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Metal Made Beautiful: My Hour With Forza Motorsport 5

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Car passion.

I freely admit that I am not a gearhead. I can't identify a 1973 Ford Mustang by sight, or tell you offhand how much horsepower resides in the engine of a Ferrari Testarossa. Heck, I don't even really know what horsepower is.

But I am not unsentimental about cars. When I own a car for years, and it takes me on mundane trips to the grocery store and on epic journeys along the open roads of the American Midwest, I form a connection to it. It becomes part of the tapestry of my life. Of course, Forza Motorsport 5 has all of the technical detail about its vehicles that anyone who's enthusiastic about automotive engineering and technology could hope for. But what immediately pulled me into Forza 5 was the way that it celebrates not only the machinery of cars, but the humanity of cars as well. A short film that opens the game, warmly narrated by Top Gear personality Jeremy Clarkson, begins by touching on the roles cars play in our everyday lives, before moving on to talk and images of high-performance racing machines. And because it took that moment to celebrate that emotional connection we can form with cars, something I can understand and appreciate, I immediately felt like Forza 5 was a game that was catering as much to someone like me as to someone who reads each issue of Road & Track.

A race through Prague in a McLaren P1 is the dramatic opening to Forza 5.
A race through Prague in a McLaren P1 is the dramatic opening to Forza 5.

The game begins by giving you an opportunity to inspect and admire the powerful McLaren P1, which you then drive in a dramatic race through the beautiful streets of Prague. After this taste of one of the more glamorous vehicles in the game, you choose from a number of more modest vehicles to take you through your first career series, a five-race modern sport compact championship. I selected a Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 Track, and was whisked off to the Bernese Alps for the first race.

The second event is less scenic but more memorable: a race around Top Gear's test track that's cheekily described as an accurate simulation of actual driving conditions in London. You speed past majestic cardboard cutouts of double-decker buses, Big Ben, and the London Eye, and the asphalt is strewn with garbage cans (or "rubbish bins" as they're called across the pond) and other objects. I've sometimes felt that the Forza series has taken itself, and cars, very seriously, to the point that it has bordered on stuffiness, so this event was a welcome bit of lighthearted fun.

A kind of automotive beauty even I can't help but appreciate.
A kind of automotive beauty even I can't help but appreciate.

As I progressed through the remaining races in the series, I felt myself developing a closer connection with the car. By the fourth event (in Bathurst, Australia), I had a much better sense of how it handled, and was learning how to guide it through turns efficiently. If Turn 10's talk about its cloud-hosted "drivatar" system is to be believed, my drivatar might have been getting better, too. A screen of text after an early race stated that while traditional racing games have artificial intelligence, in Forza 5, "you will be racing against real people. Trained in the cloud, Drivatars recreate real human speed and style." After a few races, I was informed that the game had collected enough data to create a drivatar based on my racing behavior, and that this drivatar would now serve as an opponent for other players and even earn me credits based on its performance while I wasn't playing.

I wondered if Turn 10 wasn't perhaps overselling the concept of drivatars by describing them as real people and distinctly not as "artificial intelligence." I was also concerned. Playing on my own, it wasn't unusual for me to muscle my way ahead of other cars with some pretty dirty racing, but I didn't want my drivatar ruining the experience for other players. I asked Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenawalt about this, and about how the game determines which drivatars populate which races. He explained that drivatars are split into seven tiers, each of which corresponds to one of the game's seven difficulty levels, which determines which pool of drivatars your opponents come from. When my drivatar is used in races with strangers, it won't be with my livery, and there will be safeguards to ensure that it doesn't grief those players. However, when it races against my friends, my livery will be displayed, and it will mimic the dirty aspects of my racing behavior more closely.

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After I made a respectable finish in the fifth and final event of the modern sport compact championship series, the world of Forza 5 opened up to me. I didn't have much time left with the game, but for my final race, I selected a vintage American muscle car event. I loved the way that the personable, Top Gear-flavored introduction to this class of car enthusiastically captured the era that produced those cars, and I felt my heart stir with a sense of appreciation for the big, beautiful American cars of the early 1970s. I realized that by putting these cars in their historical context, it was actually deepening my own interest in them, and I thought of what Turn 10 community manager (and former GameSpot editor) Brian Ekberg described in the above video as an unofficial motto of the Forza Motorsport series among the development team: "We want to turn car lovers into gamers and gamers into car lovers." I'm not about to subscribe to Road & Track, but during that hour I spent with the game, it made a car lover out of me.

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