Forza Motorsport Updated Hands-On

Forza Motorsport Updated Hands-On

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The Xbox has not lacked for racing games. Between excellent racers such as Project Gotham Racing 2, TOCA Pro Race Driver 2, and Burnout 3, Microsoft's console has had an embarrassment of riches among both the simulation and arcade-flavor racing genres. What the console hasn't had, however, is one title designed to be the all-in-one racing and driving simulator similar to the PS2's Gran Turismo series. The upcoming Forza Motorsport, developed by Microsoft's in-house Team 4za, looks to fill the GT-shaped hole in the Xbox's lineup and push the console's technical capabilities to its max. We spent some with the preview build of the game, and we're excited about its potential.

I feel the need...the need for dramatic camera angles.
I feel the need...the need for dramatic camera angles.

From the outset, Forza will feel familiar to anyone who has an affinity for the driving genre. You begin the game by creating a profile that will be saved to your hard drive and updated as you progress through the two main modes: arcade and career. The game's arcade mode features races against artificial intelligence-controlled opponents on more than 30 tracks, only four of which are unlocked to begin with. There are a mix of real-life tracks, including Laguna Seca, Silverstone, and the suddenly ubiquitous 13-mile Nürburgring Nordschleife; real urban locales like New York City, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo; and fictional courses.

At each race event, you'll choose from one of six car classes in which you can race: D Class, which includes modestly powered machines such as the 1998 Nissan 240 SX SE and the 2000 Mazda Miata MX-5 1.8I Sport; C Class, B Class, A Class, S Class (supercars), and all the way up to the pinnacle of speed, which is R Class and features purpose-built racecars, such as the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup or the Dodge Viper Competition Coupe, decked out in full race trim. Within each class you'll be able to choose from a number of vehicles, some of which need to be unlocked through race wins. Any cars residing in your garage (purchased while playing the game's career mode, naturally) will be available to you in these arcade mode races as well.

The build of Forza we played was not a particularly stable one, so we would regularly crash the game when racing on Maple Valley II, one of the fictional tracks. Because of these software crashes, we could not progress far enough into arcade mode to unlock extra tracks or cars. Nonetheless, what remains obvious in this mode is that the game's aggressive AI opponents will both test your driving skills and force you to make the correct car choice when starting a race. The flip side of that is, because the cars in each class are assigned numerical ratings for attributes such as speed, acceleration, braking, cornering and rarity, you'll garner a distinct advantage over the AI by simply picking the most powerful cars in each class to race.

Go ahead and stare--the Subaru WRX STi is used to it.
Go ahead and stare--the Subaru WRX STi is used to it.

Like Forza's arcade mode, the career mode is nothing new to console driving fans. The premise is the same: You participate in races to earn credits to pay for upgraded parts for your current ride or to purchase brand-new cars for your garage. The number of race events found in the game's career mode should keep fans satisfied, both with the variety and by the sheer number of events. Career mode races are divided into six series: amateur, point-to-point, professional, championship, endurance, and online. Each series consists of anywhere from 10 to 26 individual race events, and each event is comprised of a number of individual races and is often subdivided by car restrictions. The amateur series, for example, contains a race event for front-wheel/front-engine cars only, as well as a series of North American races in which only cars originating from that region are eligible.

Depending on the current car you are driving, you may only be eligible for a few races within each series. To complete an entire series, you'll need to expand your garage to include car makes and models throughout the auto roster. There are well over 200 cars from manufacturers all over the world. To help you in your purchase decision, Forza includes a handy compare feature that will allow you to easily compare two cars side by side using a wide range of criterion, including top speed, acceleration, make, model, as well as more specific attributes, such as red line RPM, boost pressure, and torque.

Getting Under the Hood

Speaking of the garage, it's here that you'll be able to check out your entire collection of cars, buy upgraded parts, spend time updating the exterior of your car with a new paint job or a few decals, or maximize each ride's performance through the game's in-depth and attractive tuning interface. You'll not only be able to quickly and easily adjust nearly every tunable attribute of your car, including tire pressure, gearing, alignment, antiroll, springs, damping, aero, braking, and differential, but also Forza's handy benchmarking option allows you to readily test the tangible results of your tuning. Adjust your brakes, for example, and the benchmarking feature will analyze your braking distance, decelerating from both 60mph to 0mph and 100mph to 0mph. Other benchmarks include acceleration (0mph to 60mph and 0mph to 100mph), top speed, quarter-mile time and speed, and lateral Gs. If you want to get beyond the benchmarking numbers, you'll be able to take your tweaked car for a test spin to dial in the best settings for a particular track.

Forza gives you plenty of opportunities to tweak your ride. Adjust components on the inside…
Forza gives you plenty of opportunities to tweak your ride. Adjust components on the inside…

With all of these options, it's easy to spend loads of time in your garage tweaking your car. Yet it's important to remember that the real action in Forza can best be found on the track. Even with the preview copy of the game we played, we were impressed with the title's doggedly determined AI. Cars don't just fight it out against you; they're constantly battling between each other for race positions. Also, cars will close on you with deadly efficiency; to say that opponent-AI braking is "optimistic" and "antagonistic" is an understatement. We've watched as several opponent cars have made aggressive inside maneuvers, attempting to squeeze us out of corners and forcing us to either give up or suffer the resulting damage to our car. AI-controlled cars are as prone to mistakes as they are to performing brilliant ontrack moves. The cars are as liable to nervously lift when closing too quickly as they are to "pull a Schumacher" and fiercely attempt to cut you off on a straight. While there certainly is some fine-tuning yet to go--mainly in terms of the number of ontrack accidents between AI-controlled cars--we're pleased with what we've seen of the game's opponent AI so far.

Forza takes driver AI in a new direction with its drivatar system, a training mode where you are the driving instructor. By tackling a number of predetermined courses, the Forza AI will learn your tendencies over a number of different turn varieties, including right angle, constant radius, increasing or decreasing radius, hairpin, dual apex, sweeper, kink, and chicane. As you progress through the course, you'll be judged on your success at navigating each of these turn types. At the end of the race, you can check your overall numbers in each turn type and car category to judge how your performance has improved (or degraded). Once your drivatar training is complete, you'll be able to enter your drivatar AI into career mode races (perfect for completing those endurance races you just don't feel like focusing your full attention on). If you go to the trouble of creating multiple drivatar profiles, you'll be able to use them in a custom race using cars from your garage.

...or slap a fresh coat of paint on the outside. The game lets you make your car feel unique.
...or slap a fresh coat of paint on the outside. The game lets you make your car feel unique.

By default, driver aid controls, such as antilock braking, traction control, and stability management are enabled, as well as other ontrack assists like a track map and a superimposed line on the track, which illuminates the ideal racing line. As you might expect, all of these assists can be toggled on and off to suit your driving preferences. A word of warning, however: The cars in Forza are twitchy enough to begin with, even with the default assists enabled; turn even a couple of the driving assists off and you'll find yourself in another racing world altogether. The absence of the antilock brakes has the most dramatic effect, as you'll go from easily sliding around curves with ABS turned on to gripping the brake button on your controller with an iron grasp as you attempt to bring your car to a halt. Obviously, the car's tendency to lock up under braking (and subsequently ignore your steering input) is far more prevalent with ABS removed from the equation. But, don't feel bad if you feel like leaving at least a few of the driving aids on. After all, even the highest performance race cars in the world use one or more of these features regularly.

Damage Control

Even with driver aids enabled, you can expect to trade paint in-game, either with a wall after a bout of optimistic braking or by rubbing bumpers with one or more of your opponents. The damage model in Forza is accurate, in that damage is localized to spots where contact actually occurs, and sensitive, in that it doesn't take much damage for your car's performance to suffer, especially at the maximum damage setting. While there is a nice spectrum of damage that your car can sustain--from minor cosmetic scratches and dings to tearing off side-view mirrors to more structural harm, such as engine or axle damage--it doesn't appear to be possible to total your car, even when slamming into a stationary object at top speed.

Benchmarking reports give you an idea of your car's performance before you take it on the track.
Benchmarking reports give you an idea of your car's performance before you take it on the track.

Graphically, Forza is looking fine indeed. While the car models are impressive, especially small details like the ridges in tires and the glowing brake pads, we were most impressed with the courses themselves, which demonstrated not only an impressive array of detail, but also some incredible draw distances. Forza's version of the Nürburgring Nordschliefe, a track that console racing fans are very familiar with due to its appearance in several recent high-profile racing games, takes advantage of this draw distance capability. The detailed backgrounds of the track are accurately rendered, like the mountains in the distance, providing a striking sense of scope for the lush setting.

Additionally, there's a nice variety of tree types to be found throughout the 13-mile course, as well as small details unseen in previous versions of the track, such as telephone wires spanning certain sections. A far less subtle example of graphic prowess is found in the New York City II course. You'll find yourself speeding through the Times Square section of the Big Apple while an array of neon ads flashes down on you. It's hard not to be distracted by the overwhelming details in the course.

On the audio front, the game features a wide variety of distinctive engine sounds, from the high-pitched whine of a Ferrari 355 to the hollow roar of a TVR Tuscan. With our build of the game, car damage didn't have the "crunch" we were expecting, but Microsoft assured us that the audio development in the game is still a work in progress. Forza will also support custom soundtracks, so your dream of burning around the Tsukuba Circuit while blasting your favorite Jewel mix can finally be realized.

Forza's drivatar system allows you to create an AI-controlled clone of your driving style.
Forza's drivatar system allows you to create an AI-controlled clone of your driving style.

Microsoft is positioning Forza as a direct competitor of Sony's Gran Turismo 4, a game that has the reputation and popularity already behind it. Most are expecting the two games to be released in the same time frame, as GT4 is slated for a February 22 release and Forza is due in April. What Forza may lack in sheer quantity of cars and tracks, it will look to make up in its online play. While we weren't able to check out much in the way of online play beyond a cursory glance at Forza's car club feature--a driving game equivalent to a guild system--the very fact that this is a Microsoft-developed game means that Xbox Live integration should play a large part in the title's success. We'll have more coverage of the game's online play and other features as we approach Forza's April release.

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