Despite the battle cries of "1080p!" and "a solid 60 frames per second!", at the Xbox One's launch there’s only one triple-A title that can hand-on-heart say they’ve cracked it. Take a bow, Forza Motorsport 5.
It's next-gen in other ways too, in that the first thing players will notice are the graphics. Forza 5 looks seriously impressive. Paint has imperfections, stickers behind doors are rendered, leather looks like real leather. In motion the game feels fluid, and cars behave how you would expect them to. Old cars lean into corners almost on their door handles. Lowered hypercars bounce over cobbles and curbs on hard suspension.
To release a game with the production values of Forza 5 on the launch day of new hardware is quite an achievement. However, convincing long-time fans of the series that “less is more” may also be aiming high, because there’s no denying this iteration is smaller than its older brothers. With fewer than 200 cars and a total of 14 tracks, what’s here is effectively half the content of Forza 4. This is odd: in the ever-expanding battle in the car simulation genre, more of everything has been the standard for outdoing the competition.
But many would argue that more of everything isn’t always better. As series fans will know, those car counts are usually bolstered by several variants of the same model. A fleet of 11 Nissan Skylines with different sponsor stickers doesn’t really add up to 11 individual cars, and this is the philosophy that Turn 10 have taken – cherry pick the best model of each of the typical fan favourites.
Turn 10 has also taken a new approach to career mode, which is structured in a way that has the player keeping each car for the length of its relevant event. Events are broken down into car types or genres, and each of those dictates a small subset of usable cars for the player to choose from. The game then automatically upgrades the chosen car so it is competitive. Of course, those who love tuning can set the car up themselves, and this does seem to produce better results. Little has changed in this regard, other than the addition of a real-time performance update to show you what each tuning change is doing to the performance of the car.
Vista mode also returns and now encompasses all cars, but this time is not voiced by Top Gear’s irascible Jeremy Clarkson. This is not a big deal – whilst it is nice to be able to fawn over a new car, it’s something that is done once or twice for each car and that’s usually it.
Top Gear is still involved however, introducing each event with a rundown of the typical cars of that group. There’s also the odd Top Gear event in each career, which include lap times around the famous test track or London simulation, which has the player weaving between cardboard cutouts of London landmarks. All of this combines to reduce the sense that lesser cars is a bad thing.
Less excusable is the lack of tracks. A total of 14 means that players will certainly become very familiar with each one only a few events in to a career. Gone are fan favourites the Nürburgring and Maple Valley, along with many others from throughout the series history.
Fortunately, the tracks that are present have been laser-scanned into the game from the real world, and include an Aussie fan favourite in Bathurst. With the inclusion of some V8 supercars, players will be able to live out any bogan fantasies without getting a silly haircut.
There are some fantasy tracks as well such as the returning Bernese Alps and Prague, the latter of which is a fantasy track set in the real city. The attention to detail in all circuits is impressive and the tracks busier than ever with helicopters, waving flags, and crowds all adding to the feeling of a true race day.
The amount of content isn’t a game breaker, but those “gotta catch ‘em all” types will perhaps feel a bit shortchanged. Of course, there is also monthly DLC promised for the next year. Whether more tracks will be released is yet to be seen, but certainly the car roster will be bumped up. However, be warned that a car pass comes in at AU$65.
Then there’s the VIP pack, which you need to race certain events. The game will even cheekily invite you to these events when you don’t own the VIP pack, then try to get you to buy it, which brings the Forza experience cost up another AU$15. All up, you could drop roughly AU$150 on a Forza game that’s still half the size of its predecessor.
Whilst we’re on a downward slide, those who prefer to control with a wheel will be further disappointed. Forza 5 does not support the Xbox 360 wheel, nor does it support any of the older wheels such as the popular Logitech G27.
However annoying these things are, they shouldn’t put players off what is otherwise an extremely solid release. The new haptic feedback and overall controller design provide a much better experience than in previous games, with gear changes, tire slip, and road surface changes all well communicated via the new rumble triggers. On top of that, the analogue sticks are a lot more precise and allow for greater finesse when turning into corners. A large amount of work has been done with Calspan to further the research into tire behaviour modeling and it shows. Thankfully Kinect support is limited to head tracking, as despite a new camera the detection here is still pretty dicey.
Perhaps most significantly, Turn 10 has done the one thing that can singlehandedly make or break a car game – tinkered with the AI. Fortunately, Forza 5’s much-hyped Drivatar system has fundamentally changed the single player experience for the better.
Whilst it’s not clear exactly what voodoo is happening in the cloud, it works. As the player drives, the game learns his or her habits, and over time translates that behaviour into a Drivatar. This data is then uploaded into the cloud, where it is automatically shared with other players.
What that means in a practical sense is that you might find yourself playing against racers modeled from the driving behaviour of your friends, along with those based on other Forza players. As such, cars will overcook corners, run three-wide down the main Bathurst straight, or accidentally knock you off when taking an awkward line through a corner.
At the right difficulty setting, each race transforms from a mad rush to first then a lonely trek to the finish to a competitive, exciting, interesting, and involving experience. The lead will change several times, cars will get damaged, and you’ll find yourself reacting like a real driver, waiting for the right moment to pass.
It’s hard to put into words how much better this is than previous simulation models where the player’s super modified car simply tore past the AI and then spent the rest of the race effectively hot lapping. Somehow, Turn 10 have managed to bring the fun back to a genre that seemed to be all about numbers, statistics, and polygons.
The only experience that can match this is multiplayer racing. Here Turn 10 has opted to combine the systems from Forza 3 and Forza 4. It’s functional, and the typical race types are here, although some of the oddities such as car soccer are missing.
So Forza Motorsport 5 is a success despite its relative paucity of content, and a lot of the credit should go to Drivatar. Much like with 20/20 cricket or the Rugby Sevens, players are getting a shorter, more focused experience that features more frequent exciting moments.
They are also getting a Forza-quality game at launch that includes likely the biggest innovation to racing games in years.