"Auto racing is boring except when a car is going at least 172 miles per hour upside down." - Dave Barry
Growing up, my older brother Ryan was good at two things; beating me senseless, and tinkering with cars. I had the greasy indents on my forehead to prove it. When I made the decision in high school to opt out of power mechanics in favor of home economics, I knew I was throwing away my last chance at being a Real Man™ in my brother's eyes. I had doomed myself to being another one of those hopeless losers who were afraid to change their own oil and took ten minutes to figure out how to work the gas pump.
My last ditch effort to veer off this unfortunate path was Polyphony's Gran Turismo on the Playstation. I could pump my own gas, I'd checked my oil once or twice, I was ready to press some buttons and make a car go. After a few hours spent driving into walls and trying to find the magic parts that would save me from destroying more hundred thousand dollar vehicles, I gave up and resigned myself to a quiet life of desperation and leering mechanics. That was until this week, when Forza 2 came along and gently eased me into a world of cams, shocks and turbo charged Volkswagens.
Unlike most sim racing games, Forza 2 doesn't assume I've spent my life learning about differentials and the best tire pressure for taking turns at 70 MPH. Rather than throw you in the deep end, they keep it nice and simple. When you start the game, you're given a choice of which style of car you'd like to pursue as a general rule. American muscle cars? Japanese Tuners? How about some European models? I went the Euro route, mostly because I have a 1995 Volkswagen Jetta GLX in my garage, but also because I think the Aston Martin is adorable.
Right from the start, the default difficulty level has all assists on with racing lines enabled. This means the game will help keep the car on the road despite your over-steering, and gives you a helpful line that changes from green to red to show if you're going to fast for an upcoming turn. It's a great way to settle in, especially since the first cars available in career mode are relatively tame "D Class" vehicles. After spending an hour with all the assists on and generally avoiding walls, I gradually turned off the helpers until I was driving comfortably with just brake lines and ABS enabled. When you turn various helpers off, your available credits for winning races will go up, giving you more options when buying upgrades and new cars. It's a nice carrot to lure a new player into the deeper aspects of racing.
After playing a few games online, I was informed by the guy who was always twelve seconds ahead of everyone else that manual shifting was the way to go. An hour of re-acquainting myself with the walls and thrashing a few transmissions later, I had to agree that the finer control really helped on turns and passing cars.
The other lesson I learned playing online was one I expected, but dreaded more than greasy after-school beatings from my brother. If I was going to compete against the A.I or online, I was going to have to hit the garage and get my hands dirty. This is where every racing game has failed me, the nuts and bolts that make cars tick are completely outside my comfort zone. Some of these parts have teeth. I imagine their gaping maws opening wide the moment I crack the hood of my Volkswagen Corrado, daring me to stick my tasty fingers into their metal workings.
Instead, a helpful rundown was made available for every selection my cursor landed on, letting me know what every part could do for my car at a glance without needing to dive into any sub-menus. Different parts also increased the point value on may car, giving me some idea of where I stood compared to other vehicles in a given race. If I wanted to keep my car in "D Class", which is where new blood like me belongs, I had to make sure I didn't throw a turbo charger in there that would catapult me into the 500's and "C Class". Instead, I could buy a lighter steering column, shocks, exhausts and other smaller items to stay within the threshold. Each part told me how many points my score would increase if I installed them, which meant I could tweak my car to high heaven, but I needed to choose between speed and handling at times if I want to stay in within my class.
At this point in my burgeoning racing career, I've managed to get gold medals in most of the initial rookie tracks with only brake lines and ABS to guide me. I've won some cars, bought a few and upgraded many of them to stay competitive. There are still more depths to explore, with detailed tuning almost completely untouched and "A Class" vehicles quaking on the lot for fear that I may settle into their leather seats and lay my sweaty grip on their wheels. And forget about painting cars, I tried to put an owl on my Corrado's hood and it looked too judgmental for my taste, especially after crumpling it against the rear bumper of a BMW.
For the first time in my life, I think I might actually be able to talk to my brother about cars with more than grunts and timely nods. I drive down the street with a new appreciation for the muscle cars zipping past me in traffic and parking at an angle to keep other drivers from scratching their precious paint jobs. I even feel a twinge of sadness that I may have to settle for a 4 cylinder bucket on wheels when I buy a new car this Fall. It's a manly twinge now at least, and that counts for something.