It's been a great year for announcements from Microsoft, but it's arguably been its quietest ever year for first party games. And to make matters worse, Forza Motorsport 2 recently slipped out of its tentative December release slot to Q1 2007. But all the headline-grabbing announcements at X06 succeeded in taking the spotlight off such trifling matters, and ensured that Turn 10's game could make a low profile public playable debut.
Not that there was much to see anyway. In what amounted to little more than a taster of what to expect early next year, we were treated to an opportunity to test the Tsukuba Circuit (70 will feature in the full game, from 18 environments) in a limited selection of cars across the spectrum including the Ferrari F430, Lamborghini Gallardo as well as the less spectacular models from Ford and Subaru. Some 300 cars are expected to make the final cut, with Porsche, General Motors, Nissan and Volkswagen all figuring, with 13 real-world licensed circuits including the Road America race track, Silverstone and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Four new real-world circuit will figure, including the Sebring International Raceway.
Gliding around in the Lamborghini, it's nice to be reminded of the game's assured, solid handling while sticking to the suggested racing speed line, displayed, once again, as a series of colour-coded chevrons. Even running in its unoptimised state (somewhere in the low 20 frames per second range) it's a pleasure to play from the word go, desperately trying not to spin off the devilish Tsukuba turns. It's responsive without being too twitchy, and every nuance and undulation in the track seems to transmit to your hands via the excellent rumble effects. PS3 fans - and GT fans in particular - may start to miss the vibration in the pad when it's gone [unless you buy a separate wheel peripheral, of course - Ed]. Not so here, and it will be interesting to feel how well the 360's new wireless racing wheel will replicate the experience - something that, sadly, Microsoft didn't show off at X06 for some reason.
More advanced players will, of course, want to remove the speed/braking line, and toggle things on and off such as manual or automatic gears, stability control, antilock braking and, our old friend, traction control. Even with them all switched on and the handholding speed/braking chevron line snaking out in front of you, it's still a challenging game for those of us without superhuman driving skills. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to boast about the advanced physics model being used this time around, with "advanced tyre and suspension models respond to heat and pressure changes as well as weight transfer and aerodynamic load". It's too early to measure those boasts, but it makes for a good press release.
Inevitably, after a few watchful laps where we stuck carefully to the speed limit, we let rip to discover how extensive the damage modelling is. The answer isn't actually anywhere near as impressive as we were hoping. Or should we say, exactly as bizarrely unrealistic as car manufacturers insist that driving simulations replicate their fully licensed models when they plough into barriers at 150mph. As is seemingly "the law" in driving sims, you can only really ever slightly dent cars and scratch them (impressive scratches at that) no matter what craziness you get up to behind the wheel. In truth, this is the same old story that's been going on for years, and it's not Turn 10 or Microsoft's fault, but it still contributes towards lessening the sense of realism we all hanker after - and something a next generation version could have simulated brilliantly; not just visually but with true consequences in performance, too. The demo, at least, gave no sense of impaired performance after a smash, but we're assured this will be the case in the final game, with "dramatic wear and tear" during the course of a race.
Still, the general quality of the visuals on show - stuttering frame rate aside - are shaping up to be a big leap forward from the version released last year. The final version will boast slick 60 frames per second, which should give the overall feel of the racing a massive boost over the original's 30fps (at best) limit, and in tandem with the massive improvement in the trackside detail and car models should make this a real contender for the best looking car game ever made. To see the claims in action, we slowed the car down and cycled through the various camera views to get the bumper cam view to see right down to the bump-mapped tarmac and swaying trackside grass. As suggested, even the grass is in 3D, and the shader detail on the cars makes them look as close to realism as anyone's managed to date. A few laps in, the cars get covered in so much filth, you'll have trouble seeing the pimped up paintwork. Add in the HDR lighting effects and it's an amazing spectacle on a big screen running at 720p, with full surround sound roaring around you [wistful moment - Ed].
Regarding the inevitable customisation aspect, expect Forza 2 to be greatly enhanced, with the ability to customise up to 4000 layers per car - a big leap over the 600 layers in Forza 1. With such a flexible system, players will be able to manipulate the shape of their car almost endlessly by combining licensed rims, performance parts and aftermarket body kits, allowing players to create a unique online identity - not to mention trade and share skins. Online play will also benefit from the strides made in Project Gotham Racing 3, with an enhanced Forza Motorsport TV component and various online leaderboards, with qualification to specific tournaments depending on ranking. 12 player online racing was mentioned by the rep manning the X06 demo pod, but no doubt that's not set in stone yet, so don't hold them to that.
With only a fleeting glimpse to go on, it's clear that we've much to discover about Forza Motorsport 2, and X06 wasn't really being used as a vehicle to talk in depth about the game. But with Q1 2007 being mooted as a release date, expect to hear much more in the early part of next year.