Ford: First On Race Day or Found On Road Dead? Whatever your acronymic take on the American automotive giant, its products are the only vehicles you'll find in Empire Interactive's long-overdue sequel to its 2001 arcade racing game Ford Racing. Sadly, Ford Racing 2 is most definitely not first on PC race day. Although it delivers a number of unique challenges that go beyond the basic racing routine and more Ford cars and trucks are offered than you can shake a Fiesta at, the game is plagued by dated physics and a sense that you've already seen the same thing--only better. If it were released a few years prior, just as Electronic Arts' Need for Speed was finding its footing, Ford Racing 2 would have fared a lot better. As it is, Empire's latest racer unfortunately does not offer enough excitement for the arcade crowd or nearly enough complexity for simulation hounds.
Ford Racing 2 veers somewhat from the path taken by its forgotten predecessor. Whereas the original featured a barely adequate dozen drivable Ford automobiles, the new game sports more than 30 vintage, current, and concept models. Whereas the original zeroed in almost exclusively on a "career," the new game steers clear of such intricacies in favor of a wide variety of "challenges" that range from traditional head-to-head racing to solo slalom and time-limited affairs.
Aside from these key distinctions, both games share similar key design traits. For starters, Ford Racing 2 is once again an exclusive Ford club, so you won't find any Lamborghinis or BMWs in here. This exclusivity wouldn't matter so much if each of the 30-plus vehicles delivered a unique and plausible ride, but designer Razorworks simply hasn't implemented this. Granted, a circa-1940s pickup truck does behave slightly differently from a Ford Focus rally car and a Jetsons-inspired Ford concept car, but none of these three are truly believable or truly distinct.
The problem would seem to lie in the game's basic, underlying physics modeling, which unfortunately hasn't evolved sufficiently in the three years since Ford Racing first hit the retail market. It remains an apparently simple bit of programming, bereft of the deep, complex actions and reactions found in many competing titles. In essence, you'll generally feel like you're floating over the track rather than driving upon it. Wheelspin is perceptible but not accurately so. Acceleration and braking scarcely take into account the four contact points of each vehicle or the dynamics of rubber meeting ground. And certainly there will be times when you'll forget whether you're driving a big truck or a supposedly nimble compact. Can 30-plus impressively unique driving experiences be created when the fundamental physics model is so vague and arcade-thin? The answer is no.
Razorworks attempts to mask the simplicity and the similarities of its vehicular behavior by instilling a range of variables. Because of these variables, the game is more tolerable than it would be without them. For instance, Ford Racing 2 doesn't restrict you to mere pavement. In fact, the game allows you to experience virtually any driving surface that exists in the real world, including pavement, concrete, hard-packed dirt, and sand. It even lets you blast through hot flowing lava at one point, though the effects and impact of said lava is negligible. Otherwise, you'll find your chosen vehicles spinning their tires impressively and overdriving turns in the sand, gripping occasionally in the dirt, and occasionally grabbing a little air time. In this way, the game does keep moderately fresh.
Furthermore, Ford Racing 2 doesn't stick to common "pack" racing. Variants include time trials, slalom time trials (through a series of cones), elimination events (where the two trailing cars magically evaporate at the end of each lap), and timed solo events where you are either rewarded with floating time bonus power-ups or penalized for not properly adhering to an overlaid image of the ideal driving line. Other possibilities include "duel," where you are presented with a new opponent at the opening of each lap, and the intriguing "drafting," which asks you to eliminate each of your opponents by following closely in their slipstream for a given number of seconds. This particular event is more interesting than most if only because you must predict when the car in front of you will make a move to the right or left. Then you must react accordingly and shadow the car as best you can.
Ford Racing 2 is divided into two general elements--the Ford Challenge and the Ford Collection. The former consists of approximately 30 preset challenges comprising the events listed above and is considered the game's central feature. The latter allows you to create and customize your own events. To advance in the Challenge and add more items and locations to the Collection, you must unlock vehicles, tracks, and much more by winning the game's few unlocked races.
This is pretty fundamental stuff for an arcade racer, yet it isn't as enjoyable as it could be. The truth is that no matter how many variables Razorworks has thrown in, nothing changes the fact that the proceedings only rarely rise to a fever pitch. One of the problems is the relative quality of the AI competition in the first two difficulty levels. Without mincing words, easy mode competition sucks, and medium mode isn't much better. Indeed, any halfway-decent PC driver will immediately win most every race or time trial in easy mode and will only have to resort to the "race again" command a few times in medium. Likewise, early solo events feature such liberal time constraints that they pose no threat at all for even average drivers.
However, the game's highest level of difficulty is a different story. Here, the opponents and the time factor is much more taxing--and often virtually impossible--though the physics model remains as one-dimensional as ever. The Ford Collection also delivers the luxury of customization, thus allowing you to modify the number of laps from its standard three; it further allows you to vary the locale and number of vehicles. Sadly, the game won't support more than a half-dozen cars simultaneously. It does, however, support multiplayer racing but only via split-screen on a single computer. Nevertheless, Ford Racing 2 definitely becomes more absorbing when duking it out mano a mano with a friend (or an enemy).
On the track, anything goes. Bashing your peers is not only permitted, but it's also sometimes necessary, particularly when you make it to the game's most demanding mode. Plunk them into a momentum-killing guardrail or abutment. Bounce two into each other. Or hit them just in the right spot to send them into an amusing little donut. You needn't worry about damaging your own car, because the game unfortunately does not model damage. Furthermore, your car's tires, engine, and transmission do not deteriorate as you race. It goes to follow then that Ford Racing 2 does not feature a garage or repair shop, nor does it allow you to purchase upgraded parts. If it's a true career mode that you want, you've definitely come to the wrong place.
Visually, Ford Racing 2 is pretty but not spectacular. Vehicles are believably rendered with racing color schemes, rotating tires, reflective surfaces, semitransparent windows, exhaust detonation flames, and real time shadows. Headlamps and taillamps are both functional and convincing. Yet much of the bodywork is often unnaturally squared, angular, and somewhat primitive when pitted against the best of the genre. Vehicles do not feature a working suspension system, and their bodies do not roll through turns or dip during heavy braking. Certainly they are not so deeply detailed that they seem like the collection of parts they are.
One of the game's most annoying miscues is its lack of an onboard cockpit camera. You can view Ford Racing 2 two ways--either from a rear chase camera or a front bumper-mounted perspective. The latter is not recommended for optimum drivability, but the bumper cam does deliver both good control and a good sense of speed. Yet you can never, ever, sit in the cockpit.
Razorworks hasn't constructed an abundance of environments, but it has made the most of the few it has built. From realistic ovals to purpose-built road courses to fantasy jungle and desert tracks that only exist in the fertile imaginations of its programmers, the game sports a wide variety of track locations. Generally, the surrounding world appears pleasantly alive, with airplane and bird animations scattered throughout and natural elements, such as volcanoes and waterfalls, doing their things. It, unfortunately, does not rain in the Ford Racing world, nor does the sun create lens flare effects or real-time track shadowing.
Ford Racing 2 sound effects are more than tolerable. Engine notes are divergent, and tire squeal is abundant and credible. The game also portrays competitor engine and tire sounds and extraneous effects, such as the roar of overhead jet planes or trackside heavy machinery equipment. Accompanying music ranges from house to hip-hop to standard nu-metal hard rock selections, each of which may be selected or eliminated beforehand.
Far from "Best of Class," Ford Racing 2 is clearly a budget game that lacks much of the sophistication and depth of many of its closest rivals. Yes, it is relatively pretty and momentarily thrilling, yet it just doesn't have long-term appeal. Best suited as a pleasing diversion for first-time PC drivers or arcade racers needing a quick fix, it is much less attractive for the diehards among us.