Car Wars: 'Forza' Outclasses Competition

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 2:29 PM

-- Just a few years ago, it was somewhat of a surprise when a NASCAR driver said he used video games to get ready for real-life races. Nowadays, virtual racing is a standard element of the training regimen of professional drivers, particularly the young guns who probably learned to drive on a Nintendo long before they got behind the wheel of a stock car.

Elliott Sadler, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are just a few of the NASCAR drivers who have acknowledged a debt to video games. As graphics get more realistic, a virtual track can provide good practice for the pros while letting the rest of us feel what's it's like to do a few laps at Daytona.

_"NASCAR 08" (EA Sports, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PlayStation 2, $39.99): The first 360/PS3 version of this franchise includes vivid recreations of just about every track in America, from the basic oval at Bristol, Tenn., to the twisting road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Most of the time you're racing against more than 40 other cars, so you really get a feeling of claustrophobia along with a sense of the strategy required to make it to the front of the pack.

Unfortunately, to pull off that strategy you need really sharp steering. The controls in "NASCAR 08" feel so loose that you have to keep adjusting them even when you're just trying to drive in a straight line.

The "Chase for the Cup" mode is frustrating as well. It starts you off with small challenges, like learning how to pick up speed by closely following another car, and works up to full-blown Nextel Cup events. It's a good way to learn the sport's intricacies, but many gamers won't have the patience to endure all the tests that are required before entering a career race. Two stars out of four (but add a star if you're a NASCAR fan).

_"Forza Motorsport 2" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): The second edition of Microsoft's flagship racing franchise offers a lot more breathing room, mainly because you're usually racing only seven other cars. It also has a wider variety of courses, ranging from California's sun-splashed Laguna Seca to a fantasy track in the middle of Times Square.

"FM2" lets you pick a car (from more than 300 models) and jump into a race right away. There's no messing around with tutorials and licensing tests; instead, novices get some on-screen assistance and are pitted against slower opponents. Eventually, you'll make enough money to buy a new car or upgrade your old one, and there are so many ways to calibrate a car's performance that you could spend a couple of days in the garage alone.

There's a lot to love about "FM2," from its gorgeous graphics to its incredible attention to detail. But its most impressive feature is its driving physics; it simply feels more realistic than any other racing video game. Three-and-a-half stars.

_"Dirt" (Codemasters, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): "Dirt," the latest in Codemasters' "Colin McRae Rally" series, is in some ways the opposite of "Forza." Instead of zipping around slick, paved tracks, you're slogging your way across bumpy, muddy terrain; endurance and brute force are more important than speed and slick steering. But "Dirt" goes head-to-head with "Forza" in one respect: It's one of the best-looking racing games on the 360.

"Dirt" has a decent selection of off-road vehicles, from nimble buggies to lumbering trucks, and a good variety of events. Sometimes you'll be racing solo up a hill; other times you'll be swapping paint with your opponents on courses that abruptly shift from paved to unpaved.

Most of the courses are rocky enough to make your teeth rattle, but the controls don't always feel spot-on. At times it feels like you're floating around curves, and the cars almost feel too responsive given all the abuse they're going through. "Dirt" is fun and pretty, but doesn't feel realistic. Three stars.


On the Net:

_"NASCAR 08":

_"Forza Motorsport 2":


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