We've had plenty of racing games come out at console launches, but we've never had a Forza Motorsport game. Don't get me wrong -- I love powersliding around silly tracks while rocking out to Japanese techno anthems. It's just that as a racing fan, I'll end up wanting more later.
Forza Motorsport 5 (Xbox One)
Developer: Turn 10
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Forza Motorsport 5 is the biggest and best series game yet, packed with loads of new features and new eye-busting visuals, but it sticks to its guns on a few key features. First, it's still all about the thrill of driving in the greatest cars to ever hit the road, with Turn 10's superb physics and car modeling. Cars still take damage on tracks, though this time around the damage looks more real than ever. And the oops-I-took-that-corner-too-fast rewind feature also returns. All the things you'd expect from a Forza game are here.
As for the new stuff, the biggest change to the Forza formula is the Drivatar AI system, which learns the driving habits of all players, and then turns profiles created from this data into computer opponents. This means that, even when real players aren't there, it feels like you're playing against real people. No longer are your opponents shiny boxes moving along scripted paths.
Your data is also being pulled after each race to build a Drivatar of your own, and it will be sent to the cloud so that your friends can race against it in their own games. When you're not playing, your Drivatar is out competing in (and hopefully winning!) races for you. Logging back in, you'll collect your Drivatar's win earnings. So it's definitely worth working toward a good Drivatar.
Every car has a Drivatar name assigned to it, which gives you a chance to watch it and learn its personality. After a few races you begin to see who has racing chops and who doesn't. You'll begin to watch the particularly good ones closely so that you might have a strategy for when you are running neck and neck alongside them, just as you might with a real person. You'll grin as you speed past the incompetent ones, knowing that you'll never see their name anywhere near yours on the leaderboards. With Drivitar, it really is like always having a room full of people to race against.
It's kind of comforting to see that your AI opponents aren't computer perfect. An AI-controlled driver might slide out and hit the dirt in that one sharp turn in Laguna Seca, for example, as that's what its real-life counterpart might have done there. And when you're being beaten, where previous series games might have had you cursing the game AI in general, Forza 5 will have you cursing a specific Drivatar's name. This all completely changes how the game feels as a single-player experience, making it the most engaging racer campaign I've ever played.
This happens because the Drivatar system learns each driver's tendencies, and then places them into your CPU opponents. So, if you're up against my Drivatar, expect corner cutting and lots of rubbing.
What's interesting is that adding friends that are great Forza 5 can increase the level of challenge. For example, I had several other games writers in my friends list, but none of them were particularly great at racing games (sorry, friends), so I breezed past their Drivatars. But, days later, after adding Turn 10's Community Manager, Brian Eckberg, I found that I wasn't taking the gold in all of the races. Even now I'm often taking second place in races. I wonder if I can delete him as a friend (sorry, Brian).
Forza 5's driving feels better than ever. While Turn 10's unending work toward driving realism is to be credited, a nod also has to go to the Xbox One controller. The new trigger buttons are game changers with their smooth throw and dampened end strike. Their movement is so nice that it's really easy to feel completely tuned into the game's acceleration and braking. The haptic feedback motors inside these triggers let you feel when your tires or slipping, or when you're overdoing it on the gas pedal. I've never felt more connected to the virtual road.
After taking your first car for a spin a few times, you'll be let loose to tackle Forza 5's league offerings, free to jump into any event you'd like. There's no progression to follow this time around, so you're free to hop around and play what interests you. Well, mostly free. You'll have to work your way up to some races, depending on the amount of credits you've earned. Don't expect to be able to jump from D-class competitions to a league where exotic cars are used. You won't have nearly enough credit for any of the recommended cars, like the Aston Martin One-77 (which costs 2,051,300 credits).
The freedom is nice, but with no set career structure, some that enjoyed the preformed path of previous series games' career modes may feel a bit lost. If it wasn't for the narrated league openings, the single-player experience would feel kind of empty.
But I enjoyed the freedom. I explored sports cars for a bit, then jumped into a league of hot hatchbacks. For each league entry, I dipped into my earnings to buy one of the 200 or so cars that Forza 5 offers, buying to meet league qualifications. Of course, cars can be upgraded and customized freely. A quick upgrade feature can make easy work of taking your favorite car up a class as it figures out the required parts for you. After doing as much damage as I could in a replica of my own car, a Mazdaspeed 3, I tried rally racers, compacts, and historical cars. I'm saving up for the exotics. I want that One-77.
These leagues take you to racetracks all over the world, from the Bernese Alps to Abu Dhabi. The track number has been cut nearly in half from Forza 4, down to 14 tracks, which has you revisiting them often if you spend any decent amount of time with the game. Depending on how you jump around, you may be looking at a lot of the same scenery for awhile. At least it's beautiful scenery.
Different event types keep things lively, though. The passing game (Track Days) returns in Forza 5. In this, you work to overtake as many cars as possible in a number of laps. I also enjoyed racing The Stig clone (there's even a story to explain his cloning) in head-to-head matches, and the silly obstacle course race at the Top Gear track was good fun.
But, again, with 14 tracks, things start to look the same after awhile, and you start to miss some of the old standbys. New tracks, like Spa Francorchamps and the hilly Bathurst are wonderful additions. But where's Suzuka and Tsukuba? And Maple Valley would be so pretty on the Xbox One. Sadly, I fear that these will come as DLC later. It's understandable that a lot of work goes into taking these tracks up to 1080p, but it feels like too few tracks went into the game.
I'm perfectly fine with the car count, though. There are more than 200 insanely beautiful cars to race in Forza 5. While that's a fair bit less than its predecessor, these 200 or so cars look unbelievable, and it would take a player ages to acquire them all. That's enough game for me. While I understand that some series fans may feel like the car count is low (Forza 4 had over 500 cars), they have to remember that so much more went into each of Forza 5's cars. It's quality over quantity.
If you need more cars, there's certain to be plenty of DLC to buy. A $50 season pass will be offered as well, letting you pay once to have new cars delivered with every update. I'm guessing that some series fans will see the lowered car and track count and point to the $50 season pass as milking.
The car models in Forza 5 are so detailed that looking over them gives you a real showroom floor browsing feeling. Both the Forza and Gran Turismo franchises have histories of bringing high quality car models to their games, but nothing we've seen before even comes close to what Forza 5 brings. The drool-worthy models in this game look like they're really made of metal, and painted with fine finishes. They reflect light in such a realistic way that the league opening segments look like luxury car commercials. Interiors, exteriors, trim -- everything down to the lug nuts looks perfect. And when you bang your cars up on the track, even the damage looks real. Forza 5 has so much visual detail that some may never see all of it.
But it's not just the cars that look fantastic. Every stage is photorealistic, with details so fine that you'll never catch them all unless you're watching someone else race. The level of detail is scary sometimes, as seen in my favorite course -- Prague. Every building has a facade so detailed that they almost look like photographs at points. I love coming through the track's white archways and around a corner to have the sunlight hitting my eyes, flooding the cobblestone streets with their afternoon light. All of this is happening at 1080p, running at 60 frames per second.
Forget racers. This is one of the best looking videogames I've ever laid eyes on.
Forza 5 also sounds nice with its classy string-based musical score, though I liked the menu selections more than the race music. The race music is fast-paced and sufficiently full of energy, but it's lacking in low frequency content, which has it getting lost in the mix. The fast string work over busy percussion might sound fine on its own, but up against the noise of cars, it's a sonic mess, and is sometimes hard on the ears.
If you're like me, and getting all the good cars is your end goal, you'll be at it awhile as a lot of the top cars are really expensive. But you can build up your earnings in a few ways. For example, affinity bonuses have manufacturers paying bigger payouts the more you use their cars. You'll earn experience and credits in multiplayer, so that's another way to rake in earnings. A "Rivals" mode also lets you take on friends' rankings on the leaderboards at your leisure to earn credits and experience.
Forza 5 lets you accelerate your experience level with tokens. To try it out, I bought a 30-minute experience accelerator for 75 credits (the game gives you 100 credits automatically; 100 tokens costs $0.99 in Xbox Store). With the clock ticking, I participated in as many races as I could, doing my best to place highest so that I'd get the most out of my time as I was earning twice what I would have without the accelerator. I suppose this option is nice if you didn't have time to work your way up the ranks, but I'd rather take my time and enjoy the experience.
Taking a spin in Forza 5's online multiplayer prior to launch didn't give us much of a chance to experience its match-making technologies. A Smart Match feature has the game's dedicated servers pitting you against other gamers that play the way you play, so a straight-laced player would not go up against a cheater. If it works as intended, cheaters would be placed in matches with other cheaters. Let's hope Smart Match Works!
I tried jumping into a few of the multiplayer hoppers, all of which went off without a hitch in matches up against a dozen or so other players (up to 16 supported), looking as good and playing just as well as single-player does. Categories for hoppers included monthly sets, league sets, class races, and specialty (drifting and others) races. If you have a qualifying car in your garage, join in. If not, you can rent a car to play, but you won't earn experience.
Beyond all of the fancy AI tech, physics calculations, or high quality visuals, what I really love about Forza Motorsport 5 is that it's packed full with automotive adoration. For me, the walkarounds of a collection of cars narrated by Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson are just as enjoyable as any race. Being able to pore over every detail of every car I've ever dreamed of owning in Forza 5's virtual showroom, ForzaVista, is fantastic. It's a car lovers happy place on a disc.
This all helps make up for what feels like a thinner game than its predecessor. Even with all of its visual wow and cloud features, Forza 5 feels like there should have been more to it. In some ways it feels like an incremental content update with brand new visuals. Maybe more tracks would have helped. Or maybe some kind of underlying progression in the career mode would have made a difference.
But, at the end of the day, the racing is what matters. And with this game, the racing is fantastic, and Turn 10 is really onto something with this Drivatar stuff. It alone gives Forza Motorsport 5 something over every other racer out there, pushing the genre forward. They've remedied the racing genre's biggest problem: scripted AI cars.
For this, Turn 10 deserves high praise.
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