Deep in the halls of DailyGame headquarters, an editor strapped on his flak jacket. “Boss, you haven’t prepared for battle like this since Ninja Gaiden.” “I know,” he replied, “but somebody’s got to do the nasty. It may as well be me.” Out of the darkness he strode, peered into the bright light of cyberspace and let out a sigh that marketing armies hate to hear. “Your game,” he said, “this title you call Forza Motorsport. It is good, quite good, but it’s a young franchise, and there is still room to grow.”
When Xbox Live launched two years ago, a fantastic motorcycle game called MotoGP raced alongside it, successful enough as a racing simulator that it spawned an even more sim-tastic sequel, MotoGP 2. Dubbed “hardcore” even by hardcore racing fans, MotoGP 2 was eventually followed by TOCA Race Driver 2, a budget title that still managed to produce some of the best racing physics on Xbox and an impressive list of cars ranging from big rigs to Formula One racers. Forza Motorsport is not the first racing sim on Xbox; it is simply the most recent in a solid line of them to appear on Microsoft’s console.
By “racing simulator,” we mean Forza has no fast-acting e-brake. No power slides. No bouncing off an opponent’s fender to help carve through a turn. Forza is all about reality, from the impressive physics to the impeccable tuning to the need to pay for repairs. This is a simulator through and through, and even the game’s “arcade” mode has no mercy for damage-happy drivers.
The physics in Forza garnered most of the attention in previews, namely because it’s so different from most racing games on Xbox. Of the game’s 230-plus cars, not a single one handles the same, which makes truly “knowing” your car imperative if you want to snag gold in any race past level four. Understanding when to brake, how long it takes to brake, the perfect time to hit the gas after rounding a corner … these are all handling elements that would affect your performance in real life, and they’re all elements that are unique to each car in Forza Motorsport.
Care to test the theory? Here’s a prime example. Having just rounded the second-to-last corner on the final lap, I glanced behind my fast-but-unstable car to see just exactly what a 1.7-second lead looked like. In Project Gotham Racing 2, such peeks were common, because turning back around and discovering a sudden corner simply meant slamming on the e-brake. Forza Motorsport is no PGR2. As quickly as I had reveled in the lead, the last corner had entered my field of view, and it had done so much faster than anticipated. The brakes couldn’t slow me. I started to skid. The second- and third-place cars, almost mocking me, tapped my fender and sent me spinning. No recovery. Cookies in the dirt. A fourth-place finish.
Playing Forza like anything but a simulator will result in failure. As one of the game’s splash screens says, “Sometimes driving slow is necessary to drive fast.” It sounds like something straight out of a fortune cookie, but it’s true. You know those beer ads that ask people to “drink responsibly”? Forza’s tagline should be “drive responsibly,” because that’s precisely what gamers need to do if they want to rack up wins, trophies and credits.
With those credits, players can tune nearly every aspect of their car, from the suspension to the fin to the engine to the Traction Control System to the filters to the tire pressure to the … you get the picture. Gearheads, Forza Motorsport is the game for you. Add to these substantive customizations the ability to paint every inch of every car and apply custom decals, and you’ve got an online racer where the chances of seeing two identical cars are almost non-existent.
Such superficial novelty may eventually wear off, but the novelty of seeing your mechanical upgrades actually affect the car’s handling never will. The first time you leave a race and enter the garage to adjust the tire pressure, tweak the suspension and upgrade the intake, it’s easy to think the impact is purely statistical. Yet taking that car out on the test track reveals that the changes truly do make a difference. Suddenly you can come out of the corner that much faster, or stick to the line with much more ease, or pull away even better on the straightaway. Making a change between races can mean the difference between first and fourth place, and the test track is the ideal place to make sure your car is at its peak performance.
If it’s not at its peak performance, or if you find yourself an inadvertent victim of the game’s realistic physics, any and all damage will affect the handling. Slam into a guardrail on the right, and your car will pull that direction. Careen hood-first into a barrier and your front bumper will crumple, affecting your aerodynamics and therefore your top speed. Spend too much time off-road and your tires will burst, slowing you down and causing your car to veer off the track. Once you complete the race, the necessary credits to repair your car are automatically deducted from the winnings, so if you’re a fan of demolition derbies, you’d better not be a fan of saving money to buy upgrades or new cars.
Still, at the end of the day, Forza’s physics have a “been there, done that” feel due to the Xbox’s history of strong racing simulators. The tuning is new, but the gameplay itself is not really different. What is different is the online career mode and “Drivatar.” The online career mode is the best innovation in a racing game to date. Essentially, the offline version of the game tracks your performance and compares it to online leaderboards like PGR2. Yet taking your career online enables you to participate in ranked races, earning career points based on your performance, much like the ELO system in Rainbow Six.
The “Drivatar,” meanwhile, is an AI driver that players can train in a series of races in which the computer analyzes the player’s driving tendencies and “learns” to drive like the player. This lets gamers select the Drivatar to compete in almost any race for them, which is a nice option to have when you’re faced with a track you always hate to drive.
Ironically, Forza’s most impressive graphical touch is the blemishes on each track. The quality of the cars is by and large identical to that in Rallisport Challenge 2: some are impeccable and others (like the APR Celina) look like they were pulled from the cel-shaded Auto Modellista. Likewise, the environments are well drawn but don’t look much different from Microsoft’s rally game. The real-time shadows and lighting, however, are a significant improvement over any Xbox racer.
The blemishes, though, may be the most noticeable in-game element. Each skid mark and paint scuff, whether it came from a test-track lap, an Arcade race or a Career Mode competition, is stored in memory and stays there for the life of the game. It sounds simple, but this inclusion brings each track to life in a way that no Xbox racer ever has. Again, Forza is all about realism, so little touches like real-time shadows and persistent blemishes advance that goal.
The sound effects, too, are impressive, but they’re drawn into the depths by a soundtrack that Pantera would be embarrassed to call its own. The whine of each engine is unique, and tuning an automobile alters its engine’s tone and volume. But the soundtrack just has to go. The menu music is great, but once you hit the race itself, it becomes painfully clear why this game supports custom soundtracks.
Forza’s most redeeming quality is its ambition. The physics and handling have been done before, but the tuning introduces a rewarding new incentive to experiment with combinations of power and control. The online career mode and Drivatar are also ambitious, and they start to push online racing in an exciting new direction. Yet while gearheads will love the tuning aspects, hardcore “sim racing” fans are probably already perfectly happy with TOCA Race Driver 2 and MotoGP 2. What’s more, TOCA (and Gran Turismo 4 on the PS2) also offer more cars and therefore styles of racing.
Forza is an outstanding first run for Microsoft, and the elements it’s introduced are bound to be even more polished in the next go-round. Considering Forza is already a solid game, by the time it reaches its fourth iteration, a la GT4, it will almost certainly be the racing sim to beat.
- Gameplay: 8.8
- Cars handle realistically and are affected by tuning, but the actual gameplay isn’t new for existing fans of driving simulators.
- Graphics: 9
- Car models and environments are generally good, but it’s the lighting and shadows that most impress.
- Sound: 8.2
- Incredible engines and use of surround sound, but the God-awful music illustrates why Xbox supports custom soundtracks.
- Replay: 9
- Gearheads will tune for years, casual gamers will paint until they’re blue in the chassis, and competitors will revel in the online career mode.
- Overall: 8.9
- The physics are fantastic and the tuning terrific, but pound-for-pound, it doesn’t offer any more in the “sim racing” category than a couple of existing budget titles.
— Jonas Allen