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Xbox Review - 'Forza Motorsport'

by Paul Reith on May 22, 2005 @ 4:40 a.m. PDT

Forza Motorsport gives Xbox gamers who are passionate about cars and racing the opportunity to own, customize, and race their favorite cars in a realistic driving simulation. From sport compacts to LeMans prototypes, players use earnings from hundreds of races to buy upgrades and aftermarket parts so they can transform real production cars into high-performance race cars.

Genre: Racing
Racing: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft
Release Date: May 3, 2005

Buy 'FORZA MOTORSPORT': Xbox

Finally. That's the word that comes to mind when thinking of both Forza Motorsport and this review. Speaking to the relative value of content for your dollar, not only did Forza take forever to make, but it takes forever to get through all the options to see if they really matter. Microsoft had Forza in development for enough time to make us wonder if it was going to become as mythical as Longhorn, but, as opposed to the next-gen OS, we actually had glimpses of Forza in the many months since the game went public. Forza has been touted as the definitive auto-racing simulator for the Xbox, and Microsoft hasn't been shy about its confidence in Forza as "best of breed" when the dust settles from the many recent racing simulator releases. With all the hype, all the waiting, and all the competition, would Microsoft really be able to pull it off? The short answer - probably.

That said, we really wanted to dig into this one and find out if first impressions were true, or if Microsoft had put a really sweet glazing on a not-so-good game. To fully understand if Forza is any good, you really need to spend some time with it. Other games in the genre on consoles and PC have all touted their ultra-realistic physics, calculations, and recreation of real-life tracks in the game. Quite frankly, when it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter what freaky calculations need to be made, we are just looking for a game that puts you in cars that look, feel, and drive like the real thing.

To understand if Forza or any other sim has managed this, the bare minimum a gamer needs is some real hard-driving experience coupled with some real nasty losses of control and a few good crashes to top it all off. Spend some time floating corners on dirt roads, get into ice track racing, and when you can estimate your car's cornering ability based on today's road temperatures, you might be ready. It takes some experience to appreciate how powerful gravity and friction are, creating that precious connection between tire and pavement.

Based on this premise, we'll take a long, hard look at Forza, how it's built, and where it manages to bring racing reality into your home. We look first to the world Forza creates to immerse you in the driving experience. In Forza, Microsoft finally has reached self-actualization in its anti-piracy movement through full integration of the racing environment with Xbox Live. Simply put, any racing sim isn't a true simulator unless you can race head-to-head against other humans. For this, Forza marries the Live environment directly into the game; all you have to do is hit the white controller button and presto! Xbox Live! With over 1400 scoreboards, Forza makes full use of the Live environment, segmenting by class, track, personal car clubs and more. If you have a spectacular race in your turbocharged VW Golf R32, you will see that race written to five or six leaderboards, not just any single race chart.

With Live, you can race eight people head-to-head, with a few different modes. The basics are Quick, Opti, and Create Match modes, allowing you to do everything from racing a car club league to hopping on for a quick race to let off steam after a long day at the office. Car clubs work just like clans, so this part of the Live experience is the real element to create community and mimic reality. Just like the gearheads who sit around in garages helping each other install turbos and change out springs to lower a car's center of gravity, Forza tries to let you race together, commiserate, and share racing secrets. In fact, the only thing that's missing is greasy hands - well, that and the real-life exhilaration of maxing out a credit card on a new intercooled turbo that you don't really need. Forza tries hard, as hard as any sim has up to this point, to create the community experience through the conduit of Xbox Live, and the only real misfire is our inability to give away upgrades to buddies. After all, that's what I did with my 4-barrel Holley Dominator carburetor in real life, but what are you going to do with your spare parts? Not much. Favors count a long way among gearheads, from hours of assistance to spare parts. In Forza, it seems that you pretty much have to give away the car to a buddy, and when's the last time you ever heard of someone handing off an Enzo? Forza does a nice job on community building for a video game but doesn't cross the finish line for simulation of reality.

That said, Forza does provide an incredible amount of car customization options to make vehicles more competitive. From turbos and engine tuning to adjusting the rake of your steering assembly, Forza lets you do nearly everything the pros can do. Oddly, however, there are plenty of aftermarket bumpers but only three basic levels of turbo customization with optional intercooler integration. Turbos are expensive, and few would buy a generic one, especially without a properly matched intercooler. When it comes down to it, enthusiasts who are becoming gearheads talk about their first K&N filter, and then continue on to brag about what's under the hood, or their posi rear-end. Branded body customization is a reach only for the "Fast and the Furious" types, but strangely a Forza-branded rear bumper is the only custom bumper to add to your overall top-speed. The flaw of a Forza-branded product outperforming any other bumper isn't an issue, unless you stop to ask why manufacturers agree to put their parts in the game. Very few serious players will have the branded parts, as it is not a wise racing decision to buy a technologically inferior part. It seems Microsoft has failed in the reality of this part of the simulation phase. However, when tuning your car for the important things like limited slip and controlling the power distribution to the wheels of your all-wheel-drive machine, Forza strikes with precise control, even if it is generic.

How important is tuning your vehicle? Well, when you are ready to seriously compete, you will have the guts to turn off the anti-lock brakes, stability management, and traction control. Now is the time when your vehicle will be able to float around corners for faster times, but that Toyota will also spin wildly out of control at a moment's notice. Getting to know your car, you might find many different ways to make your car match your driving. For example, if you can't seem to pull your front-wheel drive car out of the corner quick enough, try adjusting your alignment instead of just laying off the gas. By the time your car is set up to snap out of the corners, she'll be a bear to run a straight line down the track, so the balance is somewhere in the middle. Tuning is a place where Forza strikes the heart of bringing reality to the Xbox console, even if Microsoft did stumble a bit with branding and body customization.

The next major part of the environment Forza creates is the tracks themselves. Looking back to our preview of Forza, it brings to mind how the development team actually went out to the tracks and photographed every square foot of the track surface. Seeing what the tracks looked like at that point of the development process, it seemed like they were downright insane to waste that much money on tracks that looked - um - really bad. But we had faith in their resolve, and it turns out that the tracks were worth the wait. Race the infamous Laguna Seca or several others, including Road America, Silverstone, Tsukuba, Road Atlanta, and Nurburgring. The tracks don't look dazzling, but the do look great, and rank right at the top in realistic representation within a videogame. Don't expect much from the surroundings, but wouldn't anyone want all the processing power possible spent on the cars and the track? In this goal, Forza delivers. The only drawback to the tracks is that so few are real - barely more than a handful. It must have cost a small fortune to go out and photograph a few miles of pavement eh? In its defense, Forza does have more than a dozen fictitious tracks to round out the field with a fair number of racing opportunities, but we hope they will find a way to add more tracks through the Xbox Live environment.

With car customization and quality rendered tracks, Forza has done a good job so far in creating a simulator. Now we'll take a look at the game modes, which will lead us into controls, and finally the cars themselves. Arcade mode is just what you would expect; drive hard, drive fast, and win to keep playing. As you win, more cars will become available to race, and you will need to swap cars just to keep up with the competition - if you can. If you win a series and get slaughtered on the next race with a new car, try one of the other ones you unlocked. From what we saw, certain cars just seem to click with certain drivers on certain tracks, so don't be afraid to mix it up if you want to win in the arcade mode of Forza. Beware of settling for third place in arcade mode, as you won't get your greasy hands on all the cars. Strive for first, and you'll have a shot in the later levels with access to the right cars for victory.

In Forza, the arcade mode is only a small part of the game, and rightly so. After all, this is a driving simulator, right? Career mode is where the good stuff happens, where you get to tune your car, and where a generic turbo can turn your mellow ride into a raging uncontrollable monster. The first, irrevocable choice you must make is the choice of a home region. With three basic regions, Europe, North America, and Asia, Forza begins creating a market economy for car trading by pigeon-holing your profile into one of these continental groups to determine which cars are going to be easy or difficult for you to get in the garage. Essentially this means that you set up operations on the continent of your choice, regardless of where you race. When used with Xbox Live, you can get some nice credit balances by selling a car off that's rare in some other region. It's a bit of an obnoxious ploy, as there aren't really enough tracks in Forza to have a continental circuit, but we do get what they are trying to do - build community on Xbox Live by giving you real incentive to actually interact with one another.

Now that we've gotten started, it's time to hit the races. There are two main types you will hit initially, series and point-to-point. The point-to-point race looks quite a bit like a rally car race, some uphill, some downhill, and white-knuckle action the whole time, with hair-pin corners and plenty of opportunity for you to try out your hand with the E-brake to show off by swinging your rear-end around the corner. Point to point races feel more exciting, as you only have one shot through each twist, turn, or straight-away to get it right. These are the races where you absolutely feel like you have to win. Overall, point-to-point races are so curvy that the cars get pretty stacked up. At this point, playing bumper cars is a legitimate course to victory, which is rather unfortunate. Forza unfortunately exhibits this issue throughout the game, where collisions do not provide sufficient disincentive to avoid contact with opponents.

The more sustained, challenging mode is the series. Typically lumped into multiple-lap challenges combining three tracks, these challenges are where the credits - and cars - are earned. Here is where you can really test your true driving ability. Turn off the ABS, STM, and TCS, and see what your real driving skills are in these races where you get a few chances on each corner to perfect your skills. It will be tough at first, as your car goes careening off the corners, or spinning wildly when entering a straightaway because of your nimble cornering suspension alignment. In time however, the advantage becomes obvious as these compensatory tools require the use of brakes to keep you on track. As you head into the curves, you will find yourself a helper. While other games have introduced training modes for tracks that entail driving through rings on the course, Forza has incorporated the concept of a driving line, and it is invaluable to beginners.

Based on the concept of an optimum course and speed, Forza designed a line of triangles to show drivers where to hit the course, and then color-coded the line for speed. The concept is simple: straddle the line. If it is green, go faster; if it turns yellow, you are right on the edge; orange and red mean slow down before you careen off to the shoulder. With all the hype and tripe about quality, reality, and innovation in simulators, Forza's design of its driving line truly defines the best innovation in the current generation of driving simulators. Learning to hit the corners like a pro suddenly becomes second nature, as your speed becomes a color-coded visualization integrated with the course itself. The driving line truly made some of the poorest drivers at least have a chance against the "easy" AI, much to our surprise. Rest assured, if you do pick up Forza, the driving line will let you drive well in under an hour, as long as you drive a real car daily.

We could rave on about the glory of the driving line, but be forewarned. This line is good for beginners, but as you tune a car and turn off the helping factors the driving line becomes less effective. Here again, Forza excels in making the line a crutch for beginners and not a necessity for quality driving. In time, each driver will turn the line off as they come to know a track, and gain a feel for the turns. Due to poor contrast in some of the turns, the driving line is essential when learning some of the tracks as it will help you see your way around the bend.

Now it's time to follow the line with your favorite car. With over 230 cars from 40 manufacturers, Forza puts together a strong field that would satisfy anyone. All the brands are there, even Enzo, and the cars are there too, right down to the charming Elise. The only notable absentee is Lamborghini, but very few gamers or drivers I have talked to miss them - after all, when's the last time you drove one, or even saw one? I am lucky to see one quite often, in the showroom on Van Ness Street in San Francisco, but the poor thing never seems to get out and play. So, it's pretty hard to imagine how more than a handful of people will ever play Forza and be able say that they miss comparing the sim to the car in their garage - unless your car has no place in a racing game. Even so, from the all-wheel-drive VW Golf R32 to the Nissan Skyline, there are plenty of cars in a wide range of values, and it's up to you to unlock them. So, how difficult is it to really make it around the course in first place for a three-course series to get the free car? That depends on your equipment.

Tuning your car in the game makes a big difference, but this equipment focus is on your controls. We tested two options, your generic Xbox controller, and the Fanatec Speedster 3 wheel with force-feedback technology and vibration. Surprising for a simulator, the game handles well with both options, both to our pleasure and chagrin. Although the Xbox controller can get you reasonable times with Forza, but the quality of the experience is questionable. Given the dead zones of the controller, and the lack of smooth control (analog or not, there isn't enough travel for fine driving control) with use of the sticks, Forza just can't be much of a simulator with the inferior controls. Forza does, however, end up playing like a very nice arcade racer, and control is effective and enjoyable. The only concern is that compensation is so heavy for the controller that it may put controllers and driving wheels on a near even playing field, which would not be much of a comparison of skill. Over Xbox live, you can't see if your opponent, but if you have a $300 driving wheel, it would be reasonable to expect that it would give you the same advantage as a tire upgrade. With Forza, this does not seem to be the case at the outset, but over time the more powerful cars become less manageable with the controller and the wheel becomes essential. Simply put, don't expect to compete in the Top classes without the wheel - you just can't get the control.

The Fanatec Speedster 3 wheel is perfectly suited for Forza.

After all, the company came to Microsoft and said, "We want to build this wheel for your game!" and the only ironic part was that Logitech declined designing a wheel for Forza. Design they did, and the Fanatec wheel truly fits the bill. First shown off to us during a viewing event with Microsoft, we found the wheel enjoyable, easy to use with its auto-calibration, and with solid pedals for controlling torque to the wheels. With a copy of the final code in hand, we have driven Forza hard, and pummeled the Speedster 3 wheel for hours, under multiple states of mind from Zen master in some of the smoother driving, nimble Asian models to the raging maniac in the American muscle cars. Through it all, the wheel pushed back, handled the abuse, and never needed to be recalibrated after initialization. The clamp attaches well to a table, and the wheel has flaps that flip to the outside to straddle over your legs if you just want to sit it on your lap while playing on the couch.

Is it worth it? Well, some RPGs claim that 80 hours is excellent, and it took us about 40 just to get through all the major features of the game, and we didn't even talk about how you can use over 100 layers per side of the vehicle to customize the look. That's right, from decals to spray paint, hit the sides, front, back, hood, and roof - and when you're finished, grab the driving wheel and hit the road. If you are going to like Forza and you have Xbox Live, there's at least 30 hours in it for you to hit the road. If you enjoy the game, get the wheel. At just under two hours of racing per week, you could log 100 hours of use on the Speedster 3, and it would only cost you about $2.50 per hour in the end. A good investment? Only if you want to leave the competition in the dust.

In the end, Forza turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and an excellent addition to the Xbox lineup. There is little doubt that it is the best driving sim on the Xbox, and it is definitely one of the best sims on the market overall. The detractions are small but numerous. The poor handling of branded aftermarket parts, lack of real-life tracks, and tediousness of switching from racing to tuning are tops in the small flaws department. On the bright side, very rarely will any more than one flaw bother a driver at any given time, so they have a smaller impact than you would think. Forza is an excellent game, to echo Microsoft's claims, but they didn't quite strike a perfect mint. Even still, if you enjoy driving, you won't be disappointed.

Score: 9.1/10

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