FORZA MOTORSPORT, Formats: Xbox, Publisher: Microsoft. Price: £39.99. Family friendly? Yep: A WEEK is a very long time in the interactive entertainment business.

In my last column I hailed Gran Turismo 4 as the new benchmark for racing games. Now we have Microsoft's mighty reply, Forza Motorsport, a game that sends Sony sullenly back to the pits.

Microsoft has tried - and failed - to reach the heights achieved by Gran Turismo before. The result, Project Gotham Racing, was pretty but ultimately lacking compared to the Sony series.

Undeterred, Microsoft has gone away and learnt from its mistakes.

It's also paid attention to the growing passion for car "modding", the craze for twiddling with cars to make them look more outrageous and perform better, as popularised by games such as Midnight Club and Juiced.

So in addition to Gran Turismo-style technical modifications, Forza also throws in a bewildering array of customisation variables. Fit a body kit (rims, wings, bumpers and hoods), select a funky paint job and design the graphics - cars in Forza are very much "your" creations.

Microsoft has cracked open its wallet and signed up some of the world's greatest manufacturers. The Ferrari Enzo, Porsche's legendary 911 and the Ford GT 40 are all here for your delight - along with literally hundreds more.

Of course, GT4 sets a new benchmark for graphics on racing games but, once again, Forza uses the Xbox's extra muscle to pull ahead.

Teams of artists have taken meticulous steps to design each car's visuals according to the exact specification of the real McCoy. They have paid particular attention to surface properties - something the Gran Turismo series pioneered - so painted metals and glass reflect light in a realistic manner. Heck, even the tyre treads are accurate.

Start off with a car and enter a race. You can opt for a point-to-point event or a traditional circuit race a la GT 4. One innovative feature is the "drivatar" a computer-controlled version of your driving personality. If you can't hack a full race, you can enter your computer controlled alter ego and watch him compete instead. It works much better than it sounds and is likely to be much copied by other driving games.

Forza also boasts damage modelling - prang your Ferrari on the armco barriers and it doesn't just bounce off, you can see the results of your ham fisted driving and hear the tortured sound of rending metal. You even leave scratches in the walls, which act as a constant reminder of your faux pas.

The circuits are a mixture of authentic (Laguna Seca, the Nring Nordschleife) and audacious (New York, Rio de Janiero). Realistic or ridiculous they've all been recreated with the same slavish attention to detail as lavished on the cars.

Forza is perhaps an easier game to get into than its Sony competitor. Rookies can follow the "suggested line" that tells you exactly when to brake and when to turn the wheel but the realistic handling means you'll soon get to grips with the racing.

Winning earns money and money buys better performance. In simulation mode a car that sustains damage will handle differently or may even conk out.

After each event you can watch a replay of the race. Don't pass on these, they offer a genuine chance to see where you are going wrong.

What's more, Forza allows for sublime online racing against eight other players via Xbox Live. There's no lag or slowdown. The Xbox hard drive allows you to load up your fave music tracks whilst playing and the engine sounds are spot on.

JUICED, Publisher: THQ, Format: Xbox, PS2, PC, Price: £39.99. Family friendly? Yes: JUICED has had a difficult gestation.

Originally a triple A game due to be published by Acclaim, for a while it looked as though Juiced would never see the light of day when the US giant collapsed.

But word of mouth on the game was strong enough to attract the attentions of THQ and it rescued Juiced from the Acclaim wreckage.

Unfortunately for THQ, cash and development time was in pretty short order during Acclaim's final days. Juiced just wasn't ready for a general release.

Undeterred, THQ sent the programmers away with orders to fix the problems and polish up the graphics. Now Juiced is finally here...but it launches into a market that's saturated with good driving games. Some people have no luck.

At least Juiced isn't going directly head to head with Forza and GT4, in that it isn't supposed to be an authentic racing recreation. It's more of a competitor for the highly regarded Midnight Club DUB Edition.

Juiced majors on real-time modding. There are literally thousands of combinations for primping your ride before going up against other motor modders.

There are more than 50 licensed vehicles, including cars from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Dodge, Ford, Mazda Mitsubishi, Pontiac, Holden, Volkswagen, Fiat, Renault, Subaru, Peugeot and Chevrolet.

They can be "improved" with authentic aftermarket parts from leading manufacturers such as A'PEXi, AEM, Bridgestone, Ferodo, Konig, Alpine and HKS.

THQ's boys have tweaked the handling, general gameplay and graphics - but is this enough?

The game's unique idea is to make you part of a small team (a "crew" in Max Power speak) who race through the city streets for cash. You pick and choose your race meets in the hope of doing well and improving your motor still further.

The handling is certainly much improved. In its original incarnation Juiced had cars that were tricky on the limit because the handling was too sensitive. This has been calmed down to the huge benefit of gameplay because you no longer fear a 360 degree spin every time you enter a tight bend.

The graphics are suitably colourful and the tracks rush past at a zillion miles per hour, giving a real sense of speed.

Published: 17/06/2005