The Good Realistic car tuning improves performance
The Bad Tough to drive with standard game controller
The Bottom Line Great car-racing sim for hard-core enthusiasts
Game: Forza Motorsport
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Consoles: Xbox only
I've always been frustrated by car-racing video games. My inclination is to step on the gas and motor as fast as I can. Inevitably, my car is splattered against a side wall while my computer-controlled rivals whiz by. I imagine the computer-generated drivers of the other cars thumbing their collective noses at me as they drive past.
So my first few laps around the tracks of Forza Motorsport from Microsoft Studios (MSFT) were aggravating beyond belief. This, after all, is a car enthusiasts' racing game. It has absolutely no forgiveness for a smidge too much gas going into a turn or a twist too much of the steering wheel. Race after race I came in eighth out of eight cars. Some races I didn't even finish because the cars were so far ahead after I crashed, I just pulled out of the game.
Then, miracle of miracles, I finished seventh. There probably has never been a happier seventh-place finisher before. It took me maybe 20 races. And I had to drive dirty at the end, cutting off my last-place rival in the final turns to claw my way out of the basement. And yes, that was I, thumbing my nose.
KEYS TO THE KINGDOM. After that, my racing skills only got better. And that's the real thrill of Forza. It's not a game that you can just pop into your Xbox and zoom onto victory. You've got to learn how to race. It starts with cutting off opponents in the corners. Then you learn how to drive into a turn: breaking before it, then gassing the car as you zip around the bend. Pretty soon, you've figured out how to maneuver past another car with a slick inside move in a turn.
After a while, I was winning races and racking up points that are the currency of Forza. The more points you have, the more upgrades you can purchase for you car. And upgrades are the keys to the Forza kingdom. If you really want to win races, you want to soup up your car. Why drive on stock tires when top-of-the-line Pirellis can be had? Toss out the factory-installed intake and exhaust systems for high-performance parts to improve engine performance. You can even stiffen and lighten the chassis so it responds better.
Finally, I triumphed in enough races and racked up enough points that I won my first car. "Acura has sent you a 2004 NSX," a message read. How nice. My garage now included the Acura as well as the Saab 9-3 Viggen I had chosen to start the game (only because I drive the more pedestrian Saab 9-3 in real life). Winning, of course, becomes addictive. Pretty soon I was adding upgrades to my Acura, winning more races and getting more cars. But it never was easy.
TWEAK-O-RAMA. As you begin to win cars and unlock new races, the game gets more challenging. You move up the food chain through six classes of cars from production models to high-performance production models to race cars. Not only are the performance models harder to drive, the computer-generated racers you're competing against are better at handling the more finely tuned machines. And if you're really up for a challenge, you can compete against other Forza racers on Xbox Live, Microsoft's online service that lets gamers compete against one another around the world. It's a feature that Forza's primary competitor, Gran Turismo 4, doesn't include.
For car enthusiasts, the key draw to Forza is the ability to tweak each little element that affects the car's performance. Not only can you install superchargers, brakes, and the like, you can modify gear ratios, tire pressure, wheel alignment, and aerodynamics, among other tuning options. Each adjustment changes the way the car handles, supposedly just as they would in the real world. So gamers get to play racer and mechanic.
Forza has plenty of other nifty features that will keep players hooked. Racers can customize the look of all 231 cars from 40 different manufacturers that are included in the game. You can adjust the difficulty to include so-called assists, such as a recommended path, marked by arrows ahead of you on the track, that guide you to the best line on the straightaways and through each turn.
STEERING UPGRADE. And Forza includes a neat artificial-intelligence feature, dubbed Drivatars that racers train to handle a car just as they would. After racing five different cars on five different tracks, the Drivatar is trained to mimic your driving style through various types of turns. Then, you set it free, entering it in races for you while you're away from your Xbox. When you come back, your Drivatar may have accumulated enough points to buy a new car or unlock a new level. But since the Drivatar is doing all the work, you only get a fraction of the points it wins.
My one caveat with Forza is that it's really hard to steer a car at full speed through turns with just the standard game controller that comes with each Xbox. My performance vastly improved when I started using Fanatec's Speedster 3 ForceShock steering wheel with gas and break pedals. All of a sudden, it was just like driving my own car, albeit at speeds even my lead foot doesn't hit.
The Speedster 3 wheel was designed specifically for Forza, though it can be used for other racing games on the Xbox. At $150, it's not inexpensive. But for a novice like me, the game would have been far more frustrating without it.
All of which explains that Forza is not your average arcade car-racing game. It's really a car-racing simulation. Of course, you never feel the G-forces sucking your body back into your seat as you swoop around turns. But once you master the more intricate aspects of racing, you'll get an adrenaline surge that will last well beyond the race.