It's exceedingly rare when you can say that a driving game is built for everybody. Considering how splintered the driving-game audience can be, with the hardcore sim-savvy fans on one side and the more casual, arcade-oriented crowd on the other, most games that have tried to appeal to both markets haven't pulled it off. However, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport for the Xbox flew in the face of other such failures. It created a game that was both easily accessible and remarkably deep, with a challenge level so scalable that you'd be hard pressed not to find some setting you liked. Now, Forza has come to the Xbox 360, and expectations are understandably high. In most regards, Forza Motorsport 2 delivers on those expectations. Not only does it continue to improve and tweak an already fantastic driving model, but it also piles on more cars, more tracks, more modes, and more features than you'll know what to do with. That's not to call the game flawless, but for every little quirk that pops up in Forza 2, there are a myriad of awesome elements to make those issues practically irrelevant.
Forza 2 cobbles together more than 300 cars from 50 major manufactures; a ton of licensed, aftermarket parts and upgrades; and 12 racing environments, several of which are real-world tracks like Laguna Seca, Mugello, Sebring, and the dastardly Nürburgring. It's a healthy jump in content over the original Forza, especially with the cars. Looking down the list, you'll race in everything from a Volkswagen Golf or Mini Cooper to top-of-the-line Ferraris, McLarens, and Saleens. It's a huge list, with tons of custom-built variations on popular rides and exceedingly fast racers. Between the 12 tracks, 47 different ribbons are available, meaning many of the tracks can be raced through a host of different ways. The best tracks in the game tend to be the ones based on real life. A couple of the tracks can be real snoozers, but even they have a ribbon or two that can be fun, given the right situation.
None of those cars would make a bit of difference if the game didn't drive well--so it's good that it does. Cars are built out in such a way that they all have an individual feel on the track. Of course, you'll feel the difference between an Enzo and a Beetle, but you even feel the differences between a Beetle and a Golf. No two cars feel quite alike, and that's understandable given the wide variety of statistics and parts unique to each car. In nearly every case, cars feel just right as they speed around the track. Each car's physics are spot-on, and you almost never get the feeling that the car you're driving isn't behaving true to life. The only time the physics get a little wonky is with collisions. Basic bumps and rubs look and feel right, but big head-on collisions seem oddly understated.
Another thing that sets all the different cars apart from one another is the new performance index rating system. Cars are still classified through a lettered system (D-class cars are the lower end of stock, store-bought rides; S class is all high-performance vehicles; and so on), but the new performance index now separates out cars within their own class by assigning each a numerical value based on individual stats in speed, acceleration, braking, and the like. Upgrading cars with new parts boosts the PI, and if you go over a certain number, the car will actually move into a new letter class. Seeing the PI of opponent cars versus your own lets you know exactly what you're up against and, in some cases, if you need to spend some cash before you're able to compete.
What primarily makes Forza 2 such a joy to drive is the way you can scale the difficulty to your own skill level. If you're a novice player and don't know a Gran Turismo from a Need for Speed, Forza 2 eases you into simulation driving nicely with several driving-assist features. There are basic ones, like stability control, antilock braking, and traction control that all work to keep your car on the road without too much duress. The big feature in the original Forza was the dynamic driving line assist, which essentially put a big line of color-coded arrows along the track (green means accelerate, yellow means slow down, red means brake), dictating the ideal driving path. This same line is present in Forza 2, but there's also a modified version of it that only shows braking spots. This ends up being the ideal line to use, as the original line has a tendency to become something of a crutch. Here, you're really only getting help with the turns, and once you've run a track a few times, you can usually get a good feel for where every ideal spot for deceleration is. If you're already into the hardcore driving sim genre, these features probably sound more annoying than anything else. Fortunately, you can turn it all off and get the full, realistic driving experience if you like. Doing so does make the game significantly more difficult, so consider yourself warned.
Even with all the assists turned on, careful driving is a must in Forza 2. Take a turn slightly too fast, and you're spinning out in the rough. Likewise, driving too passively will drop you down in placings fast, as the artificial intelligence will capitalize quickly. That's what you'd want in opponent AI, of course, and in most every situation, opponent drivers behave smartly. Unless you give them a reason to, opponents rarely bump or slam into you; instead, they concede corners if they can't pass you cleanly. And if you happen to start slamming around like bumper cars, the AI will adjust accordingly, with more easily intimidated opponents backing off and more aggressive opponents knocking you off the track if they get the chance. Generally though, they'll stick to their racing lines and drive professionally. In a sense, you know the AI is good because you don't find yourself thinking about the other cars much, except at moments where you're fixing to pass them or one of them is aiming to pass you.
There's more to Forza 2's driving model than great physics and smart AI. The driving interface is another huge factor in what makes the game so enjoyable. While driving, you can bring up a variety of different menus that show where your car is damaged, the temperature of your tires, and even some advanced telemetry data that might look like gobbledygook to a more casual player, but these give fantastic insight into the performance and status of your car for those who know how to read it. These options are what sets Forza 2 apart from other games of this type.
Perhaps the best overall aspect of Forza 2 is that it gives you so many ways to experience its fantastic driving model. You can start out participating in exhibition races or time trials, hop online to take on the rest of the world, or dive right into career mode, which is the true meat of the game. Career mode starts you out picking a region to call your home, with options of North America, Asia, and Europe. Specifying a region essentially dictates what brands of cars you want to establish a relationship with early on, and you'll quickly find yourself earning discounts with automakers from your region.
With a region picked out and your first car bought, you'll be presented with only a few unlocked racing series and a driver level of one. From here, it's race, race, race. The career mode is where you earn all your cash and boost your driver level. Boosting your cash flow lets you buy new cars and part upgrades, while upping your driver level earns more discounts on cars and unlocks new races to take part in.
What's neat about the career mode is that it finds ways to keep the progression fresh, even if it is putting you on the same courses again and again for dozens of hours. You'll encounter region-specific races, class-specific races, ones limited to certain levels of horsepower, and the ever-sadistic endurance races that have you racing on the same course for far, far longer than the average five- to six-lap endeavor. The lack of track variety starts to wear after a bit, especially considering how long the career mode is, but there's enough variety to the types of races to keep you very much interested in finishing your career.
The slightly goofy thing about career mode is that you can buy your way to victory as you please. Since you get a quick look at what your opponents are rolling with before a race, you can simply take your qualifying car, boost it to the hilt, and smoke the competition from the get-go. Now, that doesn't work in every situation. Some races require cars of very specific speeds and performance indexes to enter, so you have limits on what you can do. Even still, if you know how to work within those limits when upgrading, you can usually outclass the competition. If you find this a cheap practice and prefer to drive more evenly matched cars, you certainly can. But if you just want to get through the career, it's not hard to upgrade your way to relatively easy victories.
If you get tired of beating up the AI and still need to earn more money, you can hop online and take part in online career races, which earn you cash just as in the offline career races. These are the equivalent of standard ranked matches on Xbox Live, though the host does have more control over the settings of a race. Apart from the standard track and laps info, hosts can exclude certain car classes and even force any of the individual driving aids off for all racers in a match, including the driving line. Once you hop into an online race, you'll find a smooth experience. We rarely ran into any noticeable lag during our online matches, and though there were a few crash-happy online racers, you can most often weed out those players by forcing off some of the driving assists.
There's far more to the online mode than basic races. Microsoft is hosting weekly tournaments for various car classes that anyone can attempt to get in on. The system for tournaments is pretty awesome. You simply sign up for a tournament that hasn't started yet by doing a qualifying lap on the first-round track. Depending on the number of overall slots for the tournament, the number of players with the top qualifying times equal to the number of available slots gets in. From there, you race one round a day and progress depending on your placing within the race. As cool as the tournaments are, there is one odd thing about them, namely that it's not entirely clear why some racers progress and others do not. There was one instance during our testing that we showed up for a race with only one other opponent (there were supposed to be four racers total), and even though the two of us completed our race, we didn't move on to the next round. The other tournament we ran didn't give us any problems and we progressed normally, but it would be nice if the interface did a bit more to show why one racer is progressing versus another.
There is also a very strong community element to Forza 2. Apart from being able to take in-game photos of your races and upload them to the Forza Web site, you can gift and sell cars online. Gifting a car is as simple as picking a car, picking someone on your friends list, and sending it off. Selling cars has seen an upgrade from the original game. Instead of only being able to hook up in lobbies and sell cars at set prices, you can now put your rides up for auction to the entire Forza community. You just select a car from your garage, set a price, and hope someone's willing to bid. And if you're the bidder, you just put money down and hope for the best. The only issues with car auctioning are on the bidder's side. There's no way to set the maximum price you're willing to pay, à la eBay, so if you're in a battle with someone over a car, you'll have to keep going back and forth until one of you gives up or runs out of available money.
If you want to sell a ride online, you're going to want to do some customizing--and not just in performance parts. Forza 2 has a huge visual customization element to it that is both amazing and incredibly daunting at the same time. The customization mode uses a layering system that lets you stack shapes on top of one another as well as resize and move them as you see fit. There are limits to the number of layers you can make, but it's a very high one. Just looking at the mode wouldn't give you the impression that it was all that impressive, but after seeing some of the absolutely bananas cars people have already made, you realize there's way, way more to it than first glance reveals. Not everyone is going to have the patience to make these painstakingly detailed decals, but for those who do, there's a lot to work with here.
Even if you don't slap a bunch of anime girls or Pringles logos all over your car, the stock rides look exceptional. Nearly all of the game's graphical oomph is in the car models. They look and move incredibly realistically, and the game's nice use of lighting and reflection gives the cars even more of a gorgeous sheen. Sometimes that sheen is slightly rebuffed when you notice a bit of aliasing around the edges of the cars while playing with a high-definition display, but apart from that, it's hard to find much fault with the car models. There's even damage modeling to enjoy, though it's not exactly elaborate. Bumpers will sheer off, fenders will dent, paint will chip, mirrors and wings will fall off, and so on. But there's no truly horrific crash damage. Going head-on into a wall at 150mph doesn't result in much more damage than you'd accrue when banging into an opponent's hatchback at 50mph. Still, what damage modeling the game does offer looks good, and it's nice that it's there at all. And if you happen to have simulation damage turned on, big wrecks will pretty much break your car, making it nearly undriveable. So even if the outward damage isn't terribly impactful, you can still screw up your car royally if you're not careful.
Somewhat less impressive, though still attractive, are the tracks. If you get an up-close-and-personal look at some of the ground textures, foliage, or other set pieces scattered around a track, they won't look so hot. But then, if you're getting an up-close look at these pieces, you're probably doing something wrong. The scenery is meant to stay to the periphery while you whip by at ridiculous speeds, and in that context, it all looks great. And that's the thing of it, really. You don't spend much time looking at the track backgrounds because the sense of speed is so phenomenal. It helps that Forza 2 runs at a solid 60 frames per second, with almost no hiccups to speak of. That fast frame rate, combined with some really fast cars, creates a sense of speed that can be breathtaking at times. If the trade-off for not having exceptionally detailed track environments is the game running at a constant 60 fps, that's fair enough.
The last thing of note about the visual presentation is the camera angles, or lack thereof. The game does feature four camera angles, two outside the car, one on the hood, and one at bumper level, and these all work great. The bummer is that there's no cockpit camera view. Games like Project Gotham Racing 3 and Test Drive Unlimited both had full-on cockpit camera views with individually modeled dashboards for each car, so it's disappointing that there isn't any such option here.
On the audio front, engine sounds are crisp and clear, as are the other peripheral sounds of a race, from tires squealing around the track to bumpers cracking as they hit up against one another. If there's any flaw to be found with the audio effects, it's that there just isn't enough variety to them. Many of the engines sound nearly identical to one another, even in instances where it seems like more differentiation ought to be present. The sounds themselves are often excellent, but some dissimilarity in effects would have been beneficial. Though there's no in-game music (unless you're running a custom soundtrack, of course), the game features an excellent array of licensed tracks for the menus from artists like the Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, Bloc Party, Prodigy, CSS, LCD Soundsystem, and more.
What Forza 2 ultimately achieves is the precise brand of evolution you'd want from a sequel to the original Forza. The driving model has been made even better with the tweaks and adjustments made to it, and the features set is so remarkably deep that you're likely to lose large chunks of your free time buying, customizing, and racing your favorite cars. It's a testament to the original Forza's design that this sequel can feel both so much like the original and yet so much better at the same time. If you've got even an inkling of a theory that you might like driving games, you need to play Forza 2.