For a number of years now, the largest buzz in the racing genre has surrounded the long delayed development of Gran Turismo 4. The large number of cars and courses included, along with the promised aftermarket enhancements seemed almost too good to be true for any gearhead. But while Sony’s driving masterpiece received all the hype from the industry, Microsoft Game Studios has been quietly toiling away on their own sim, one to challenge GT4 for its crown. What’s even more impressive is that it handily succeeds, turning into one of the finest racers around. Get ready to take the checkered flag, because we’re going to do a victory lap with Forza Motorsport.
Forza features more than 230 vehicles from more than 40 car manufacturers from around the globe. As many experienced racing veterans will tell you, parking every single car in your “virtual” garage is the ultimate objective of the game, but Forza handles this process much differently than other titles. First of all, every car is divided into one of six racing classes, ranging from the more commonly found street machines to exotic and formula designed cars. These classes are further subdivided into separate levels based on the stats of the cars: its speed, handling, brakes, etc. For the customization fan, there's quite a lot to do here, as you'll be able to put your own unique stamp on the car, thanks to the substantial decal system and aftermarket opportunities offered.
Fortunately, you won't have to be a mechanic to understand how the parts can affect your car; every kit offered boosts performance of the machine in a positive way, so novices can be assured of constantly being ready for their next race. Enthusiasts shouldn't worry about this making the game too simple – you can also go under the hood and tweak the performance of your machine to your liking if you're truly into that. Creatively, as players add parts and augmentations to your car, you effectively raise its class, allowing it to take on better and faster classes of competition. This adds an element of strategy to the game, as players will sometimes find that by tricking out a car, they might accidentally exclude themselves from certain race series. Do you try to dominate a lower class or try to move up to a faster racing pool?
Forza also has an apparent focus on rewarding the player; it’s not uncommon to acquire a large amount of money for winning a race or receiving a car (at least!) for unlocking a new driving series or racing class. You'll have the opportunity to gain new vehicles regardless of the game mode chosen, including Arcade racing, Career mode, Multiplayer (which we’ll come back to later), Time Trials and Free Run driving. Time Trials is relatively apparent – you attempt to set the fastest time on a specific course, throwing all caution to the wind as you burn up the track. Free run gives you separate objectives: either you try to set the fastest lap time, move through gates for the fastest time or drive from point A to point B as quick as you can. However, the largest amount of gameplay resides within Arcade racing and the Career Mode. Although most games seem somewhat generic with regards to Arcade racing, relegating it to time sensitive sprints from location to location, Forza handles it differently. You’re pitted against AI controlled cars in a number of races, with a requirement to place at least third in every contest to continue within a series. These pole positions are much more than simple starting points; they also determine the number of cars you unlock.
Career mode, on the other hand, is essentially the main focus of the game. Much more than a simple progression from amateur races to professional circuits, Forza implements an “RPG-lite” system of “leveling up” between contests. Win a race, and the cash prize goes towards your overall score. Surpass a preset level, and your “character” gains new cars, access to new racing circuits and even discounts to new parts on your machine. Many of these benefits are tempered by the "region" that you choose to represent at the beginning of your career. While you won't be prevented from gaining cars from areas outside of your "territory", nor will you be stopped from building relationships with manufacturers in other areas, you will find that you'll acquire these much farther along in your career. For instance, if you choose to come from Japan, you'll gain most of the cars and parts from Japanese manufacturers before you start making a dent in European makes and models (unless you lay out the cash for it out of your pocket).
Career mode also offers a number of innovative features that helps to redefine the racing genre. Chief among these improvements is the Drivatar feature, an artificial intelligence profile that can be taught to drive a race exactly the way you do, using your tendencies on certain types of course sections to emulate your skill. Do you cautiously approach chicanes or powerslide your way around hairpin turns? The Drivatar evaluates how cleanly you navigate these sections and assigns a score to how you do. Over a number of training courses, the game starts to get a sense of how exactly you run a race and mirrors that exactly, even down to spinning out at the same place you did. Once created, you can then use the Drivatar to "race" for you, taking on the computer on certain courses. You'll have to pay extra to have the game compete in your place, but it can save you time on extended lap contests. You’ll also have to retrain the AI once you get skilled with a certain kind of track section to make sure your avatar’s stats are constantly updated.
Forza also features a number of driving assists and controls that can be used to give you a hand at being competitive. The first one of these is a driving line indicator, which gives racers a sense of the best path to take around a course. Speed sensitive, the line stays green when you're taking a good direction and flares red when you need to hit the brakes or reduce your speed to take a turn. This is a great help for novice drivers in particular, because it can help get them accustomed to how you approach a specific kind of turn or track layout. There's also stability controls and ABS systems that can help your car avoid some spinouts or loss of traction while taking turns at high speeds.
Finally, the game provides a timesaving feature by allowing you to skip the continual navigation of menu screens before you race. As you select different races or competition series, you may find that you'll need a specific class or car to enter. Most racers would fail to let you know this until you'd made your way to that screen, just to force you to back out until you return to your garage. Forza, on the other hand, gives you the option to instantly leap into your garage to switch amongst the cars you own that do match the criterion of the race or series you're trying to enter. It also limits the selections to that specific class, so you're not forced to wade through screens of cars before you find the one you're looking for. It might seem like a minor adjustment, but as any racer can attest, constantly wasting time on backing in and out of menu screens on driving games with 50+ hours of play can infuriate even the most patient driver.
By the way, did I mention the impressive online play? Forza is perhaps one of the most fleshed out online experiences on Xbox Live today. First of all, you'll be able to buy and sell cars online, which can later be used in your single player arcade or career modes. Players can race up to 8 players on a course, and thanks to its ranking system, Forza will always provide you with a challenge relative to your skills. This means that successful racers will actually find themselves pitted against veteran drivers to constantly keep them on their toes. It's also possible to form car clubs with your friends (or possible competitors that you've gained respect for), establishing your own colors, logos and other trademarks of your racing organization. Packaged with more than 1400 ranking boards, Forza tracks just about every single facet of your online play to give you the sharpest driving experience around.
Not a bad foundation for a graphically sharp game. While the car models can seem somewhat compressed and average on the menu screens, the in-race models are much more detailed and striking. You'll notice a lot of reflections off the windows and the bodies of cars, primarily within the city stages or some of the more heavily wooded courses. There's a distinct lack of aliasing issues or framedrops within Forza shown on the cars, and the game really manages to impart a sense of speed that feels appropriate to the vehicles racing along the track. Additionally as remarkable are the backgrounds, which truly look phenomenal. If you compare similar tracks in other games, Forza's rendering of trees, structures and other environmental objects is definitely sharper and more defined than its competition.
You'll also pick up on the attention paid to the growls emitted by each car's engine as it screams around a track. Not only does Forza pay attention to the difference in timing, engine noise and other sounds during acceleration, it also has a noticeable shift in the emitted sound when you've added an aftermarket part. It's also possible to hear the Doppler effect generated by computer opponents as they drive past your car, which adds an extra sense of realism. Unfortunately, the in-game soundtrack, which isn't too spectacular, doesn’t support the game as much as you might like. In fact, you’ll probably wind up losing it outside of the menu screens. Fortunately, you can rip custom soundtracks to replace this minor fault.
Apart from this, there are relatively few flaws with Forza. Sure, you can cite the fact that it doesn’t have as many cars as GT4 or as many tracks, but relative to what the game offers, its size feels appropriate. I do wish that Forza offered a different way of packaging its limited tracks, even if it was combining similar courses to offer additional challenge and length. But aside from the relative size comparisons, the two largest issues revolve around some aspects of the Drivatar and the game AI. As I said earlier, you constantly have to train and retrain the Drivatar to keep it updated. This sometimes gets to be more trouble than it’s worth; it’d be better if the game continually observed how you drove throughout your career or arcade mode and made subtle adjustments that way. If it can track more than 1400 leaderboards online, it can’t track how I progress over chicanes or S-turns?
Similarly, the game AI can be somewhat rubberbandy, making incredible comebacks on you from out of no where in lesser races, and on higher difficulty levels, it can be downright cheap. While part of this fosters getting much better with your driving skills and your turns, it also spawns anger, particularly when the cars wind up smashing into you. That’s right, there are moments when the AI will tap you, drive you into walls, spin you out or cause you to have other accidents to get past you. Not only can this knock you out of contention, but you can suffer some punishing damage to your ride. Since the game does feature performance degradation based on how much damage your car takes, you can find yourself eliminated from a race pretty quickly. Even more infuriating is the fact that the computer generated cars never seem to take the same amount of damage, no matter how hard you smash into them. I’ve specifically gone out and headhunted cars that bumped me from the leader position, and yet their cars are fine while mine is incapacitated. Not exactly fair, is it?
Regardless of that, Forza remains one of the better racing titles to have come along on consoles in a very long time. Excellent visuals, innovative racing features and accessibility to drivers of all skill levels make this title stand out from its competition, including games with more tracks and vehicles. Put Forza in your Xbox, and watch as it leaves those other racers in its dust.