Monday, September 26, 2005

Byte: I got a need, a need for speed!

After a few months of neglect, I've finally started playing on the Xbrick again. As fine a games machine as my PC is, it simply can't cater as well as a console for racing games. I picked up Forza Motorsport on Friday night and thrashed around the Nurburgring Nordschleife for about a dozen laps. I must have done a hundred or more laps around the 'ring on Project Gotham Racing 2, but on Forza I can hardly get near my PGR2 lap times.

The track modelling and the physics are so much better on Forza it really saps away all the confidence I had in the track on Gotham. If you brake into corners and throw yourself at the apexes in Forza like you would in Gotham, you just tank it into the wall - it almost feels like a completely different track, because of how well the camber and grip level of the track has been so better modelled. Even the ABS doesn't help. The only driver aid I use with Forza is the traction control, because the Stability driver aid prevents you from power-sliding, and the ABS doesn't help you reduce braking distances, so what's the point in using it anyway? The traction control is almost essential, because the sensation of power you get as you build up from things like a Mini Cooper S to an Enzo Ferrari is just horrific. Without a TCS you can't even get the power down. In an Enzo I can't get within 2 minutes of my best Gotham time around the 'ring (a fraction over 9 minutes), simply because the car scares the hell out of me on Forza. On Gotham you can just hammer the throttle down and it'll take off like a cat that's been put into a room with three Rottweilers. You just can't do that on Forza. The sheer torque and horsepower will just throw you off the track. To get anything like a competitive lap time out of the Enzo or one of the track specials, I'd need to get a wheel and pedals, because the throttle and steering are just too sensitive and I'm too ham-fisted to get away with using a gamepad. I can actually get a better lap time around the Nordscheife with a Toyota Celica than I can with an Aston Martin DB9, because the handling of the Celica is a bit more gregarious than the Aston's.

Though the difference in lap time is probably more due to my least favourite feature of Forza, more than the physics: When you go off-track, it records the time you spend out in the boonies and adds it to your overall lap time, which just sucks, in my opinion. It's not representative of the time it actually takes you to get around a circuit, and is a needless punishment of the driver - just going off-line is enough of an incentive not to do it in the future, because you'll never make a faster lap time by going off-track than on. The only possible reason I can see for its inclusion is to make people try and stay on track harder - but it's totally superfluous - you should want to do that anyway. I don't want 5 seconds added to my lap time because I had a couple of wheels on the grass, because that's already slowing me down anyway. If they do make a sequel to Forza, that's the first thing I'd recommend they get rid of, because it's cack, and takes away a lot of the fun.

That's the problem with Forza, you see - it's a magnificent achievement in simulation, so why have this totally unrealistic time penalty in there to supplement your lap times whenever you leave the track? Just make the off-track excursions more realistic if you must - don't fudge it with an annoying time penalty system.

As good as Forza is, it's a little bit too technical to be completely enjoyable all of the time, which is why I did a very silly thing and picked up Need For Speed: Underground at the weekend on budget for the Xbrick. I've had it on PC for ages, but I've not been able to play it since I upgraded the PC, because a) it ran too damn fast on my Athlon 64, and b) my PC gamepad decided that it wanted to acquire a right-to-left drift in the steering axis whenever I wanted to play it. It never manifests itself with another game - just this one. Very odd.

NFSU is one of my favourite racers of all time. It's not as realistic or as technical as Forza, and doesn't have the same level of variety as PGR2, but it's got lots of charm, attitude and it's great fun. Diving in and out of traffic during races can be frustrating at times, especially when the game plonks a van on an apex you want to handbrake turn through, but it never annoys you *too* much. The handling on the Xbox seems a little superior to the PC version, and despite a few frame rate problems, looks almost as good. The car modding and pimping is kept pretty simple, but there's plenty of stuff you can play with and you can create some very nice looking cars. To use a somewhat crude analogy, whereas Forza is the Playboy of car porn games, NFSU is Hustler: a bit of a dirty, guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nontheless. Thanks to the analogue triggers, I much prefer playing it with the Xbox pad, even if I temporarily forgot where the gear up button was at the start of a drag race... It should keep me happy when I'm getting fed up with Forza on a Friday night, at any rate.
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