Review by sinfony
A long time coming
Since the launch of the first Gran Turismo game on the original Playstation, that franchise has dominated the simulation racing genre. However, Microsoft Game Studios' Forza Motorsport has finally replaced GT as the finest console racer available.
The action on the track is nothing short of perfect. Forza's cars handle extremely realistically, forcing the player to drive carefully or be brutally beaten by the tough AI. The difference between driving a stock 4 wheel drive Subaru and a heavily upgraded rear wheel drive Dodge Viper is as pronounced as it should be. Especially with the high-end cars, who wins and who loses is predicated on skill, not on blind luck and who has the heaviest foot on the accelerator.
The importance of the inclusion of car damage cannot be understated. No longer can you ram opponents out of the way, nor can they do it to you. Hit anything too hard and suddenly you'll find your car pulling to the right and your transmission shifting poorly. Overrev the engine too much and you'll never get out of third gear. No game that allows you to recklessly bounce of anything in sight with no repercussions can be called a simulation. The presence of car damage in Forza will make the player change the way they play, and the challenge of keeping your car right at the edge of control becomes far more rewarding when the consequences for pushing it too far are so much greater.
The AI is the most realistic of any simulation racer on the market as well. Run the same race twice and you won't see the computer drivers doing everything the same way. They jockey for the faster line and execute reckless passes just as much as you do. And they compete with each other, not just with the player, a welcome change from most racers. It's not impossible that you'll be running in third one race and suddenly see your two opponents slide off course, having tangled too closely trying to win the race. You may come to hate the AI after it has spun you out into the grass one too many times, but the idea that an AI opponent can elicit any emotion at all is remarkable.
The controls are tight and responsive, which is all you could want from a racing game. The analog shoulder buttons are perfect for acceleration and braking, allowing for varying amounts of each rather than simple lead-footed pounding. The game supports steering wheels as well, for those intent on getting the most immersive possible experience.
There can really only be a couple of bad things said about Forza's online play. First, the claim that you can race the entire career mode online is slightly misleading. While it is possible to race online within the career mode and earn money that lets you progress in level, just as you do in the offline career races, you do not actually run the events the comprise the career mode. For instance, you will never actually run the Corvette vs. Viper challenge, you will simply choose a car, find a game running a course you like for a number of laps you find palatable, and then race it. That's fine, but it undermines the essential fun of the career mode: that it forces you to skillfully race a variety of cars against equally matched opponents in order to progress. Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment is diminished by racing online. For each series you win in the offline career mode, you are rewarded with a new, somewhat rare car. By playing online you can eventually unlock and buy all of these cars, but this is far less rewarding than being given a really great car for triumphing in a grueling series of races.
The other bad points to online play are quite minor. It takes too long for Forza to find games, and there is a glaring, obvious glitch that allows gamers to quickly make obscene piles of money (several hundred thousand credits for a one lap race around the oval). That glitch has allowed far too many people to gain access to the best cars far too quickly, and without really being able to handle them, which leads to a lot of really mediocre competition on XBox Live, consisting of people who got their Enzo Ferraris through a loophole and can't actually drive them to save their life.
Beyond that, the online component of the game is excellent. There isn't much lag in game, you can customize every aspect of the race, and you get to play against actual human opponents. The car clubs (think clans) are a nice feature and the plethora of scoreboards means that there has to be some race, somewhere that you'll have a chance of recording a top time in.
Another really nice inclusion is the ability to download replays and car setups for the very fastest times on each of the scoreboards. Let's say that you are not terribly informed about cars, and thus have not gotten into the car tuning that really unlocks the power of many of the cars. And you are getting smoked in a tough career race because of it. For every race in career mode (or any other mode) you can access the leaderboard, find the car used by the best racers, watch a replay of how they handle the race, and download the car setup they used to win it. It's the kind of helpful inclusion that makes the game accessible to any racing fan, not just those with in-depth knowledge of how to tune a car.
This is possibly both the most hyped and most detested feature of Forza. You have the option of training the game to drive the way you do, and then set that AI loose on the career mode races or even race against yourself to learn how you might be beaten and improve your game. It's a very similar feature to NFL 2K5's VIP system, except that rather than constantly gathering information about how you drive, the drivatar is only updated through specific training. To create it, you only have to go through five quick three lap time trial runs in different cars on different tracks. To really get it running well requires a fair amount of "Free Training," wherein you choose the particular car and track you want to train it on and have at it. A lot of people feel that the drivatar excels only at slamming into walls and otherwise being a nuisance, but with decent training that will not be the case. As I write this, I've got a drivatar driving a Saleen S7R torching the opposition on Nurburgring. For people who don't want to put the time into the endurance races but want to complete the game and get all the cars, the drivatar is a godsend. And if you'd rather do everything yourself, you never need to touch it. Overall, a very impressive feat of computer learning and a very useful tool for those who would rather not put in an hour on just one race.
Forza's graphics are breathtaking. The car models are extremely detailed and reflect their surroundings in real-time. As they take damage, you will see fenders hanging loose, large dents, and crumpled hoods. Hit a car hard enough from behind and you'll see its spoiler pop off and fall to the track. The cars tilt as you turn and accelerate, and bounce up and down when you run up on the rumble strips.
Inside the car, you will actually see a driver, and that driver will actually visibly turn the wheel and shift gears. It's a really nice graphical touch, especially when watching replays.
The lighting effects are beautifully done as well. You will see bright sections of pavement where the sun is hitting the track, and the shadows projected by the cars under the lights are spot on.
The tracks and their surroundings are wonderfully styled and rendered. Pavement is pavement wherever you go, but the visual differences between, say, the Maple Valley and New York City courses are astounding. The former track is lined by autumn trees and occasional cabins, with little pockets of spectators scattered about, while the latter is hemmed in by tall buildings, with a much dimmer, more urban color scheme. The attention to detail in the courses is spectacular, with little touches that you certainly won't notice while blazing past at 240mph, but which you might catch while watching a replay of your glorious victory.
It is very tempting to just sit back and watch the replays because they are gorgeous to behold. In addition to the already beautiful graphics, you will see camera effects like the focus shifting as the cars move into the background.
Really, the only graphical shortcoming is that the hubcaps look painted on. Not really a big deal.
The sound is every bit as stellar as the rest of the game. The engine sounds are true to life and vary depending on where the camera is in relation to the car. The change in engine sound when going from third to first person view is as pronounced as the change in viewpoint. Engines roar, superchargers whine, and tires skid very realistically all throughout the race. When driving past large groups of spectators, you'll hear them cheer. And you should get a little too aggressive, the sound of cars slamming into walls or other cars is as accurate as the engines.
And yes, the default music is terrible, but the game supports custom soundtracks that never stop playing. The music will play in the menu, while the races are loading, and during the race, and during the race the track can be changed and volume adjusted on the fly with the D-Pad, so there really isn't any grounds for criticism.
Career mode offers a ton of races, some of them very long indeed, and it will take most players well over 20 hours to complete every one of them. Arcade mode offers another long string of races that will take several more hours to win. And with online play and endless leaderboards, there is always another goal to shoot for, even after all of the cars are unlocked and all of the races are won.
The menus in the game are excellent and very functional. Everything is clearly laid out in pleasant looking screens. If you are on the choose race screen in career mode, and you want to race an event that your current car is not eligible for, it gives you the option of jumping straight to your garage to choose from all the cars you have that are eligible, which is an excellent touch that will save a lot of time. The online scoreboards are easy to navigate, and the car upgrading system is simply and clearly laid out, so that even those who don't know much about cars will have no trouble seeing what effect an upgrade will have.
On the down side, it is just a little bit slow going from screen to screen. It's not a problem, but during long sessions it can be just slow enough to be annoying.
Above all else, Forza Motorsport is complete. No aspect of the game seems rushed or unfinished. Microsoft Game Studios have paid incredible attention to detail at every level of the game. The amount of depth to be found is astounding, but one is not required to delve incredibly deep into the game to have a good experience. For the gamer who just wants to race some fast cars, they can do that, but for the car enthusiast who wants to tinker with cars they might not be able to have in real life, the game provides engine graphs, telemetry readouts, and tons of tweakable settings to keep them occupied optimizing their car and their driving. This isn't a simple copy of Gran Turismo, it is the game that Gran Turismo aspires to but fails to be. It is always towards the end of a console's life cycle that the really spectacular games are released, and Forza stands as one of the finest XBox games ever made.
Overall Score: 10/10
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