More than just a few laps
Forza Motorsport 5 has been on my Xbox One launch list since its announcement; I knew this was a game I had to have from the beginning. I've played it several times over the past years at trade shows and other events, but every instance was little more than a few laps around a course.
Honestly, outside of showing off the fancy new visual muscle and some of the new Xbox One controller perks, none of these showings did the game any justice. Even as a racing fan, these hands-on experiences were a bit of a bummer.
Microsoft made it all better last week by giving us hours to spend with the game. I was able to start from the very beginning of the game, working my way up, just as you'd do on the first day you bring a new racer home. While Forza 5 was already at the top of my to-buy list, this lengthy run with the game made me want it even more.
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Forza Motorsport 5 (Xbox One)
Developer: Turn 10
Release Date: November 22, 2013
In spending a fair bit of time with Forza 5, one of the biggest surprises for me was just how different the AI is compared to previous series titles. Turn 10's Drivatar AI system has a silly name, but it is legit, and it makes a huge difference in how races feel. Gone are the pre-programmed lines for AI cars to follow. They're replaced by cloud-fueled profiles, each containing the data of your friends, and each assigned to different AI cars in your races. This means that you're now racing against the tendencies of real people. Fellow Forza fans need to know that AI cars are no longer predictable, meaning that your old tricks won't work. This alone is a game changer!
Again, in previous hands-on sessions, I never got a feel for the Drivatar system. This time around, the system was populated with the Drivatars of the Turn 10 staff as well as others that have had a chance for an early test or two. In Forza 5's career mode, even in my early races, I found that the challenge level is greater than any previous series game. Simply put, if your friend drives like an asshole, so will his Drivatar. One of Turn 10's staffer Drivatars had no problem plowing me or faking me out in passes. I'll say that I easily whizzed past Larry Hyrb's Drivitar, though.
Now, instead of mindlessly trying to weave through AI cars to finish the early races to work up to more interesting cars, as would normally be the case in previous games, I was already wrapped up in the action from the beginning, playing like I was up against real people. In this early case, I was trying to take the asshole-ish Drivatar down while placing at least third. Even in my starter car, a 2013 Subaru BRZ, I found myself fully engaged in the first five minutes of play. The very first race was fun! How many racing games can you say that about?
Don't get me wrong: I loved all the previous Forza games. But after experiencing Drivatar's depth and realistic level of challenge, I don't know if I can play the older titles anymore.
Another surprising discovery was how much of a difference the difficulty level setting made when it came to enjoyment. Instead of your standard easy/normal/hard setting options, Forza Motorsport 5's difficulty settings are tied to the Drivatar system. Picking from the six available options (easy/medium/hard/pro/veteran/custom), I got cocky and picked Hard at the beginning. Among other challenges, I found that the asshole Drivatar was doing his part to hold me back in subsequent races, which had me placing 6th in one. I eventually backed off the difficulty to Medium, which changes assist settings and XP payout bonuses, but also turns down the intensity of the Drivatars players are up against. Trying Pro, I failed miserably. Easy wasn't a challenge. I found that setting the difficulty so that I was just barely placing in the top three brought the most enjoyment.
Forza 5 builds a Drivitar for each player from their race data. The system collects how you race, pass, hit apexes, and more, and then generates your Drivatar to be sent out to the cloud to race on your behalf on others' systems. I'll apologize in advance for my Drivatar. After a few hours of play I found that I had generated a Drivatar so evil that it made the Turn 10 opponent from earlier look like an angel.
I don't need to go into how gorgeous this game is, do I? We've gone over that plenty of times before. You've never seen a racing game look this good. Forza Motorsport 5 has the looks that makes you happy about spending hundreds on a new console. The screenshots and videos you see online do it no justice.
I had a blast working through the first few hours of Forza Motorsport 5's Career Mode, and that had a lot to do with the freedom it provides. You no longer have to constantly switch cars and race types. Turn 10 explained that players could stay in their beginning car for their entire career if they wanted. I stayed in my BRZ for many races, though the siren call of sleeker sports cars and unlimited credits eventually took over. All the cars I'd want in my own garage, including the Jaguar XKR-S, Mercedes Benz C63 AMG, and the Lexus IS F, had to be taken for at least a couple of laps before my time was over.
I played as long as they would let me, cruising around the photorealistic Bernese Alps, or Sebring in America. I was too busy losing to enjoy Bathurst in South Wales, Australia, and too focused on my turns to get a look at a new course, Yas Marina, in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I laughed as I plowed through obstacles like trash bins and signage on the Top Gear test track in Dunsfold, England.
They literally had to stop me and pull me away. I can't wait to get Forza Motorsport 5 in my Xbox One later this month.