Forza’ takes the checkered flag“I coulda been a contender.” If video games could speak, every racing simulator created in the past seven years would be quoting Brando. The champion these games are attempting to unseat? Gran Turismo (GT), a four-part series that has held the throne since its first incarnation, in 1998 on Sony’s PlayStation. The game’s biggest draw is its sometimes frustratingly realistic physics engine, which forces each car to adhere to its real-life performance standards. The GT series is also renowned for its vast library of officially licensed cars (GT4 has more than 700) and famous racetracks from across the globe. Plenty of racing games have tried to share GT’s market, such as Sega GT and the Test Drive series. But until now, all have failed. Even the Top Gear franchise, which earned a reputation as a quality game on the original NES system 10 years before GT, could not stand up against it. Where others have failed, Forza Motorsport succeeds brilliantly. Powered by the Xbox’s brawny processor (733 MHz to PlayStation 2’s dainty 294 MHz), Forza beats GT4 for all the right reasons: It has impressive physics, beautiful graphics and, most importantly, online gameplay. During the years of GT4’s development, it was consistently touted as the first of the series to allow online competition, but when it was finally released, fans got a shock: No online play and not even a warning of the coming disappointment. Forza’s release, while extensively delayed, brought no such surprises. Xbox Live compatibility was promised, and sure enough, players can not only race online opponents, but also trade or sell cars, create car clubs and post their best lap times, all through the magic of broadband. As an added bonus, Xbox Live’s communicator headset allows you to talk a constant stream of trash as your friends follow you across the finish line. However, online play means nothing if the game you’re playing is crap. Forza makes it worthwhile by taking realistic physics, and adding features that GT has been sorely lacking for years. For instance, realistic vehicle damage ensures that you can’t just bounce off a concrete wall to make a 90-degree turn, as you can in GT. Try it in Forza, and you’ll find your bumper hanging off, and your front alignment destroyed. Good luck trying to keep your car on the track. Forza’s advertising tagline, “You are what you race,” shows that Microsoft is most proud of the game’s customization feature—and they should be. The game’s designers seem to have noticed the popularity of Need for Speed Underground, a game that focused more on designing your car’s image than the actual racing. In a brilliant move, Microsoft combined the endless vehicle design possibilities of Underground with the realism of GT. As a result, every chump you pass on Xbox Live will have a distinct look, so you can be sure it’s the same person when you’re lapping him. To attract true car nuts, a game needs to have officially licensed products. Forza doesn’t let them down. Not only are the cars official replicas, featuring stats sent straight from the manufacturers, but every part you can attach to them carries a real brand name, from Bomex and Wings West body kits, to HKS turbos, to Sparco racing seats. GT seems to try and retain its crown through sheer numbers, most notably in its 700-plus cars compared with Forza’s more than 250. The strategy looks good on paper, but in reality, the numbers are padded by ridiculous additions, such as the four versions of Volkswagen’s Beetle and no fewer than six mullet-worthy Camaros. Vehicle choices seem to have been made at random: There are 16 VWs in GT4, and yet the fan-favorite Corrado is nowhere to be found. Forza gets straight to the point, featuring only the Corrado and VW’s newest powerhouse, the R32. With only the best and brightest from more than 50 manufacturers, 250 cars is more than enough. Real-life tracks are just as important as real cars, and Forza comes through with all of the greats. Players can tackle the hill of Laguna Seca, speed through Nring Nordschleife, and watch photo-realistic versions of Tokyo, New York City and Rio de Janeiro fly by in a blur. There are 17 tracks in all, ranging from top speed stadium courses to tight autocross tracks. The folks at PlayStation seem to sense the serious threat that Forza, an Xbox exclusive, brings to the GT series. GT4 is being billed as “The Real Driving Simulator,” a tagline that sounds more paranoid and defensive than proud. Thanks largely to its online play, Forza wins this round. But will the franchise be here to stay? With next-generation consoles looming on the horizon (the big three have all been announced: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Revolution), the relevance of current titles isn’t guaranteed to last past this Christmas. There will surely be a GT5 in years to come, and if its developers are remotely sane, that version will be online. Whether or not Forza will rise to that challenge is difficult to say. But for now, we have a new, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and its name is Forza Motorsport.