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A sad yet simple fact of life is that most of us won’t ever own, let alone drive, a Ferrari or Porsche. That doesn’t keep us from feeling the need for speed, and wanting to floor it while behind the wheel of a high performance auto. Racing games are almost better than shooters in pushing the limits of video game design. These racing simulations really show off the fast moving action, feature realistic detailed settings and are just the sort of gameplay that can get your heart pumping. Driving games may also be the kind of games that almost anyone can play – yet only a few seem to know how to master. But despite that even the mediocre titles are still somewhat fun. Fortunately this year has seen the release of several very good games.

Gentleman (and Ladies), start your engines. Here is a look at some of the latest racing games.

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Forza Motorsport 2
Microsoft Games Studio
Xbox 360
ESRB: Everyone
The Xbox 360 may have its detractors, but the fact remains that the team at Microsoft knows a thing or two about racing games. There is the popular Project Gotham Racing series, and then there is also Forza Motorsports. Well, the sequel to the popular Forza has arrived this month, and this is one makes for a very sweet ride.

forzacover.jpgEverything about Forza Motorsport 2 is sweet in fact. The game features some great cars, some gorgeous tracks, has the right balance of racing physics and most importantly this is game that novices can get in and play, while at the same time there is plenty for the more experienced sim racing fans. And I’ll say it again; this one is all about the cars!

There are seemingly hundreds of cars to choose from, more than 300 according to the developers, and these include more than 50 from the world’s leading performance carmakers including Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Nissan, GM and Volkswagen. And nearly every car can pull into your virtual garage, where you can install alternate engines, add after-market products and tune the cars just the way you want it. Or if that sounds like grease monkey work, you can still just opt to jump in and put the pedal to the floor for some incredible race action.

So you don’t blow the doors off the competition, or more likely get your doors blown off, the game relies on a performance index system that helps balance the gameplay. The AI remains extremely aggressive however, and that is probably one of the weakest points of this game.

Visually Forza is as sweet as the cars in the game. The Microsoft team has really refined the graphics and this makes for a very nice looking game. The only complaint with the visuals is the lack of dashboard view, but otherwise the locations and details really make for a game filled with some very nice eye candy.

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Test Drive Unlimited
Atari
Xbox 360, PC, PS2, PSP
ESRB: Everyone +10
When it comes to racing sims, the Test Drive series has always been an “also ran” to the more popular Gran Turismo, Project Gotham Racing and Need for Speed series. And most of the time it has been hard to understand why. There have been as many hits in the Test Drive franchise as misses with NFS. But when the game arrived earlier this spring it did so with little competition in the rear-view mirror, and thus it finally had time to really show its stuff.

testdrivecover.jpgAvailable on the Xbox 360 and PC, as well as the PS2 and PSP, this game has a lot of racing thrills. With more than 125 licensed vehicles including those from Lamborghini, Ducati, Aston Martin, Mercedes, Saleen, Shelby, and Jaguar it is a car buffs dream line up. Too bad no PS3 version is present to show case these games. On that note the PS2 version looked good, but the Xbox 360 version is the game to beat in this series.

The gameplay might be a love it or hate it experience because this one is really about the cars, more than the racing. The tropical locations, which include about 1000 miles of Hawaiian roads have a nice driving in paradise feel, but there is an openness to the gameplay that might not be as appealing for those looking for a more structured schedule and typical events. This makes Test Drive Unlimited feel more like a trip to Fantasy Island. You get a hot car; great setting and you get to drive to your heart’s content. What more could you want?

Well, better handling might help this one. The controls can be a little wonky at times, and this is true whether you’re using the controller or a steering wheel. Finally, the best part of having these cars is showing off. The online mode is good, but also could be better. This isn’t to say this Test Drive comes up short. It is still a good game with great cars.

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F1
Sony Computer Entertainment
PlayStation 3
ESRB: Everyone
Since the PlayStation 3 was released last fall, there have been few killer app titles, but F1 is certainly one of them. It is also to date probably among the very best looking games, and it takes advantage of the system’s powerful graphical capabilities. Released earlier this year, it is certainly worth a spin if you’re for some fast-paced action on the PS3 this summer.

f1cover.jpgAs a racing sim, F1’s highpoints include a recreation of the 2006 season, so if you missed it (and chances are you did), you can relive it with all the official circuits from around the world. Hardcore Formula One fans will be pleased to see the 11 teams, 22 drivers and 18 circuits, which is just about the next best thing to heading to a big Grand Prix race in person. And for those who don’t follow Formula One so closely, this game manages to satisfy both the hardcore fans and casual gamers alike. Racing games are never an easy jump in and play sort of thing – more likely a jump in, spin out, come in last place sort of thing. But F1 offers plenty of driver assists including steering, breaking and stability so that you can actually stay in the race. You might not win, you might not even place, but you’ll still do OK. And with practice the checkered flag is actually within your grasp.

For the serious F1 racer the core of the game is the career mode. As with most sports games this means starting off at the bottom as a rookie, and working your way up the ranks as you take part in the 2006 season. You’ll get to test-drive with some of the various teams such as Midland and Super Aquri, and with enough practice – and it does take practice with this one – you can win a spot on the team. You’ll interact with your digital agent via an e-mail interface, and if you’re good enough that could mean offers from other teams.

The in-game surround sound is really good as well, and the game’s developers have done an excellent job to replicate the “feel” of the sound. In real life these are loud cars where the noise they make can actually be felt as much as heard. Racing games often sound like the real deal, but lack that extra punch. Hooked up to a good surround sound system you’ll notice that this one turns things up a bit with the audio. It will almost make your fillings shake! (Not quite, but you get the point)

Visually this might be just about the best looking racing game to date. There were times that it was close to looking like a race on TV, but alas something was just not right. With F1 the graphics are so incredible that it doesn’t merely seem like a race on TV, but a race on TV in HD. The game supports 1080p, 720p and 480p resolution in native 16×9 widescreen. The use of multiple camera views, changing weather conditions, progressive car damage and lighting effects really make for incredible visuals. You almost need to watch someone else play, so you can take in the graphics. Sony has released a few good looking PS3 games, but this might be the only one we’d call truly awesome!

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DiRT
Codemasters
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
ESRB: Everyone
Auto racing doesn’t always mean shiny new cars, and racing games shouldn’t always be about the reflective paint and how nice a car looks. Sometimes a game can show off the graphical capabilities by getting down and dirty. The newly arrived DiRT is one such games. By making things look nice and nasty, with plenty of gravel, dirt and mud this game looks just the real thing.

dirtcover.jpgIt focuses on a variety of off-road and rally styles of racing, including Rally (obviously), Hill Climb, Rally RAID, Rally Cross and the even the CORR desert series. What really matters is the game features more than 40 licensed vehicles that you can take off-roading in real-world locations around the world. The game’s physics can be painfully realistic, and thus quite unforgiving, but with a little practice you’ll be able to power slide like the best of them.

What would the fun be if you couldn’t customize your cars? Well, don’t worry, DiRT will let you trick out your ride, so you can get the best results in the various sports, and prove that you have what it takes in the robust online mode.

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