Race Against Reality

You’re pushing 185 mph. The trees to your left have melted into a green blur, the tachometer needle shakes frenetically as it nears the end of its ascent, and the engine is screaming.

Pulse pounding, you hit the brakes and crank the wheel, but it´s too late: The
car can´t overcome its own momentum, and you slam into the wall at 150. And
then? You stand up, go to the kitchen, and grab some more cheese puffs and a
soda.

No matter how sensational a racing game´s look and feel, it´s easier to
scrape yourself off the couch than the pavement. But Microsoft Game Studios´s
Forza Motorsport , due out for Xbox on May 3, aims to leave you physically shaken
by the experience of a virtual collision-and to eclipse other racing games as
the most realistic ever produced. The software giant devoted more than two and a
half years and the expertise of 150 employees to build Forza, digitally
describing gravity, surface temperatures, friction coefficients and thousands of
other factors that mimic the cause and effect of reality. Rather than simply
using 0"60 times, top speeds and the standard slate of statistics available from
automakers, the designers entered each car´s physical attributes-the ingredients of performance-into a physics model that predicts how that particular collection
of parts would slice through the air and grab the road. (Forza's main
competitor, Sony PlayStation 2´s Gran Turismo 4 , can´t match its power-GT4´s physics engine recalculates 60 times a second, Forza's runs four times as fast,
at 240.)

How realistic is Forza? We decided to find out with a head-to-head
comparison-but not against another game. Instead we put it up against reality
itself, calling on the insight of a professional racecar driver and a
professional car nut weaned on videogames. We wanted to know whether Forza's attention to minutiae raises it in status from videogame to bona fide simulator.
Could someone use it to train for a race, and would that training make him a
better driver? Would it challenge nonprofessional drivers enough to convey what
it actually takes to succeed under real race conditions? Would it distinguish
between gaming skills and driving skills? And finally, is Forza an advance guard
of digital surrogates for our analog reality?

The laboratory for our
experiment: Road Atlanta, in Braselton, Georgia, 55 miles north of Atlanta. The
cars: half a dozen beauties, from a scary-fast Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR to
a mind-blowing 205mph Porsche Carrera GT. The players: American Le Mans pro
Gunnar Jeannette and Los Angeles"based RJ DeVera, who makes his living
transforming mundane Japanese imports into hot-rods-"tuners," as they´re
called-and whose videogame expertise made him the ideal counterpart to
Jeannette. (Forza's designers also found DeVera´s combination of skills
irresistible; he consulted on the game´s menu of aftermarket modifications.) The
result? Two days of tire-smoking, wheel-gripping, computer-frying madness.

Over the past nine years, Braselton has been transformed into a
resort by Don Panoz, whose company developed the nicotine patch. He built his
own winery and luxury hotel, founded the American Le Mans league, created his
own team, and bought the local racetrack, which is reproduced down to the square
inch in Forza . (It´s one of eight real tracks in the game, plus 39 fictional
courses.)

One hundred yards up the hill from the track squats a row of steel
industrial garages. It´s 9 a.m., and Jeannette and DeVera have just met; they´re
in the parking lot talking cars, admiring the Acura NSX that they´ll race
tomorrow. Jeannette is a wiry 22-year-old who moves with a deliberate economy of
motion. He sights down the rear fender line, copping a feel from the left
quarter panel. "It looks hot," he says, his voice barely audible over the pings
and pops of the cooling engine. "How many horsepower?"

"Two ninety," DeVera
replies. Perhaps out of modesty, he adds, "I think." But the 28-year-old knows .
He owns a highly modified 1991 NSX and he obsessed over the mid-engine
super-Acura well before he could drive. "You know how a Camaro is symbolic of
´60s American muscle?" he asks. "That´s how I feel about the NSX and the ´90s-it
was the first of the really fast Japanese imports."

Inside the garage, thick
and glossy gray paint coats a concrete slab floor, and 20-foot walls meet a
corrugated steel ceiling. Three hydraulic lifts hulk along one side; on the
other, a mid-´80s Porsche 911 sits idle in full race livery. Conspicuously out
of place at center stage are two gaming rigs, both mounted with a racecar seat,
steering wheel, pedals and surround-sound speakers. Each rig sits before a
50-inch plasma TV.

"Are you kidding me?" Jeannette exclaims when he sees the
setup. DeVera just shakes his head, grinning, as they climb into their seats.
Dan Greenawalt, Forza's lead game designer, sets the drivers up on the
pre-release copies he´s chaperoning, and they dive into our duel between virtual
and reality.

Jeannette selects a digital avatar of the prototype-class racer
his team drove two seasons ago. He holds the wheel lightly and jams down the
gas. The car gets squirrelly around the first turn, and he pauses the screen.
"How do I switch to first-person perspective?" he asks. "I´m more used to seeing
it that way." Greenawalt tells him how, and he roars off again. DeVera glances
over and makes the same change.

Within five minutes, Jeannette logs a time of
1:16 and change-just four seconds slower than his fastest lap at Road Atlanta in
the real car. "That´s better than my best time," says Greenawalt, who, as
Forza's architect, has been playing the game longer than anyone. "It´s unreal!"

Yes, but it does make perfect sense. As a driver for the Panoz team,
Jeannette knows the track well; the undulating 2.54-mile road course is his home
field. And he´s not as green as his age would suggest: At 18, he became the
youngest person to ever finish the 24 hours of Le Mans, the annual French
endurance race that is among the most grueling in all of motor sports. Three
years later, he came in third in his class.

DeVera has a background in racing
as well, but of a different, less-than-legal sort. He started out drag racing
late at night on the streets of L.A., but, after blowing more engines than he
could afford, shifted his efforts to building competition show cars and limited
his racing to videogames. Now he soups up cars for big-budget movies such as The Fast and the Furious and anyone else who can afford his hefty fees.

At the
moment, he´s using his own strategy for warming up, informed by countless hours
of gaming. He´s doing laps in a Volkswagen Golf R32, which, though fast, is the
furthest from race-ready of the six cars he´ll test tomorrow. "A lot of people
like to start out in the fastest car, but I like to get acclimated with
something a little easier to handle," he says. "It lets me understand how much I
can get away with." He´s making slow laps, jerking the wheel back and forth to
gauge the car´s handling limits. "This is tight," he says, opening it up a
little. "The graphics, sound, everything, but especially the feel. I´m noticing
that I can´t let my inputs be too videogamey. My first couple laps, I was just
mashing the throttle-all-out all the time-but you really have to modulate your
controls, because the computer knows the difference."

Depending on the type
of car and its number of parts, anywhere from 3,750 to 9,375 variables influence
the way it drives. Tire adhesion is modeled on values for temperature and wear.
Not only the wheels but every piece of the engine that spins carries its own
inertia and resists forward acceleration in proportion to its size, weight and
rotational speed. Each car also has its own drag coefficient, and a major dent
will change the way air moves over its body, affecting handling. And don´t think
you´ll be back to peak performance for your next up: You have to spend winnings
fixing any damage you inflict on your ride.

So far, Jeannette hasn´t had to
shell out a penny. He shouldn´t be this good this soon, and his success hints at
Forza's realism. Although Jeannette is a far less experienced gamer, his times
are consistently better than DeVera´s. If it were a mere arcade game, the racer
would have had to learn to play it; instead he´s just driving.

And he´s
starting to see small incongruities. "The Esses are tighter," he says about the
section of track from turn three to five. "But the speed is spot-on. I´d be
coming out at about 125 mph in fifth gear. Wow-I brake exactly where I really do
just before turn six. But five isn´t blind in real life."

Meanwhile, DeVera
is hot-lapping the Lotus Elise, and he´s frustrated with the computer´s model.
"When you go into a turn and you let up on the engine, it´s hard to get back
going, because the car has no torque under 4,500 rpm," he complains. "It´s kind
of a dog."

By 10 p.m., after 13 hours of high-definition eyestrain, both
DeVera and Jeannette are very clearly done. "I´m as sore as if I were actually
racing all day," DeVera says. Jeannette simply removes his glasses and rubs his
eyes. You have to wonder how they´ll feel by the end of a full day´s racing
tomorrow.

In Forza , the weather is always perfect. Road Atlanta,
for example, is constantly 70 degrees and sunny. But this is a genuine December
morning, and it´s too cold to race. Jeannette doesn´t want anybody out there
until the surface temperature of the track reaches 55 degrees and the tires can
better grip the asphalt. "It´s just not safe," he says, and disappears into the
garage for a few more laps on the game. He returns around 11, after clocking a
1:12-tying his best time in real life-and declares the asphalt ready for
action.

Despite their difference in skill, he and DeVera had the same
hierarchy of times in Forza , recording their fastest lap in the Carrera GT and
their slowest in the Golf R32. The question is, how will this compare with their
times on the track?

The first anomaly soon emerges. "That car is beat ,"
Jeannette pronounces, hopping out of a yellow Corvette C6 and backing away from
it. He´s just clocked a 144.96 lap-inconsistent with his times in the virtual
C6. "The brakes are toast, and the tires are in no shape for hard corners. It´s
not really a fair comparison to the game, where you´re driving a car in peak
condition." Apparently, he´s the only driver in Braselton who hasn´t had a turn
in the ´Vette, which happens to be Road Atlanta´s official pace car.

The
drivers are taking turns with our fleet of six cars, their instructions being to
discern how much the real-life and simulated experiences differ. Right now,
DeVera is pulling onto the track in the Lotus Elise, the dog in which he scored
his second-slowest time yesterday. It whines like a go-kart as he comes past and
snaps the back end around turn two. He parks it and extracts himself from the
tight cockpit, nodding in approval. The low-end torque problems? "None at all,"
he says. "It´s so light that the engine pulls it back up to speed in no
time."

Jeannette is similarly impressed with the Elise. "Now that was fun,"
he gushes after a few laps. "That car is just glued to the road. Every time I
come out of a corner, I´m like, "I could have come into that faster.´ And then
the next time, I do, and I come out thinking the same thing. I drove it the same
way here as I did yesterday, not braking so much as just tossing it into a
corner and letting the skid scrub off extra speed, but it definitely feels
faster on the track."

It´s beginning to look like Forza's physics modeling
wasn´t so hot after all. But no: Later we´ll figure out the actual source of the
discrepancy. The game uses the U.K. version of the Elise, which comes outfitted
with a 156hp engine; we used the 190hp U.S. version.

DeVera takes out the
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which sounds like a jet when he flies by. When he
shoots out of sight, we hear his tires screeching but don´t think anything of
it. As it turns out, he´s nearly eaten concrete. DeVera got sideways after the
Esses but reined in the back end to keep it out of the wall. "Just like in the
game, it´s really fast, and the solid feel of the all-wheel drive can make you a
little overconfident," he says afterward. Then he chuckles. "I should have paid
more attention yesterday."

Jeannette is already back out there, screaming
around the asphalt in the Carrera GT. We can hear the car more than see it. The
silver blur rockets past us once, twice, three times before he eases the pride
of Stuttgart off the track. "That is one hell of an automobile!" he says. "My
only complaint about it in the game is the sound of the exhaust. It sounds cool
for sure, but it doesn´t do the car justice. When you are pushing that thing
around the track, that beautiful engine roar consumes your senses, and you can
get so much information about what the car is doing from how it sounds. It is
much more of a guide in real life."

DeVera takes a single lap in the GT (it
was loaned from a private owner, Preston Henn, and we chose to let the pro do
most of the driving) and begins comparing his day´s times with his scores from
yesterday. In Forza , his fastest times for each car spanned a range of 16.1
seconds, reflecting the difference in theoretical power. Today, despite the same
range in real power, his times are all within just over a second of one
another-from the 240hp Golf R32 to the 605hp Carrera GT. The likely explanation:
"In a game, there´s no "Oh, s- -t´ factor. When I´m coming up on a real turn, on
a real track, in a real car going more than 100 actual miles per hour, my foot
will brake at a certain point whether or not my brain thinks I can squeeze out a
couple extra yards before I slow down. In the game, I´ll find my drop-dead brake
point with trial and error. And I´ll walk away from it every time."

You can´t be frightened of making a mistake if there are no
consequences. Team Forza tried to solve this by having players pay-with
winnings-for the damage they incur. Perhaps not surprisingly, this doesn´t
incite the same kind of fear that the threat of paralysis will. The military has
a clever way of dealing with this problem in its combat simulators: pain. VirTra
Systems, which designs and builds training devices for the U.S. military,
incorporates something called Threat-Fire, a belt that zaps the "player" with
80,000 volts of electricity when he screws up. "The idea is to implement
psychological stress," says Bob Ferris, president of VirTra Systems. "It´s not
the same as the threat of death, but knowledge of a consequence he wishes to
avoid does affect the way a person handles himself."

Another key element of
realism absent from any racing game is the physical sense of motion, most
notably from G-forces. A race driver can experience up to four times the force
of gravity. Try turning your head when it feels like it weighs 60 pounds.

You´re not actually moving in Forza , of course, but training on the "sim"
clearly has a bearing on reality. Jeannette already knew the Braselton course
well, but DeVera had never laid eyes on it, and he fared well for someone who
doesn´t race for a living. "It was a huge help to have a full day in different
cars, getting used to the track-even if it was a videogame," he says. "It was
real enough that it helped me find my apexes and braking points and kept me from
getting surprised."

While certainly there exist more robust ways of
replicating reality, Forza makes excellent use of the techno- logies you can
actually bring home: high- definition video and surround sound. Eventually,
predicts Ferris, "We´re just going to tap into the brain, and the whole
simulation will occur there-no screens, no speakers." Until then, if you´re
dying for a simulated experience more gripping than Forza , you could always join
the Air Force and ask for Threat-Fire detail. But before you enlist, it´s worth
appreciating the things you can do in games that you can´t get away with in
reality.

On that first day at Road Atlanta, Jeannette conducted a little
virtual experiment of his own. Spinning the wheel to the right, he dropped the
prototype racer into first gear and started massaging the pedal. Rendered smoke
poured off the tires and clouded the plasma screen as he cranked out digital
doughnuts. "Couldn´t do this in real life!" the young racer exclaimed. "Well,"
he considered, "I could. But I might get fired."

Popular Science
assistant editor Joe Brown has a tuner rocket of his own: a 1981 VW Rabbit with
a 350hp engine and 260,000 miles on it. It´s not in _Forza
._