True racing simulations are a rare breed nowadays and even more so on console. The reason is simple; few can stand tall against Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series. Where certain quasi-realistic PC titles may remain unscathed, console titles even hinting at realism will get compared to the crowned champion without mercy. In 2000, Sega tried to launch its own salvo on the Dreamcast with Sega GT. While the title may have looked the part, it hardly compared. So much so that when the sequel was released on Xbox (Sega GT 2002) few even batted an eyelash. And in the meantime, Sony's consoles saw GT2, GT3 A-Spec and finally GT4. In all cases, the titles added more and more realism to its engines and kept the polygon count higher and higher. Other publishers saw the writing on the wall and began developing more arcade oriented titles and street racing games like the Need For Speed Series and Midnight Club as well as branching out into other racing genres altogether like Codemasters' Colin McRae series. But after Microsoft published its latest Project Gotham title to rave reviews and phenomenal fan support, The Big Green Machine announced the unthinkable; it would take a shot at the GT title. The result; Forza Motorsport. And now that the dust has settled, which series stands victorious?
Forza is a massive title; just the numbers themselves are impressive. Over 250 cars from dozens of licensed manufacturers, 17 various environments with a ton of painstakingly recreated tracks of varying length and difficulty from around the world, combined with a superb physics engine puts Forza at the head of its pack. In the end though, no matter how many cars or tracks a game has, its quality over quantity; fortunately Forza excels in this area as well.
One of the biggest strengths of Forza Motorsport is its fine attention to detail and near endless customization. One can spend hours and hours in the garage, tuning and tweaking a car to gain a few tenths of a second on the track. Slap a few decals on your car or go all out and upgrade the bodywork piece by piece. The vehicles are divided into multiple classes based on weight and power. And while increasing the horsepower of a car may seem like a sensible idea, you will also have to deal with the class changes and constraints of each class. This is both a strength and a weakness, but above all else, a true test of balance. But through it all, if you like fine tuning, then Forza Motorsport is a dream come true. If you are more like myself, and prefer to race stock rather than investing the time to perfect the look and feel of a specific racer, then you'll still be very competitive both in the career and Xbox Live competition by simply buying new upgrade parts and slapping them on quickly. Much like in every other of its features, the game allows you to spend as much or as little time doing any one thing.
Players are given a variety of options to begin; you can start a single player career or simply head out to the track in arcade style action. The career mode is long and progressive; player's level up by winning races and thus money. Races are divided into categories and divisions based on car class and type. You start out by selecting a region; North America, Europe or Asia. Your starting car selection, as well as the cost of region-specific parts, will later be calculated using this region. You can build up your garage by winning or buying new cars, and then customize them to your liking. Forza offers fifty levels in which to progress through; each new level bracket unlocking a variety of events and new divisions in which to compete. To reach the higher levels, you could be playing for a long time; fortunately that is where drivatars come into play.
One of the most innovative features of Forza Motorsport is the ability to train an AI controlled version of yourself, thus mapping your driving skills to a computer controlled car. By running through a variety of these training exercises, you can perfect your drivatar to win races and prize money, saving you a significant amount of time and energy. Yes, GT4 had a similar feature, but the drivatar in Forza actually seems like an extension of you as opposed to a friendly AI that does well when given a fast car against a bunch of clunkers. Forza gives you a certain amount of pride from training your drivatar, it may just be a full-fledged Tamagotchi on wheels, but it's well implemented.
In case you'd rather race the old fashion way, but prefer to compete online, Forza offers the ability to progress and advance your career through Xbox Live; a welcome addition to those who get tired of racing against the AI. While enjoyable and challenging all at the same time, competing against a computer opponent is really no comparison to battling it out against a handful of other people over Live. The multiplayer support is easily the strongest element of Forza and taking on a few friends over Live is an exhilarating experience that is matched by only a small handful of other titles.
In addition to the different modes of play, races in Forza can be divided into categories based on track type and length. Players can race the tracks in solo time trials, circuit racing or compete in a point to point event (which also contains the Quarter Mile track). The tracks vary in length and difficulty; some are based on real-life counterparts, while others are designed for sheer entertainment. The tracks provide a lot of variety themselves, whether it's an uphill climb or a brake-heavy downhill course, long or short circuit, or more simply a real-to-life challenge. Whether you're looking for a quick race against a few friends, or a lengthy trip around the highly popular Nurburgring circuit, chances are you can find it in Forza.
So what makes Forza different from other console contenders and more importantly the daunting GT4? For starters, visible and handling damage is a large element missing in most racing titles; fortunately Forza has not overlooked this. The damage modeling in Forza Motorsport is adjustable, meaning that you can select from simply cosmetic damage, basic damage where cars can take a fair bit of pounding or the full blown simulation where even the smallest amount of attrition will leave you crippled and limping to the finish line. If you can stay on the track and off the wall, then you'll fare much better simply by having your car continue on in a straight line, rather than pulling ferociously to one side (not to mention the horsepower disadvantage of a damaged engine). The visual damage effects are impressive as well; crumpled fenders, missing hoods and shattered windshields are just a few of the visual treats that Forza offers.
Graphically, Forza Motorsport is a true work of art. Tracks are surrounded by a wide assortment of objects while the environments are lush and highly detailed. Lighting has been perfected casting realistic shadows on all cars, with time of day playing an important role in the visibility factor. Car models themselves are gorgeous and with number of vehicles available, it's amazing at the amount of detail put in each and every last one. Whether it's the bright reflections as the sun beams down on the metallic finish or the scrap metal from crumpled cars laying across the track, the level of detail in Forza is nothing short of spectacular. Cars lovers will not be disappointed in the least.
As Forza is designed as a simulation rather than a more fast-paced arcade racer commonly found on consoles, it has much a much steeper learning curve than most titles and can seem frustratingly difficult at first. This is where the driving aids come into play; dynamic "grooves" which indicate the approximate speed you should be traveling heading into a corner. Traction and handling assists are also a welcome addition for those who don't have the time to master every circuit. But not to worry, once you get a feel for the sheer power of these cars (as well as the fact that you actually have to brake early heading into a corner) you'll pick it up fairly quickly. After a few hours Forza becomes significantly easier, although I still find myself overshooting the "corner from hell" on the infamous Laguna Seca circuit. Should you miss a turn, you'd better hope your opponent does the same later or you could just find yourself behind for the remainder of the race. And while the AI drives realistically, a few small mistakes can mean the difference between first and last place, just like in real life.
The AI in racing simulations has long been suspect, partially due to the fact that it is difficult to create a good balance between aggression and performance (and still keep the game fun and interesting).. The AI in Forza is well balanced in the early stages (although the AI can be aggressive at times) but will generally back off if you challenge them too hard in a corner. However, as the levels increase, the AI becomes excessively difficult and cunning. So much so that above level 30, you likely won't stand a chance unless you are a Forza master and even then it's a challenge. This significantly hurts Forza's replay value since what seems like an endlessly enjoyable title early on becomes a chore to play where races must be raced over and over again to attain Gold.
Audio-wise, Forza Motorsport is a mixed bag. On one hand, the sound effects are nicely developed; the revving of high power engines and crumpling fenders. On the other hand, the background music, a mix of 80's infused with jazz and blues, has its strengths and weaknesses. While some tunes are well delivered and have that whole nostalgic feeling, others could have (and should have) been left in the dust. I also noticed the tracks seem to repeat themselves fairly often. The style of music selected is one of the biggest complaints from many drivers within the Xbox Live world, but fortunately, Forza supports custom soundtracks so you can spare yourself the entire in-game music. This is truly one area where the GT series shines over Forza. The intro to GT4 was brilliant with its operatic build-up leading to Van Halen's Panama. Has there ever been a cooler intro? The custom soundtracks really save it.
One of my most severe complaints against Forza and what truly keeps it from attaining ultimate simulation greatness is the lack of a cockpit perspective. To truly get the feel of a sim, it is nice to be able to sit in the cockpit and look into a rearview mirror as your opponents drift into the distance. With that said, this is a minor oversight for all but the absolute diehard sim fan. Most people would likely never use such a camera anyhow simply due to the increased difficulty of an already challenging title.
In the end, Forza challenges for the racing simulation throne and comes away, remarkably, unscathed. Microsoft has taken the Gran Turismo concept and greatly improved and re-invented it. Is it the definitive knock-out blow that everyone expected? Maybe not. Gran Turismo is a capable racer with exemplary car models and impressive handling. While it may have been stagnant over the past few years due to a lack of serious competition, it is still a force to be reckoned with. But in this generation, Forza may be the definitive title to own, if only for its online modes and its overwhelmingly detailed paint/customization options. Besides, not having to race those damn License Tests is such a joy. If you've been on the fence about Forza (or stuck in a hole somewhere) consider its realistic damage models and its innovative drivatar feature, combined with astounding graphics and physics and wait no longer. Forza is the premier racing simulation on console. If you are a die hard racing fan looking for a true challenge; Forza is a must-have title. And with so much to do within the game, even the most short-spanned racing fan will be entertained for hours. You know all your friends own it already, so what are you waiting for?