It can be rare for a newer franchise to challenge a well-established genre leader for the throne, but that’s precisely what the Forza Motorsport series has done since its first entry in 2005. Since then, the sim-racing genre has featured dueling front-runners, with Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport taking turns in the lead. The latest entry, simply titled Forza Motorsport, takes a back-to-basics approach to keep pace with its chief rival.
Speeding around the track has never felt better. A palpable sense of speed accompanies excellent physics and visuals to create a superb racing experience. A multitude of factors converge, including track surface, weather, the wear of your tires, and the various tuning elements of your vehicle, to determine how your vehicle handles and feels.
In the hundreds of laps I drove, I can’t remember any instance when I skidded off the track or allowed an opponent to overtake me where I didn’t immediately understand what I did wrong. However, a penalty system meant to discourage cutting corners or ramming opponents is less spelled out; one intentionally caused crash yielded no penalty, while the same system docked me more than a second for some routine paint-trading around a corner. I appreciate what it sets out to do, but the inconsistent penalties caused me to throw my hands up in disbelief.
Single-player races are spiced up by the series’ trademark Drivatar feature, which helps A.I. drivers behave more like real players. I love that it replicates player tendencies and their mistakes; I still occasionally see A.I. drivers spinning out onto the track-side rubble. This dynamic behavior helps add variety to an otherwise straightforward career mode.
Forza Motorsport’s career mode was where I spent the most time. The campaign presents you with different themed cups and tours in which to compete. These include some requiring you to drive a specific performance class or fall into a certain classification bucket like high-powered performance vehicles or sedans. I appreciate the simple nature of playing through various cups in successive order, though I would have liked more freedom in the mode’s progression and car collection.
As you race, you earn credits, which can be used to buy more cars, but you also level cars up in an odd RPG-lite twist. As you complete certain feats on the track, your car gains levels. I quickly became hooked on posting the best times on individual track segments to gain more experience. However, I don’t like that upgrade components are locked behind your car level. These arbitrary level gates made me less interested in going in and tweaking my cars’ parts manually; instead of trying to figure out which parts were unlocked with my newest level-up, I often opted just to have the game optimize the upgrade for me.
For those who want to compete against real people instead of their Drivatars, Forza Motorsports’ capable multiplayer suite offers several avenues to take on racers from across the globe. Featured races offer a diverse array of events starring different cars in the expansive Forza garage with a set start time, but I loved jumping into instant-action Rivals events, where you’re tasked with beating another player’s time. These delivered some of my most triumphant moments as I finally nailed the perfect lap to top my foe.
Even in a field full of stellar-looking racing games, Forza Motorsport is a visual feast. Each of the 20 tracks features intricate details and weather that make it feel like a lived-in world, but the cars are the true stars of the show. Whether you’re driving around in common street cars from Honda and Ford, supercars from Ferrari and McLaren, or the various racing-tuned speed machines on offer, each vehicle’s impressive look and sound match the uncompromised feel of the on-the-track action.
You can visually customize each of the more than 500 launch cars with custom paint jobs and vinyls, but I’m disappointed by the limited body-customization options. I’m also underwhelmed by the damage, which is a shame since so much of the game is built around attention to detail. Even when I drove directly into a wall at nearly 200 miles per hour or got T-boned by a rival and rolled, my car escaped with minor dings and dents. No matter how realistically the dirt accumulates around precise parts of a car over the course of a race, my immersion broke each time I was in an accident. The lack of overt damage is particularly noticeable when you have the performance-impacting damage setting from higher difficulties on and your car is struggling to stay on the road, but it looks like it was in little more than a fender bender.
Forza Motorsport may not have the most in-depth career mode, but it executes nearly every aspect of the package exceptionally well. Though some of the progression and dynamic visual elements fall short of the realism the rest of the title achieves, Forza Motorsport currently vies for the pole position in the sim-racer field.
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