As an Xbox One launch title, Forza Motorsport 5 has a lot resting on its immaculately-polished shoulders.
First of all, it’s a racing game - a popular genre that has proven integral to console launches from Ridge Racer on PlayStation to Project Gotham Racing on the original Xbox. Secondly, it needs to prove the power of the Xbox One - a console that has, in the run up to launch, been unfavourably compared to the PlayStation 4 in terms of polygon-pushing power. And finally, it needs to show that Microsoft's investment in cloud technology actually results in compelling gameplay features. Has developer Turn 10 succeeded? Let’s find out.
If looks could kill
It’s perhaps a little rude to start a Forza 5 review by appraising its looks, but when a game is this attractive, it’s the only thing you can talk about. This is the first ever Forza game to run at 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second, which developer Turn 10 claims was only possible thanks to Cloud servers handling calculations such as physics.
The detail is also breathtaking, especially in the default in-car view, which shows off the impeccable car modeling and subtle reflections in the windscreen. If you’re looking for a game to demonstrate the difference between current- and next-generation hardware (and let’s be honest, justify that investment), then Forza 5 is it.
Head in the clouds
We already mentioned that the Xbox One Cloud helped improve the graphical fidelity of Forza 5, but its real headline feature is Drivatar. This horribly named feature has turned out to be one of the best things about Forza 5, and something that is sure to be copied by other racing games in future.
The game learns the characteristics of your driving style, and once you’ve completed around 30 minutes of racing, uploads it to the cloud. From there, the AI version of you starts popping up in your friends’ races, (probably) slamming into them with the same lack of respect you’d show them in real life and earning you experience and credits along the way. It’s a nifty feature, and one that, along with the graphics, feels properly “next-gen”.
Forza 5’s biggest weakness is its relative lack of cars and tracks. While there’s still plenty of content in the game, it falls way short of the exhaustive package that was Forza 4. The car count is slashed from 500 to 200, while the track count is down from 26 to 14. That vehicle offering is still pretty generous, and if you’re particularly hardcore you can lay down money for the season pass and get 50 cars delivered to you over the next six months.
The track count is more problematic, as you’ll end up racing in the same locations more frequently, making the game feel more repetitive as a result. If you’d prefer an exhaustive racing game rather than an exceedingly pretty one this Christmas, then you’re better off with Gran Turismo 6, which is no ugly duckling but is limited by being on PS3.
At least there are a couple of new venues for Forza, including Prague and the Bathurst track in Australia, both of which are excellent. The tracks do feel a bit dead, though - the crowds and the trees stay perfectly still, remaining completely oblivious to you racing by.
One last issue is microtransactions, which are to the hardcore gamer what garlic is to vampires. Whether the option to buy progress with real money in a game that already costs money is even ethical is a matter requiring far greater debate, but it does seem as though the Forza 5 economy has been skewed to push players towards paying for cars, and if you're the kind of player who needs to own every last vehicle you're going to find it basically impossible without forking out for Forza Tokens.
Turn 10 is in the process of tweaking the economy in response to a bit of a backlash, but as gamers who like to concentrate on owning and modding just a handful of motors, it didn't massively impact our way of playing - in fact, the higher in-game prices of cars made each purchase feel more hard-earned and therefore special, unlike in Forza 4, where cars were thrown at you like confetti at a bride and groom.
Clarkson and co.
Both Forza and Gran Turismo have attempted to integrate the world’s biggest automotive TV show in the past, but Forza 5 finally delivers something that fans of Clarkson and co. will appreciate.
Before each racing series, the presenters come on and enthuse about the cars that you’re going to be racing in knowledgeable, cheeky and perhaps even strangely erotic (if you’re into that sort of thing) fashion. They then introduce their own challenge tracks, such as racing round the famous Top Gear test track littered with cardboard cutouts of famous landmarks. The Top Gear brand has been very well woven into Forza’s career, and it’s all the better for it, adding some humour to an otherwise pretty sterile experience.
Forza 5 is built for car lovers, and the cars themselves look stunning in their virtual showrooms. The same deep level of customisation from previous games is present, allowing you to make and trade your own paint jobs online.
Racing fans will also love the independently rumbling triggers in the new Xbox One pad, which produce very different feedback depending on whether you’re accelerating or braking. That said, some older Forza complaints remain unaddressed - the damage model is fairly basic compared to something like Grid 2, while the classical music during the racing is boring and soulless - we longed for a few rock-based tracks to lighten the mood.
Forza 5 is a great racing game that combines great graphics and novel features to make it worthy of being on a next-gen platform. What we didn’t have any right to expect was how polished it would be for a launch title.
This is a racing game that’s a sight to behold, with graphics that are a huge jump from the last generation. The Drivatar feature feels new and interesting, by making racing with friends possible even when they’re not really there. And while there are way fewer cars and tracks than there were in Forza 4 and a slightly obvious attempt to eek more monet out of gamers via microtransactions, the sheer thrill of driving is more, well, thrilling than ever, while Top Gear integration brings warmth and humour to what is otherwise a rather sterile series.
The result is a racing game that genre fans should definitely pick up if they’re buying an Xbox One around Christmas.