If you want the first thing you see on your spanking new Xbox One to be memorable, you could certainly do worse than cranking up Turn 10's Forza 5, or as I have taken to referring to it, Top Gear in a Box. Starting with the introduction from Jeremy Clarkson, who somewhat surprisingly manages to suppress his innate caustic outlook and present a seemingly heartfelt homage to automobiles, you are immediately aware that Forza 5 is no mere game. Rather, it is a celebration of these wonderful machines that despite their ubiquitous, utilitarian presence in our society can still manage to provoke the visceral feelings of awe and appreciation that one would normally expect to feel only in the presence of great art. This respect, nay admiration, for motor vehicles of all vintages and types is carried through the entire Forza 5 experience.
If you want to avoid abject humiliation on your first outing in one of the fancy super cars included in the stable, suppress your arrogance, swallow your pride, and turn on the assists! I know of what I speak through bitter personal experience.
See, the thing is that Forza 5 follows the lead of just about every other console-based race/car sim: you get a taste of something really, really good to whet your appetite, but you then get to select your first car from a relatively pedestrian list of cars that you can afford at the beginning of your career. In other words, set aside your dreams of driving a McLaren P1 for now -- you’re going to have to earn that privilege, and you’re going to have to start small. Not quite as small as the Honda Fit that I was shoehorned into in Gran Turismo 6, though. In Forza, I opted to start with a car that I personally would be happy to own: the Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 Track. While it’s no Koenigsegg, it ain’t dog food either.
Where Forza 5 breaks from tradition is in the earning of the credits needed to move on to other cars. Case in point: you can earn a ‘Gold’ rating in any given race by finishing as low as third place. This lowered expectation is important for a couple of reasons. First, as with just about every other game in this genre, you seem to always start the race at the very back of the grid, and the races are short. In a “win it all to win at all” model, this leaves you no choice but to drive like a homicidal maniac to allow progress through the selected series. With points (credits) being awarded all the way down to 10th place, the pressure is relieved to a notable degree. Which leads to the second benefit: you can elect to race against better drivers. This not only provides a more realistic and challenging experience, but also increases the bonus multiplier that will be applied to the credits awarded based on your Bronze, Silver, or Gold finishing position. This all adds up to a very welcome change indeed -- it encourages a more strategic race plan, rather that a “bash your way to the front” crash fest.
That too is important. The thing is, you’re being watched, and not just by the NSA. As you race around the track, Forza is paying attention to your driving style. It looks at how well you make the turns. It takes note of how well you draft behind the cars in front of you. It looks to gauge your aggression level. What it is doing, in essence, is using your racing performance and style to develop your Drivatar. By racing in the single-player career, you are also teaching an AI version of yourself how to race against others in their single-player races. And those drivers that you are racing against? Same thing. You’re racing against AI drivers “developed” by other people, just as they are racing against your Drivatar. This is a fairly good reason to not drive like a jerk. The Drivatar system, in addition to giving you realistically unpredictable AI to race against, also benefits you in earning credits: while you’re at work, watching Netflix, shoveling the snow off of your driveway, or whatever, your Drivatar is busy racing other players and, depending on how well you trained it, earning you credits. Spiffy, eh? To paraphrase Dire Straits: “Money for nuthin’, cars for free!” Still, even with your Drivatar out there working on your behalf, it's going to take awhile before you get that 6,000,000CR Ferrari into your garage.
So, can we just stipulate that the cars, once you get them, are beautiful? This is an example of the admiration I alluded to above. The whole point, after all, is to get these cars out onto the tracks and thrash them to within inches of their useful lives in pursuit of lucre and fame, right? So why take the time and effort to detail these models down to the labels on switches and the seat upholstery down to the stitches? “Because,” he explained. Just because.
What we can’t stipulate, what we must experience, is the driving of these models. Again, referring to an earlier statement, do yourself a favor and let the computer make things easier for you, at least at first. Why? Because they can be hard to drive. At the higher levels, these cars have far more available torque than they do the road grip required to manage it. This is true of braking authority as well. With an arrogance born of a Class B road license earned from years of painfully gained experience in iRacing, I felt no need for crutches like antilock brakes, traction control, or steering assistance. That stuff is for pre-teens that were weaned from their Cozy Coupes just a few short months ago, not middle-aged veterans with decades of driving experience, right?
Well, no. Quite wrong, in fact. I spent more time leaning against walls than a West Side thug. Trust me: at the highest realism levels, you need a very light touch on the controls and a lot, A LOT, of practice. They pay off eventually, though, those hours of refining your techniques. It is the very measure of the quality of a driving physics model to have a rewarding racing experience based on hours of practice. With Forza 5, there is definitely a payoff for the effort expended, but it was my experience that this expertise is best gained incrementally. I found that the best approach is to use the anti-lock brakes and the ‘Normal’ setting on the steering for at least a few races. I also elected to race against "Average" skilled Drivatars. These settings allowed me to finish races and gain experience on the tracks. I also found that I finished more races by setting the damage to "Cosmetic." Through time, I was able to turn off some of the assists which not only kept the racing challenging but also earned more credits per race.
One more tip: don’t be in a giant rush to get to the super cars. Of all of the cars I raced, the one that I had the absolute most fun in was the Mini Cooper. The racing is close, and at the comparatively lower speeds, it is easier to manage your position on the track and set yourself up for safe passes. Besides that, there is just something nostalgic about racing against a pack of VW Beetles and Lotus Elans on a historic track like Bathurst.
If there was one thing that might bother some of the more experienced racers, it is the relatively small number of included tracks. There are only 14 of them. On the other hand, they are nearly all real world tracks -- purists have no interest in fantasy tracks. While a dozen tracks is admittedly a somewhat sparse selection, rest assured that they are quality tracks, and they are quite attractively rendered. With choices including Spa-Francorchamps, Le Mans, Sebring, Bathurst, Laguna Seca, and Silverstone, road racing aficionados will have plenty of historical, venerated racing venues to choose from.
Did I say one thing? That might have been slightly optimistic -- there is another thing that might prove burdensome to the veterans, and that is the lack of customization options for races. Yet again racers are limited in the configuration options that they want to be able to set to suit their desires. Weather conditions are fixed, as is the time of day for the race. While time of day might seem like an inconsequential thing, it is in reality anything but. Perhaps with the intent to showcase the sophisticated lighting aspects available on the newer, higher horsepower console, there seems to be a bias towards early morning and/or later afternoon races. This has an adverse affect on racing -- it is hard to see the track in front of you when driving straight into the sun.
It is gratifying that Forza 5 is not a simple repackaging of Forza 4 for the new console. The focus is now predominantly on providing a better racing experience through ostensibly more intelligent AI (although attaining "Average" status for your Drivatar appears to be a very low bar indeed), clever use of the tactile/haptic feedback in the new controller to help the driver feel the proper amount of braking force, and a rewards scale that recognizes that finishing in the top half of the grid is not synonymous with failure. Forza 5 achieves this, but not at the cost of losing sight of the emotional bond that can form between a talented driver and a superbly designed car.
And that is how it should be.
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While it may seem like a step backward with its lower track count than previous Forza versions, in reality it is quite the opposite. The tracks are an example of quality over quantity, and one could assume that a future DLC solution will address this anyway. The new Drivatar system is basically a crowd-sourced AI training system and results in a more realistic (and, at times, frustrating) racing experience. Multiple configuration options allow the challenge to be finely calibrated to any skill level. If nothing else, the visuals alone are worth the upgrade.
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