Microsoft doesn't seem to be intimidated by anything. That same brash confidence that began with Microsoft's entry into the console gaming market continues with Forza Motorsport, the company's take on the driving simulator, a genre that has been the sole console purview of Sony for nearly a decade. And what a debut it is. Forza Motorsport is a stylish and challenging game that is easily one of the best racers on the Xbox, if not the best.
A preliminary look at Forza's content will give you a good idea of the scope of the game. There are more than 230 cars from 60 manufacturers and a track list that, if not extensive, at least features a nice mix of tight street courses, real race tracks from all over the world, and challenging fictional environments. True, when it comes to cars and tracks, Forza is not the biggest racing simulator out there. The variety of things you can do with the content that is present, however, truly makes all the difference.
Simulated driving just went green on the Xbox. Forza features finely tuned racing with enough challenge for everyone.
From a driving standpoint, Forza has a sophisticated feel to it, and one that accommodates a variety of skill levels. With all the default assists enabled, such as traction control, antilock braking, and stability management, you'll be tearing around hairpin corners in Tokyo and ripping up the Laguna Seca corkscrew nearly right out of the gate. Cars feel nicely heavy under acceleration and (perhaps more importantly) braking, meaning that setting up proper brake points and turns is essential. If you don't have the slightest clue about entry points into turns or when to step on the brakes, Forza has a handy "suggested line" feature that is one of the slickest innovations in racing games to come along in a long time.
When activated, the suggested line acts as a dynamic tutor that demonstrates the line over which to drive, as well as how much gas or brake pressure to apply at any corner on a track. Because the suggested line is dynamic, it changes depending on the car you're in and the speed at which you are traveling. As you approach a turn, the line will change from green (which means accelerate), to yellow (lift off the gas), and finally to red (hit the brakes). As you make your way through the corner, the line will transform in reverse, from red, to yellow, and eventually back to green, letting you know it's time to slam the hammer down. This is an ingenious and effective tutor for those new to driving games as well as for experienced players. It allows the novice to be quick right away and helps experienced drivers either learn a new course with which they are not familiar, or drop those extra tenths from their lap time. Is the system perfect? No. As you become more familiar with the suggested line, and the course on which you're driving, you'll notice there are times when you can ignore the advice to slow down, especially on quick S-turns. Furthermore, some braking distances suggested by the line tend to be a bit on the optimistic side. The biggest downside to the suggested line is becoming overly reliant on it. After running lap after lap with the suggested line feature enabled, you may feel a bit vulnerable, and your lap times will inevitably suffer when you first turn it off. Still, as an inventive and effective tutoring tool, it's a great feature.
Becoming reliant on the other aids in the game, such as ABS or traction control, is forgivable, because many of the cars found in Forza contain these types of assists in real life, and as you might expect, there is a huge leap in skill required with these assists turned off. Disengaging stability management, for example, might make it easier to pull off extremely cool powerslides. But, unless you're willing to chalk up some serious practice miles, only the most experienced drivers will find success in driving without at least a few of these assists enabled.
Forza's driving controls are flexible and sensitive, and you always have a wealth of data at your fingertips, like information on car damage, engine and tire temperature, and the many camera viewpoints. There are two first-person perspectives to choose from, including one worm's-eye view that dramatically enhances the sense of speed and two third-person cameras. When driving in first-person view, a handy rearview mirror makes spotting your stalking opponents easy. You'll also be able to use the right analog stick to look directly left, right, or behind, or at 45-degree angles both behind and in front of the car. Analog gas and brakes feel nice, and although the game won't let you map buttons in the exact configuration that you'd like, there are several options to choose from that cover the majority of racing fans' preferences for gear shifting, steering, gas, and brakes.
The dynamic suggested line feature shows you the best path around the track. It's an effective tool and one you might become addicted to if you're not careful.
You'll need to get very comfortable with the controls to take on the crafty and subtle opposition found in Forza, which stands as one of the game's pinnacle achievements. On an oval, for example, cars will seek drafting help wherever they can get it in order to move up the pack. Artificial intelligence-controlled cars will block passing attempts and try to swerve around you if they're approaching too quickly. Yes, that's right folks, Forza features driving foes that are aware of your position on the track and will react accordingly, which works both for you and against you, depending on your driving style. If you drive a clean race and avoid rubbing bumpers with your ontrack foes, they'll mostly drive cleanly as well. If you want to play some bumper cars with them, the AI will be more than happy to oblige and will likely spear you at the next 90-degree turn in retaliation. Of course there's room for improvement. The AI tends to be overly hesitant on certain S-turns, and a tightly bunched group of computer-controlled cars can sometimes result in a chain-reaction pileup that you can only hope to be in front of. In short, while the AI is not above making aggressive, even stupid, moves to pick up race positions, for the most part it drives remarkably clean, skillful, and consistent laps.
The deft nature of the Forza AI design doesn't just pertain to the opponent cars. The drivatar system is designed to emulate your particular approach to the different types of corners found in the game. You start off by training your drivatar on a number of tracks and in cars of various drivetrains. As you make your way around the courses, you'll be graded on how successfully you navigate the types of turns that compose the track. Once you've completed all the training tracks, and the system has a relatively complete picture of your style, you can enter your drivatar into races in your stead, though it will cost you credits to do so. You can even set up races against a number of drivatar copies of yourself, observe your drivatar on any track in any car in your garage, or even trade drivatar profiles with your friends by saving them to a memory card. And you can always go back to the training mode to try to improve your cornering skills, thus improving your drivatar skills while you're at it.
Your ontrack opponents, be they real or virtual, will be tough competition in Forza.
While interesting, the drivatar system isn't perfect. For one, it doesn't take into consideration familiarity with a specific track layout. Even if you have a low performance score on a hairpin corner at Blue Mountains Raceway, for instance, it doesn't mean you can't skillfully attack the Andretti Hairpin at Laguna Seca through the benefit of rote memorization. For another, your drivatar is seemingly consistent to a fault. Six laps at Laguna Seca will almost always result in six offtrack incidents at the corkscrew if your skill ratings aren't high enough (even if you can manage to get through that difficult section of track with little trouble when actually driving the car).
Like almost any driving simulator, a big portion of the fun in Forza is found in buying and collecting cars. Forza puts a twist on this by introducing the concepts of regions and rarity into the mix. Upon creating a profile in the game, you'll be asked to choose a home region from North America, Asia, or Europe. Your choice of region will affect the availability and cost of cars and parts from manufacturers both in and out of your chosen region. For instance, by choosing North America as your home region, you'll find that rare high-performance North American cars will be more affordable than unusual Asian or European models. In addition, the types of manufacturer relationships you form as you gain levels in the career mode will change depending on the region you choose in the beginning of the game.
The rarity of your car affects its resale value online (more on that in a bit), as well as its earning power in a career mode race. After all, one of the ways you build up a world-class collection of automobiles in Forza is by buying them with credits earned from races in career mode. The number of credits you earn per race is determined by more than just what place you come in when the checkered flag waves. You'll also earn bonus credits for driving with fewer assists, driving with the suggested line feature disabled, or by bumping up the ability of the crafty AI competition. In effect, the more you handicap yourself in a race, the more chance you have for earning huge credits when the race ends. The system also takes into consideration how cleanly you drove, as you'll be paying for any damage incurred to your car directly out of the winnings you earn.
By installing upgraded parts in your ride, you'll increase the performance of your car, as well as its level. Strangely, customizing your car's exterior with a new paint job or unique decal configuration does not affect its rarity level, even though these two tools are the very thing that will likely make your RX-7 different from everyone else's in the Forza universe. If you wish to rarify your car, you'll need to shell out the cash to do so. Upgrades can also change the class your car belongs to, which can mean that it will no longer be available for certain class-restricted races, an interesting, if not 100 percent effective solution to the "max out your car and blow the doors off your competition" approach found in other driving games.