: one should not be able to downshift into reverse in the middle of a turn. It’s not physically possible, and spinning off of the track because all of a sudden your drive wheels are turning the wrong way because you tapped the shift button twice is annoying to say the least.

Forza is one of the few titles on XBox360 that I really, really wanted to be good. And it makes me happy that, at least from the taste we get from the demo, it will be a title worth picking up.

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