I've always wondered what a driving simulator designed exclusively for the Xbox would be like. My thinking was that an exclusive design would leverage all of the capabilities of the hardware, rather than having to be developed to the capabilities of the lowest common denominator. I need wonder no more with the release of Microsoft Game Studio's Forza Motorsport.
As with most console-based driving simulators, Forza offers an incredible array of cars and tracks, along with numerous opportunities to customize your rides. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to call Forza a "Jay Leno Simulator" rather than a driving simulator. With games like Forza, even those of us that don't have astronomical bank accounts can collect a garage-full of high-end sports cars.
With past titles, the Jay Leno factor was far more prominent in the design than the actual driving. In fact, the development of the physics model in most console-based driving sims was obviously considered far less important than the graphical modelling of the cars. Forza does not suffer from this negligence. It is obvious from the get-go that Microsoft Studios expended enormous effort in the development of the driving physics aspect of the game. While not up to the fidelity of a PC-based sim, the Forza model is exemplary in its realism when compared to other console-based racers. With all of the driving aids turned off, it becomes very challenging to control some of the more powerful cars, just as it should. Simply jumping in the car and smashing down the gas pedal won't work - as in a real high-performance car, it takes a light foot on the gas to get things going. Symmetrically, when it comes time to corner, the heavier cars will require much earlier braking. With the ABS aid turned off, braking will also require a deft touch on the pedal.
That's not to say that the cars models are not equally well designed. The models may not be exactly the state-of-the-art, but they are very nice, and in fact are as good as they need to be. Reflections in the paint, articulated suspension that can be seen reacting to imperfections in the road, and many other aspects of the visual model are very believable. In addition, the level of customization offered will allow just about any car/paint job to be accurately rendered in the vitual garage. Car upgrades are most certainly not limited to paint jobs and decals, either. After winning sufficient virtual dollars, cars can be upgraded with actual brand name components such as spoilers, side panels, turbo chargers, suspension pieces, etc. When a real-world brand name component is not available to provide the desired performance upgrades, 'fantasy' parts are available. The only weakness is the lack of an in-cockpit view. Without such a view, there isn't much visual difference between one car and another when driving in the first-person view.
Where do those virtual dollars for buying goodies for your rides come from? Well, racing. Money can be earned in either Arcade or Career races. It’s not always easy, though. As mentioned previously, the physics model can be somewhat challenging. To enable drivers to get up to speed prior to entering a race, a free practice mode is available. In this mode, you can race any car (including any customized cars in your garage) at any track, although there are some cars that won't be available until unlocked by winning a few races. The practice mode offers one of the more innovative features in Forza: the suggested driving line. In most driving sims, you either look for the darker braking zones on the track pavement to suggest a line, or learn the line by slogging through many, many laps. With the Forza suggested driving line, you follow a line of arrows drawn on the track. The color of the arrows will dynamically change to indicate required changes in speed. For example, when you're flying down a straight the arrows will be green. As you approach a corner, the arrows will turn yellow, indicating that you should be slowing down. If you press too far into the turn, the arrows will turn red, indicating that you had better get on the brakes. This is a fantastic way to learn new tracks, or to improve your times on tracks you're already familiar with, although it would be a good idea to not become overly dependent on it since it won’t be available in actual races.
After learning a track, it's off to the races. Naturally there is a career mode in which you will be racing at various tracks in your region. Available regions are North America, Asia, and Europe. Within each region, Forza offers a mix of real-world tracks and fictional tracks. I tend to ignore the fictional tracks, preferring to race on a track that I have seen before. The real-world tracks are very well modeled - if you have seen a race at Road America, for example, you will be hard pressed to find differences between the real and virtual tracks. The track pavement is textured such that it imparts a reasonably good visual sensation of speed, and the trees, shadows, billboards, and lighting effects complete the sensation. The visuals are so good that you can almost feel your stomach rise to your throat as you dive down the famous Laguna Seca corkscrew turn.
The quality of the racing naturally depends on the quality of the computer AI that controls the other cars. The jury is still out on this. In some cases, AI cars behaved exactly as I would expect them to. In others, they drove like a 90 year old with glaucoma and a 50 pound foot. In other words, they'd ram into my car in a most disconcerting manner. I'm not clear as to what causes this behavior, as it is unlikely that the AI drivers can see me flipping them off without an HVDFP (High Visibility Driving-Finger Portal, aka sun roof) on my car. I've found the best strategy is to get in front of them and don't allow them to catch up. Keep in mind that many of the earlier races are very short - typically only two laps. This doesn't allow a lot of time for gentlemanly racing. In fact, it encourages just the opposite: get to the front fast, and worry later about who you had to punt out of your way to get there. This strategy comes at a price, though. Depending on how you configured the options, you may have to pay for damage to your car. It wouldn't take much to win a race, yet net to zero dollars profit. It's not likely that you'd win, though, as damage adversely affects the performance of your car.
This brings up another feature I liked: selecting or de-selecting various driving aids increases or decreases the bonus dollars you can win for the race. For example, you will win more money if you race with ABS brakes and stability control turned off. It's up to you to decide whether you can make money more efficiently by driving an easier to control car or potentially earning more per race.
Even with the availability of driving aids and reasonably short races, there will still be those that just want to collect and modify cars. For those folks, Forza has another innovation: the Drivatar. After accomplishing a few training sessions in an assortment of different cars, your Drivatar will be able to race just as if you were actually driving, exhibiting all of your strengths and weaknesses on the track. The Drivatar training doesn’t simply capture your preferred driving line and braking points – it actually builds a profile of your driving style that can then be transferred to any car on any track. Once the initial training is done, however, you can perform more training using a specific car and track combo for better performance.
You can enter your Drivatar in the races that you don’t want to race yourself, but you will not receive as much money for those races – you have to pay a share of your winnings to the Drivatar. Your Drivatar also gets better as you continue training it. In a somewhat surreal mode, you can even race against your own Drivatar. How to deal with the humiliation of losing to your clone is left for you to deal with.
Having found that I can win almost every race against the computer cars after learning the tracks and behavior of my car, I normally would have shelved the disk and only brought it out now and then. That would be a real shame with Forza because it offers a very good Xbox Live multiplayer mode. Forza will allow online races of up to eight cars. When racing online, it is possible to configure many options such as number of laps, effects of damage and tire wear, fuel consumption, etc. Microsoft has also provided a lot of assistance in finding appropriate people to race against. There is a ranking system that will help you find other racers at your skill level, and it is possible to set up and/or join car clubs. This will avoid one of the major frustrations incumbent in online play: dealing with players that may or may not take the game as seriously as you do (or don't, for that matter).
So, while Microsoft Forza Motorsport is still more console-ish than a PC-based racing simulator, it clearly demonstrates the possibilities of the newer, more powerful consoles. The graphics, sounds, and physics are very close to matching PC capabilities already. With the addition of a true force feedback controller and an in-car cockpit view, something like Forza could offer the ultra-realistic racing simulation available on the PC, but without the cost and complexity inherent in dealing with Windows, graphics boards, and the myriad other details associated with PCs. Forza is quite likely to be the pinnacle of racing sims available on today’s Xbox, and certainly demonstrates the level of quality and realism that we can expect from the next generation of consoles.
With Forza Motorsport, Microsoft Game Studios makes their first
entry into the console-based racing simulation genre with what may
ultimately prove to be the most realistic, innovative, and downright fun
racing title available on the Xbox.