Review: Move over, Gran Turismo ? there's a new king in town.
Microsoft Game Studios is perhaps best known for Halo, but I think they instead deserve to be recognized as the world's best publisher and developer of racing games. It's a bold declaration, but with an impressive r?sum? consisting of Project Gotham Racing, RalliSport Challenge and now Forza Motorsport, you'd be hard pressed to argue otherwise.
Simply put, Forza is the shining crown jewel in Microsoft Game Studios' trio of kick ass racers. It is the best racing simulator on the market, usurping the long reigning king, Gran Turismo, off the simulator throne. Yes, folks, it's that good.
And yes, I know that GT4 has over three times as many cars as Forza (which has ?only? 233 cars from over 60 manufacturers) and almost twice as many tracks (31 for Forza versus 50+ for GT4), but numbers alone do not make a great simulator. What pushes Forza ahead of the pack is its intricate attention to detail, realism and customization, along with innovative online features that leaves GT4 in the dust.
The first thing that grabs you is the stunning graphics ? if you thought PGR2 and RSC2 were pretty, Forza makes them look like ugly ducklings. The cars are beautifully rendered down to the finest details, from the egg crate pattern in the front grille to the treads on the tires. The paint has that realistic luster and shine that makes it look like it's an inch deep, and it even reflects nearby objects as you drive by them. In fact, the cars look so good you will actually cringe the first time you bang into something and scratch the paint ? or worse. But heck, even the realistic damage modeling looks beautiful: body panels will crumple realistically, bad scratches will reveal shiny sheet metal, windows will shatter, and bumpers will warp and rattle as if they're hanging on by a single screw. Take enough damage and body parts will fall off and stay on the track, something you want to avoid hitting when traveling at triple digit speeds. Even the skid marks on the track and paint scratches on the walls will persist until the race is over. And let's not forget the game plays at a solid 30 FPS.
The tracks aren't as impressive but are still given the same attention to realistic detail. Real tracks like Laguna Seca, Silverstone and the brutally long Nurburgring Nordschleife are authentically recreated for our driving pleasure. The city tracks in New York, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and other cities may not be as accurate, but are close enough to satisfy all but the most discerning player. Even the fictional tracks look real. The only real complaint is that the fans in the stands are 2-D colored blobs and some of the buildings are cookie cutter fascias but trust me, you won't notice; you will be so busy concentrating on your race, you simply won't have the time to appreciate the game's spiffy good looks or minor graphical shortcomings. Luckily, once the race is over, you can sit back and watch your race on instant replay and take a good look at the detailed artwork and modeling. MGS even added realism to replay mode by making distant objects out of focus ? it's a small detail, but one that really adds to the coolness factor.
Best of all, the game plays as beautifully as it looks.
Keeping It Real
Microsoft really worked hard on nailing down realistic driving physics ? in fact, they hired automotive engineers to ensure that the driving physics are the most accurate ever in a video game. In other words, don't expect the forgiving handling found in your typical arcade racer. This is not to say Forza is exceptionally difficult to drive; rather, you will have to change your way of thinking and pretend you are actually driving rather than playing a game. For example, many arcade racers let you brake and steer normally at the same time, but in Forza (and in real life), this can cause major understeer and much swearing as you slide uncontrollably wide through a corner.
Recognizing that a heavy focus on realism can often adversely affect playability, MGS has given players the ability to make the game as realistic and challenging as you want. Three driver's aids are turned on by default ? antilock brakes, traction control and stability control ? and you can turn some or all of them off to step up the realism. Be warned, though; turning even one off can make a huge difference in how the car drives. For example, no traction control will have you spinning your tires uselessly when you floor the accelerator, and no antilock brakes will have you plowing straight towards a wall if you lock up your brakes in a corner.
A very useful driver's aid is the Suggested Line, which highlights the ideal driving line you should take on the track. The line changes color from green (indicating you should accelerate) to yellow (slow down) to red (hit the brakes) depending on your current speed and position on the track. It seemed like a cheap crutch at first, but after driving for a while without it, I turned it back on. A big problem with all driving games is that it is often difficult to judge how far away you are from corners or how sharp they are, which usually results in you getting up close and intimate with a wall. The Suggested Line eliminates that problem and helps simulate the depth and angle perception information you would normally use if you were driving in real life.
Following the line doesn't necessarily mean you'll win, however ? flooring it through corners and chicanes may have been a successful strategy in arcade racers but it won't work here. The key to winning in Forza is driving smart and driving smooth; this means hitting the brakes or easing off the gas at just the right times. As the saying goes, sometimes you have to drive slow to drive fast. You should also avoid sliding, which means your tires are not gripping the road properly, reducing your overall speed and control.
Speaking of tires, the game calculates wear and tear on your rubber, the effects of weight transfer in turns, and heat and pressure changes. If you have a heavy brake foot, keep in mind that the game will calculate brake fade and reduce your stopping ability. MGS even factored in the affects of damage on your car; cosmetic scratches and minor dents are nothing to worry about, but missing or broken parts will adversely affect your car's performance. Smack a wall with a front wheel and your alignment will go out of whack, which hurts acceleration and speed as you are forced to counter-steer just to stay straight. Lose your front bumper and the additional aerodynamic load on your car will restrict your top speed. On the longer races you will have to pit to refuel and replace tires.
Are you getting the idea this is not your average racer? Yup, Microsoft took this game ? excuse me, this simulator
? pretty darn seriously. There is no extraneous fluff like announcers, animated spectators or weather effects; this is pure racing simulation, an automotive geek's dream come true. Normally, taking something too seriously can sacrifice the fun factor but Microsoft proves it can do both at the same time, and do it well.
There are five gamemodes: Arcade, where you choose your car and track and race against the AI to unlock new cars and tracks; Time Trials, where you try to set the course record on specific tracks with pre-selected cars; Free Run, where you can practice on any track and also participate in Autocross races, where you run through cone gates as fast as possible; Multiplayer, which includes two-player split screen or eight players over System Link and Xbox Live (more on this later); and the heart of Forza, Career Mode.
In Career Mode, you race to earn credits to buy new cars, accessories and upgrade parts. There are six Career racing series: amateur, point-to-point, professional, championship, endurance and online, each with various amounts of events and car restrictions. The cars are broken into six classes, ranging from the entry-level D-class all the way up to the big dollar S-class of ultra high-performance production models and the R-class of purpose-built racers. If you're not sure which car to use, you can compare two of them side-by-side and pull up general statistics like acceleration and top speed, or more detailed information like RPM redline, torque, boost pressure and so on.
You start Career Mode with only a limited amount of credits, meaning you will only be able to afford an entry-level D-class car. You also have to pick which region to choose your car from: North America, Europe or Asia. Which region you choose affects the manufacturers, costs and rarity of cars and aftermarket parts initially available to you (the races will remain the same no matter which region you pick). So for example, if you pick Asia, you will initially have access to manufacturers from that region only, and will be unable to switch to another region unless you want to start over from scratch. You will still be able to buy cars from other regions, but they will be much more expensive than comparable cars in your region. This is called ?rarity?, meaning that while players from other regions may be drooling over your Nissan Skyline GT-R, you could be drooling over someone else's Ferrari. Interestingly, if you pick North America, you will have access to North American versions of Asian and European models, so if you like variety, this may be a good choice. Eventually, you will be able to access every car no matter which region you chose, but it will take a lot of work to get to there.
So how do you gain access to new tracks, cars and aftermarket parts? Naturally, you unlock cars by winning events, but also by winning credits and leveling up. As you reach certain credit thresholds, you will level up and unlock manufacturer relationships, which can range from a discount on upgrade parts to earning free cars. Nice!
The amount of credits you earn is not only affected by how high you place in the race, but also how high your difficulty settings are, how much damage you sustain and your car's rarity rating. By adjusting the driver's aids, AI difficulty, level of damage and other factors, you can earn bonuses or penalties on your race winnings. Sustaining damage deducts repair costs from your winnings, so driving smoothly will not only save you time, but money as well. You also earn a rarity bonus for your car, and can boost your car's rarity by adding custom parts and accessories (more on this in the Customization section below).
The computer AI is aggressive but nothing like PGR, where the AI would purposely try to ram you and run you off the road. You will still get hit and knocked off course but it is usually because the AI is trying to squeeze by you in a corner rather than trying to purposely take you out. To avoid the frustration of competing against infallible computer controlled ?slot car? opponents, the AI is designed to make the same mistakes as real people; in fact, it is not uncommon to see AI cars bump into walls, slide wide through a corner, or even smash into each other. Interestingly, the cars ahead of you tend to drive a heck of a lot better than the cars behind you, which means you will have your work cut out for you if you fall behind.
As good as the AI is, it is no match for racing against real people. This is why the best part of Career mode is that you can play it both offline and
on Xbox Live, with all races counting towards your Career stats and money earnings. As well, your results are posted on the Xbox Live leaderboards where you can also download ghosts of the top drivers and practice against them.
If you don't feel like driving but still want to progress through Career Mode, you can create an AI clone of yourself called a Drivatar. You train your Drivatar over a series of courses, where it learns how you handle corners, when you brake, and so on. Once you train your Drivatar, you can have it race for you ? a good idea when taking on those long endurance events. You can train several Drivatars and even race against them ? in fact, it's kind of freaky to race against yourself. My Drivatar makes the exact same mistakes I do and it's weird to point and laugh, ?Wow, this Drivatar sucks!? only to realize that's because I
suck. Luckily, you can retrain it at any time, which is recommended as your skills improve.