At its core, the Forza franchise has been about the love of racing and the celebration of the automobile. It has never strayed into territory too far from those two tenets, and Forza Motorsport 5 is as much a continuation of them as any other game in the series has been. At the same time, the game seems to have been much more stripped down and offers racing at the expense of nearly everything else. While this reduction of bulk works well to make a car more race-worthy, the same cannot be said for a racing game.
The series has never had a robust career mode, and Forza 5 is no different in that regard. This time around, rather than a series of races that ascends the ranks from novice to pro, the system is much more wide open. You can jump into any racing category, which is based on car types, like exotics or grand touring cars. Within each category are often a series of subcategories, further segmenting the vehicles into certain types of racing, from old hot hatchbacks to modern Indy cars. It's a system that works, but it lacks lair. Other than side-events that crop up, like racing in a small amount of traffic or Top Gear bowling (both carryovers from before), the selections feel pretty sterile.
The tuning menu and options within are essentially the same as they were in the previous game, and I was hard-pressed to find any changes. Buying new parts and bolting them on your car is still a simple matter of scrolling through the icon-based menu, picking loosely named upgrades, and seeing how much they affect your car's stats and rating. Some parts allow you to enter the tuning screen and adjust particular aspects, like how much down force a new front bumper generates. Another carryover is the ability to test-drive a car and pause at any time to tweak the tuning while on the track, rather than have to go back and forth. You'll find all tuning gameplay of the new entry to be essentially the same as before, though it didn't really need any changes, either.
One you get behind the wheel, whether you've tuned up your racer or jumped right in, you'll find that the game has some of the best controls and overall feel of the series thus far. The tactile triggers of the Xbox One game pad let you feel the current status of your braking or acceleration by vibrating the corresponding trigger. This feedback is essentially telling you how close you are to the loss of control, and it feels a lot like the feedback you get from a real vehicle, albeit in a much different form. Car handling seems smoother, though nothing particularly stands out. Whether it is due to the new controller, tweaks to the handling of player input, or both, it takes far less time to hit your stride in this game than in any of the others.
The biggest new addition would have to be that of the Drivatar system. As you drive, the game keeps tabs on your driving style, such as how aggressively you attack turns or how early you hit the brakes. After a few races, the game knows enough to establish a basic version of your Drivatar and to let it loose into the world. In Forza 5, you never race against simple AI opponents but rather against a random selection of Drivatars from other players who match your profile.
The benefits of this are subtle yet massive, making each race look and feel more like you're racing against human beings rather than cold AI. They will make mistakes, maintain their own driving lines, and have different personalities. The illusion is completed with the gamertag of the Drivatar's owner appearing above his or her car as you race, and the car is decorated in the player's design. There are limits on the system, as you won't see Drivatars that just turn around and race backward or make tons of undue contact. It seems like there is a base AI for the Drivatar templates, giving you the illusion of human driving characteristics while also preventing them from trolling people.
Every day, your Drivatar races in other people's races, and assuming you check in at least once a day, you'll receive your corresponding winnings. As you continue to build your Drivatar profile, it participates in more races per day, netting you bigger gains. It's never a ton of credits, as you only race in a handful of races that bring in half of a regular race, but it's a nice bit of additional income.
Every little bit helps, as the game economy has been broken since launch. You can easily spend the money you'll make in an entire 10-race league by buying and tuning up a modestly priced car, leaving you little to save up to get one of the game's more exotic cars. There is also a minimal difference between what you make in a lower-rating car versus a higher, so the high-end cars are money pits. Sure, you gain more money at higher difficulty levels or with fewer assists, but what you make feels like a paltry sum.
Free cars rewarded for leveling up your driver levels are gone, as is the part discount for manufacturer affinity, replaced with a very tiny one-time cash reward for the former and an ongoing per-race percentage bonus for the latter. More disheartening is the removal of Forza 4's structure for making and selling car designs and tuning setups in the marketplace. This affects the people who made them as well as the crowd who would rather purchase a tuning or design setup rather than make one.
Essentially, every means of gaining credits has been reduced when compared to the previous game, and in some cases, it's been completely removed. The good news is that a patch is on the way to address the in-game economy, and it's set to increase the credits earned per race as well as reduce the credit cost of cars. One wonders how such a grinding economy made it into the game in the first place, complete with microtransactions to buy progression boosts and other shortcuts. It has all the garishness of the more obnoxious free-to-play mobile games.
With the removal of features from the previous game and the bare-bones offerings that remain, the game feels awfully clinical. You can tune up your cars and race, but there is nothing that drives it all. The remaining progression system is laughably forgettable, as it offers nothing to look forward to and no benefits. For being the first release of the series on new hardware in nearly a decade, this should have been a time for Forzato become the next evolution of itself. Instead, it's a skeleton of the previous game with some new window dressing and hints of a microtransaction cash grab. Graphics aside, this isn't Forza 5 as much as Forza 3.8.
The graphics and presentation are quite good. The models of the cars don't seem that much different in this entry of the series, but the lighting and reflections are incredible. It's impressive that the game runs at full 1080p at 60 frames per second at all times, and tracks such as the ones in Prague make full use of the new graphics power of the Xbox One. For my money, Ryse is still the best-looking game on the new console, but Forza 5 certainly offers plenty of opportunity to showcase the system. From the ability to more clearly see textures in the distance to frilly effects, such as seeing your driver's gloves reflected in the windscreen, there's a lot that builds up the game as one of the most impressive-looking racing titles.
The presenters of BBC's "Top Gear" are back, with all three of them lending their voices to the game. Jeremy Clarkson once again introduces the game, and along with James May and Richard Hammond, the three pop up from time to time with their banter, such as in describing league categories. The "Top Gear" emphasis seems to be a bit less this time around, despite including all three presenters, but to be fair, you still engage in new goofy races on their test track, such as one that "simulates" London driving, complete with the need to dodge trash bins and cardboard cutouts of Big Ben scattered along the track.
Take away the pretty looks, and Forza Motorsport 5 is a sterile mess of gaping holes where features from previous games once were. Forza has never had a serious career mode, but an overhaul to the established formula seems overdue. Other than the new graphics and the Drivatar system, there isn't much that differentiates it from the prior release. Its saving grace is that the racing is so refined that once you are in a race, a lot of its shortcomings seem to no longer matter. Forza 5 will do as a holdover racing game for now, but for all the bombast that next-gen brings, the game is awfully stagnant, and its lack of competition has never been more apparent.
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