I was driving home from work the other day when it occurred to me that, despite being college-educated and reasonably intelligent, I have no idea how my car works. I know the gas goes in, because I do that part. But after that it gets fuzzy. When the mechanic's telling me what's wrong with the car, I just stand there with arms folded and brow furrowed, nodding gravely as though I understand what he's saying. Really, I'm just listening for dollar amounts.
Anyway, things have changed a little since playing Forza Motorsport 2. I now know what a slip differential is. I even know something about gear ratios, and how they'd be set differently for a drive with long straightaways versus lots of little turns. And now when I drive home from work, it occurs to me that my Honda Civic is a front-wheel-drive car, so if I let off the gas while turning, the car's weight shifts forward and gives me a little more control.
Forza Motorsport 2 is all about cars: Buy a car, enter a few races, win a little cash, and use that money to either trick out your current car or buy a new one. Though you start modestly -- usually with something like a Ford Focus and a few hundred bucks -- patience, thoughtful upgrades, and good driving eventually lead to a fleet of exotic sports cars in your garage and millions in the bank.
What's extraordinary about Forza 2 is how realistically these cars feel to drive -- and as a result, how intimidating it is to try to control something like an Enzo Ferrari, which screams down the track like it wants to leave you behind. Fortunately, the game's 300-plus cars are also novice-friendly, with an optional "driving line" that shows where your car should be, when you should brake, and when you should floor it.
But the most distinct difference between Forza and the competition is that your car can get damaged. This isn't merely cosmetic: Screwing up your alignment or engine is a quick ticket to last place (and expensive repairs). This will prompt some players to turn the damage feature off, but reconsider: It adds a heart-stopping level of tension when six cars are jockeying for position in a narrow turn if you know that one false move will leave you sitting by the side of the road, looking for your AAA card.
Forza 2 also boasts the richest, most fully featured online experience ever seen in a car sim. This goes far beyond racing online: Let's say you notice an especially pretty view while driving your Porsche Carrera down the Nürburgring. Snap a photo with the in-game camera, and it appears online for all to see. Forza 2 even has its own auction house, where players can buy or sell cars. Buy a VW Bug, paint a purple Yoda and boobs on the side of it, and start the bidding at a million (virtual) dollars -- hey, nobody else is catering to the Star Wars/pervert crowd.
The one disappointment: The lighting is way too stark. Vehicle highlights appear as a harsh white blooming, and shadows as inky black silhouettes. (Was Frank Miller on the design team?) For a game about car lust, it would be nice if you could actually see them a bit more clearly. If not for that shortcoming, this amazing disc would rate a perfect 10.