Forza Motorsport REVIEW

Forza Motorsport Review (Xbox)

In every console's lifetime, a few franchises come along that become defining titles: Nintendo's Mario and Zelda, Sega's Virtua Fighter and Sonic, Sony's Final Fantasy and Metal Gear. Microsoft's Xbox has been primarily defined by HALO, and has searched for another franchise that would drive console sales. One historical "killer app" for the PlayStation has been the Gran Turismo series, and while Microsoft tried to compete with Project Gotham, it didn't quite hit the mark as it’s arcade leanings separated it from the hardcore that drive Turismo’s sales and word of mouth.

Now, in the waning days of the Xbox, Microsoft has finally introduced its answer to PlayStation’s sim racing powerhouse: Forza Motorsport. Coming along just as news of the Xbox 360 is hitting the streets and a new generation of gaming is born, can Forza claim it's place as one of the defining franchises for the Xbox, both for this generation and the next?

This is hardcore sim racing with realistic physics. Those expecting an arcade driving experience will be rudely awakened when they first attempt a powerslide or try to take a hairpin at full speed, as the driving model here is unforgiving, at best. Those who equate racing to "driving fast" will quickly find that this is an entirely different kind of racing, that's much closer to the real world. This game rewards throttle management, braking, and acceleration. This is racing that is won and lost in the corners, and with the fantastic damage model, you won't get through those corners by simply slamming into barricades or opponents. Since damage affects cars' speed and handling, you'll need to learn to drive cleanly and carefully in a way that most videogame racers don't enforce.

What Forza does better than most sim racers is to lower the entrance and embrace more than just the hardcore. It's a crossover title that tries to bring true sim racing to the masses. For those who need some help adapting to simulation racers, Forza offers a great selection of aids. ABS, traction control, stability management, and other assists will let you ease into the game, and allow you to adapt the difficulty to your skill level. The game’s best innovation here is the "Suggested Line", which will display a somewhat conservative racing line in front of you. Unlike some games that have offered this before, the "Suggested Line" is dynamic, and it's suggestions of when to brake and accelerate will change based on your speed. It's great to have that assistance not only with the line itself, but also with the throttle management. As you progress, you can turn these assists off for a more challenging experience that will increase the rewards you get from racing. You’ll actually increase your winnings in career mode by altering the level of assists you'll earn. It's a classic risk/reward dynamic that encourages you to remove as many assists as possible in order to increase your winnings.

The AI you'll race against in the offline modes is a mixed bag. While they show true intelligence, and will not robotically follow a programmed racing line, they are also extremely aggressive, and don't try to avoid contact. There are many times you'll find your race ruined by AI drivers running you onto the grass or taking you out from behind if you dare to touch the brakes early. There are the very often the kind of racers you'd kick from your online room, but you're stuck with them in offline mode. Forza gets high marks for an AI that actually replicates the feeling of racing humans, but it needs to teach them a bit more driving etiquette. There's certainly no need for a driving sim that teaches racers to rough up their competitors.

The "Drivitar" feature is an interesting addition to the genre, but I'm not sure it's executed well enough to really stand out. Basically, you can train an AI version of yourself, similar to the "VIP" concept introduced in ESPN NFL Football. Once complete, you can compete against it, trade it with other users, or even have it do your offline career races for you. You train your "Drivitar" by completing laps at specific courses and with specific cars in order for it to build a profile of how you drive. You'll be graded on your performance through various turns, and the "Drivitar" will then perform according to those grades. I don't feel it's measuring enough of your individual driving style for it to be the amazing feature, and I really dislike the idea of training on specific courses and cars. If the "Drivitar" followed you around and learned from every race you ran, it would be a lot more useful.

There are a number of different gameplay modes including "Time Trial" (where you race laps in pre-selected cars, competing against Xbox Live scoreboards) and "Arcade" (where you'll compete in a series of races to unlock new tracks and cars), but the meat of the game is in the deep and rewarding "Career" mode. In career, you'll start with a single car, and work your way through varying races, accumulating more cars and cash. You'll gain "levels" that will provide you with bonus vehicles and deals with manufacturers, and many race series are locked until you hit a certain level. The levels come along quickly, and the rewards are just enough to encourage you to keep progressing. There are so many race types that you never find yourself stuck in a rut. The "Classes" work well, as it will limit the kind of car you can use in a certain race, keeping the emphasis on driving. Outside of some beginning races, you can't simply upgrade past your competition, as certain upgrades will completely alter the class of your car - specifically tires and engine upgrades.

Up to this point, it's certainly not revolutionary, but it works well. The feature in Forza's "Career Mode" that tips the scale is the complete integration of Xbox Live into the single-player career. Not only are your times constantly stacked against leaderboards, you can actually race against other users using your career vehicles and earn money and levels while doing so. Forza has made a big step here in blurring the line between online and off, where you do not have to sacrifice advancement in your career in order to race real people. It's beautifully integrated into the same menu where you select offline races, so you can flip between online and offline races at will.

One of the reasons this online integration is so successful is because the amount of customization in the game is incredible, so allowing you to sport these rides in every mode makes perfect sense. There are many upgrades ranging from the merely cosmetic to the substantial. The performance upgrades make an appreciable difference, and you can then further alter the car by tweaking and tuning to your heart's desire. After finishing up under the hood, you can then use a powerful yet simple graphics program to edit the car's appearance with up to 100 layers for each area of the car. The editor consists of simple shapes, but industrious users can create almost any logo or look imaginable, to the point that some players are finding themselves spending as much time in the graphics tool as on the course. You can take a stock vehicle, and transform it into a competitive ride that matches your skills and the course, and it's a masterstroke to allow people to bring these rides online. Over 200 cars are represented, spanning more than 40 manufacturers from around the world. While the car count doesn't match what's delivered by some other games, there is a tremendous amount of variety and you won't find multiple model variations in the lists to pad that number. What I particularly like in the sea of all those cars is how attached you grow to "your" car. Though I kept unlocking more vehicles, my Audi TT that I started with became "my" car. I upgraded her, tweaked her, customized her paintjob, and then learned her abilities. Though I got better cars, and was forced to use them to compete in various race categories, everything else felt different enough that I always feel most comfortable in that Audi. That sort of connection keeps the game from becoming a car Pokemon, where you are always after the latest and greatest vehicle.

The tracks are simply stunning. From the delicate fall foliage of "Maple Valley" to the hyperactive Times Square of the "New York" courses (complete with video billboards and neon signage) to the majesty of "Nurburgring Nordschleife" (a.k.a. "The Ring"), each course is not only well designed from a racing perspective, but from a visual one, as well. The visual pop of the environments helps in the driving, as the courses differentiate themselves to such an extent that you start to memorize them faster. While some racers' repetitive environments make track memorization difficult for the newcomer, the tracks in Forza quickly burn into your retinas, and you quickly get a feel for the individuality of each course.

The interface is clean and functional, but feels too clinical and antiseptic. While you can get to what you need with ease most of the time, there just isn't much character to it. While a "carPG" experience as seen in TOCA Race Driver 2 or Dirt to Daytona isn't necessary, I do feel that the endless procession of clean white menus doesn't add to the immersion in any way. Your collection of cars never feels like a "garage", and your "career" never feels like much more than ordering off a fast food menu.

It has a soundtrack. That soundtrack probably has some songs of some sort on it. I understand they are remixes by someone named "Junkie XL". I wish I could tell your more, but Forza does the smart thing and implements Xbox Custom Soundtracks. Particularly in driving games, this is a must for me, and Forza implements it well. The vehicle noises are really the star of the audio, anyway. The roar of the engine, the squeal of the brake, the grind of tradin' paint: it's all been captured well, and serves to both immerse you in the experience and to give you driving cues. You'll know when to accelerate or to brake based off the sounds of your vehicle, and that's about as good as sound design in a racing game can get.


Besides the online "Career" races I discuss above, there's a full slate of standard Xbox Live racing. I'm not sure why people would spend much time racing online outside of career mode, but it's certainly available to those who are interested. One interesting online option you'll find is the ability to have a match that doesn't have a race at all, but instead lets you sell cars. Considering the ease with which credits and cars are accumulated, there isn't the kind of economy one would find in an online roleplaying game, but vehicle designs are popular and you could find people doing commissions through here. This kind of marketplace will, I think, grow in future titles, but it's just the seed of an idea here.

One problem you'll see in online mode is that though a great driver will beat a great car, two drivers of equivalent skill will often find the matchup comes down to the car, upgrades and tuning. So not only are you pitting your driving skill against the other racers, but also your car building and tuning skill. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is frustrating to find that though you're driving a better race, you're simply being beaten by a better car. Realistic? Yes. Fun? Not necessarily.

An extension of this problem is the "supercar", and it may prove the fatal flaw in an otherwise exemplary online experience. There are hundreds of cars available, but there's little point when one car can dominate each class. "Class D" races have become battles consisting of the Honda CRX, and nothing else. Though all cars can be upgraded, an upgraded CRX will handily beat any other "Class D" car, given somewhat similar skill levels for the drivers. It's inevitable that online gamers will find any edge they can find, and will copy anyone that finds a better edge. It stands to reason that since the cars do have such individual characteristics, one would provide that edge. It's just a shame to have a cornucopia of cars available, but to feel like you'll be losing races if you dare to use anything but that class "supercar". Some simple way to limit the car selection in the room would have helped prevent this problem.

Is Forza a new cornerstone franchise for the Xbox systems? Without a doubt.

This is the best console racer of it's kind and one of the best games the Xbox has to offer. If the competition is Gran Turismo, there's no contest here. The complete integration of online play, full vehicle customization, better racing AI, and many other features raise Forza above the pack. It advances the genre in many ways both big and small, and deserves a place in the collection of any Xbox gamer with even a passing interest in sim racing. Even people like myself who don't count sim racing among their favorite genres should at least give it an open-minded try, as it's a game that is so rich it transcends genre.

Forza Motorsport Score
out of 10