Microsoft has struck gold with Forza. While Sony barked about the preeminent abilities of the ultimately broken Driveclub, Polyphony Digital failed to deliver on the endless promises of Gran Turismo 6, EA left Need for Speed to die a slow and painful death, and Slightly Mad Studios tried to become the young upstart with Project CARS, the Forza series, developed by Turn 10 Studios, has transformed into perhaps the best racing series currently available. Or, at the very least, the most consistent.
While Forza Horizons offers gamers open-world action in a variety of locales, it’s core title Forza Motorsport that’s crafted specifically to appeal to the gas-guzzling, tire-smoking, clutch-burning driving enthusiast in many of us. In its sixth outing, Forza finds itself buffed and polished to an incredibly high degree, with a raft of changes over 2013’s Forza 5 bringing it ever closer to digital driving perfection.
When I say polished, I really do mean it. Quality (and a serious number of Microsoft dollars) exudes from every glistening, metallic pore of the game. From its streamlined menu system to its beautifully narrated interstitials, information pages and event descriptions, Turn 10 put a Herculean amount of effort into making Forza 6 perform at its best. There’s the sumptuous narration of two-thirds of the Top Gear team, joined by a host of other personalities. We’ve got Photo Mode, which lets you pause any race at any time to capture your car in its best possible light (or the epic aftermath of your latest crash). There’s the fact that, even with 24 vehicles, thunderous rain, a twisting track and numerous sound and particle effects all taking place, Forza 6 remains fastidiously locked to 60 frames per second — all while running at 1080p.
It’s an absolutely gorgeous game. The detailed car models are pure pornography. Automotive enthusiasts can spend hours in photo mode zooming in and examining the various minute details in each vehicle — I’m particularly proud/ashamed of the five minutes I spent marvelling at the carefully crafted LED lights on one of my cars. Watching the impressive lighting engine throw shadows and reflections over glistening sheet metal is like watching a delicate ballet — one taking place at 80 miles per hour, at night, as you floor the gas pedal on the way out of a hairpin bend. For console racing, this is about as good as it gets.
It’s even more impressive when you load into a race that takes advantage of Forza’s new weather engine. It’s not dynamic like in other games — tracks are locked to specific conditions — but boy is it effective. While DriveClub may still have the prettiest rain I’ve ever seen in a game, the way droplets smack against the windscreen before getting pushed aside by wipers or cornering forces in Forza is a sight to behold. Heavy rain completely obscures vision of other cars and the track ahead. Deep pools of water form at the side of tracks and grassy sidings turn into mud-soaked speed traps. It’s not dynamic, so those pools will always be in the same place, but boy is it pretty.
Then there’s the effect on performance. If you’ve never aquaplaned in a car, you’re lucky. The sudden and complete loss of grip as a tire loses contact with the road in a particularly deep puddle is heartstopping at thirty miles per hour. Now imagine it in a $200,000 supercar at 150 miles per hour. The first time I hit one of Forza’s trackside puddles I’m pretty sure the resulting mini heart attack drastically reduced my life span. You can’t brute force your way around a wet track. You have to think, react, dodge and plan ahead. Sure, other racing games will simulate the loss of grip that Forza offers, but I can’t think of any that also offer this much brutality to their rain simulation either. And that’s all without mentioning the bewildering, almost terrifying night races — a new and thoroughly welcome addition to this game.
Of course, new racers shouldn’t be discouraged. Forza is and always has been something of a fence-sitter in the arcade versus simulation war of racing games. Eager to appeal to all crowds, Turn 10 offer both styles of driving: arcade controls for a more casual, enjoyable experience, or all-out simulation with realistic physics and minimal sympathy should you enter a corner far too quickly. Unfortunately, in practice, I can’t gel with Forza’s simulation physics. After the raw brutality of Project CARS — which put me into the driving seat more so than any other driving game in recent memory — nothing else can really come close. It’s perhaps an unfair comparison, as Forza isn’t a straightforward simulation game (though there’s a bewildering array of tuning options on offer), but I find it works best with the settings dialed more towards the arcade side of things. Once there, you’ll be rewarded with an engaging, enjoyable experience.
Indeed, if you wish to make things harder for yourself, play about with the car’s automated systems and the game’s AI. Forza uses a Drivatar system, which utilizes actual data from the game’s players to populate other player’s races. If you spend enough time in Forza, a version of you — customized to what the game thinks is your particular driving style — could appear in someone else’s game. It makes for an engaging challenge, too, as normally faceless AI suddenly gain a little extra humanity. Particularly so if you up their difficulty and enable that ever so human emotion: aggression. I did so, and in one race — after a particularly cheeky overtaking maneuver — suddenly found the rear of my car sliding out of place. Confused, I flicked the camera around. The person I had just overtaking was slamming into the back of me, angry at my taking his position. He was taking revenge and I was stunned. It’s supremely effective.
What’s less effective is Forza’s rubber-banding issues. Even on lower difficulties it’s entirely possible for one or two racers to eke out an impossible to overcome lead — you’ll often start somewhere in the middle of the pack, so once you’ve battled through to third or second place they’re already half a track away. Similarly, once you get into first occasionally the other racers will all fall back, leaving you alone out in front with little challenge to overcome. Cars will also brake suddenly or swerve to adhere to specific racing lines, which ruins immersion — though they’ll also commit very human errors such as bumping into one another or entering a corner too quickly, so there is some balance here.
Where there’s more of an imbalance is in the audio department. Unsurprisingly, the game’s 460-strong roster of vehicles — running the gamut from classic sedans to SUVs to supercars — all sound impeccable. From the rasp of an eager four-cylinder to the deep thrum of a V8, sitting in one of Forza’s vehicles, or listening to the raucous cacophony of a starting grid, is sure to get the blood pumping. It’s aural pleasure of the finest variety. It’s just a shame, then, that the game’s soundtrack is bloody awful. There’s no licensed music, it’s all originally composed, but it just doesn’t well. Comprised of a variety of styles, from orchestral strings to pumping electro, it’s always too aggressive, too harsh, too eager to raise blood pressures and create tension. Instead, it only serves to counter the game’s quieter moments, or permeates focused driving sessions by pulling you out of the car and into an internal discussion about who signed off on such an awful score. Thankfully it can be deactivated — I recommend that you do so and play your own favorite tracks while racing instead (or just enjoy the sound of engines roaring, tires squealing and fenders crunching against one another).
Forza 6 takes a twin-track approach to its career mode, though I must admit that again here I can pick flaws. It seems somewhat limiting to be thrown back into a world where the only races available are those with the slowest vehicles — if I want to start my racing career in a Le Mans racer, why can’t I? It’s a freedom that other games offer so it’s jarring to be locked back into a restricted career mode. Of course, the racing on offer and the breadth of vehicles means that this isn’t too disheartening, but I can count into double digits (possibly triple) the number of games that demand you drive a Mazda Miata before you can step into a Ford GT. Forza attempts to overcome this with showcase events, which are specific challenges offered throughout your career — pilot an Indy Car around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for instance — but again it’s that constant tease of “Look! Amazing cars! Now get back into your Miata.”
One welcome addition however is a new Mods system. Players can spend their hard-earned race winnings on mod packs, which grant upgrades to various aspects of their vehicle, or set specific challenges, or grant more credits or experience. Dare mods, for instance, can limit the power of your car or force you to shift gears manually, crew mods will optimize your car for a specific track, and boost mods will offer extra credits for a perfect draft or for not colliding with any other players, for example Yes, that six percent increase to your car’s overall grip may not sound like much, but on higher difficulties it could be the difference between first and first runner-up, and Mods offer an additional layer to the game beyond basic racing.
Then there’s multiplayer. It’s much like previous iterations, only this time there’s 24 cars on a track. Yes, that’s 23 people just waiting to ram your car into the nearest wall — or, at least, that’s what I assumed. Does it still happen? Yes. People will always be dicks. But a new leagues feature looks to make it less likely that you’ll find yourself loudly swearing at a person you’ve never met. It features scheduled multiplayer races in which you’ll be pitted against players of similar skill and attitude to yourself. If you’re a good racer who refrains from trading paint, you’ll find yourself against like-minded folks. If you like nothing more than recreating Destruction Derby on the starting grid, there’s a group of racers for you, too. It’s effective, but really it’s the increase in cars — all running at an incredibly stable framerate, remember — that’s perhaps most engrossing this time around.
And, really, that’s what Forza 6 does best. It takes a lot of complaints that players had with Forza 5 and changes or improves them. Mods add their own layer of challenge to the game, the visuals and presentation are about as good as it gets and nighttime and rain-soaked races are a thoroughly welcome addition. It does, however, only serve to highlight the glaring missteps in Forza’s arsenal. The soundtrack is unforgivably overeager, the career is frustratingly closed off and I wish Turn 10 would just leave arcade racing to Forza Horizons and work more on the simulation engine in Forza Motorsports. However, these are all relatively minor niggles in a package that really does do a wonderful job of translating exotic racing to the everyman. Forza 6 isn’t perfect, but if you own an Xbox One and love cars, it’s a damn good racing game.
Forza Motorsport 6 is available now on Xbox One.
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