Gran Turismo has been the Mac-daddy title for Sony’s release lists ever since its first incarnation on the PlayStation, and just recently GT4 blew us away with amazing graphics, great physics and just so much to do. Forza Motorsport is Microsoft’s highly anticipated new pimp on the block and although it’s a little late off the starting grid, it’s definitely got more power under the bonnet…
First the unavoidable comparisons; one thing you can tell straightaway is that it doesn’t look quite as good as GT4, which is a little disappointing for an Xbox game, where they usually excel over PS2 graphics. Despite being drawn with considerably more polygons, the Forza cars don’t look quite as real, but I thought the environments looked a bit better, especially since they weren’t surrounded by blocky 2D fans on every corner and have some lovely lighting effects (the floodlighting on the stadium track at night is stunning). GT4 also runs a little smoother than Forza, but never once spotted any noticeable slowdown on Forza, and the draw distances were very long, and had none of GT4’s occasional jagginess or popup.
Despite having less well-presented graphics than GT4, Forza goes for small graphical jabs rather than the full graphics-whore uppercut! Loads of great-looking effects have been included in this game, the first one I noticed being the skid marks, which stay there throughout the race. Then, following my first collision into the barrier (aided by a car to the rear end) I found that my red Enzo Ferrari had left some lovely streaks of red paint on the barriers! I might be a sucker for little touches, but I’d like to see GT4 manage that.
The main meat of Forza is in the career mode. This feels a bit like GT4’s main mode in the beginning, but after you start playing you can see there’s a LOT more to do, and it’s all laid out in a much more user-friendly fashion. All of the races are organised in terms of type (circuit, point-to-point), then there are several tournaments for different makes, engine types, drive types, countries of origin and such. You win credits depending on position, difficulty, damage sustained (yes, there is car damage!) and rarity of your car. You can then use the credits to tune up your car or buy a new one. Also, as your total credits increase, you go up levels, which give you access to new leagues, new prize cars (every 5 levels) and discounts with certain parts retailers, which is like a more complicated version of the KUDOS tally from PGR.
There are lots of different tournaments, but what shadows that is the amount of cars there are - amounting to over 230 in total, including licensed Ferraris and Porsches, something GT4 was sadly lacking in. The game also has about 31 tracks, featuring classics like Laguna Seca or the Nurburgring, but also point-to-point racing, Burnout-style. These races are a completely different type of driving, as most routes are very tight and twisty, one being set through a dockyard, having you dodge buses and forklift trucks. This gives the game a completely different feel, and is a lot of fun.
In GT4 if you got bored with driving you could try their rather half-arsed “B-Spec mode”, which let the computer race your car for you, which you’d use mostly for the endurance races. The problem was that the AI car didn’t drive nearly as well as you did in the car, and you’d have limited control of the AI’s actions. Forza again goes one better with its “Drivatar” mode. This mode lets you effectively “train” your own AI driver by completing several driving challenges, then driving around a few tracks. You Drivatar then attempts to copy your driving style and skill, which is bloody brilliant - I’ve always wanted Artificial Intelligence to act like me! But by being a lazy sod and making the computer drive for you, even though you taught it, you have to give it a substantial cut of your credits if it wins! I guess it’s only fair, considering I won’t have to sit around for hours doing those damned endurance races…
This game might seem quite simple, but it’s as simple or complicated as you want it to be. At the beginning of career mode you choose a zone of origin (America, Europe, Asia), and I chose Europe. This affects the availability and the prices of cars and upgrades you buy (ones from Europe would be cheaper for me), and also the rarity (American and Asian cars would be more rare). So if you drive an Audi tt it won’t cost as much, but you won’t get as many credits in the race because it’s not that rare in Europe. You can make your car rarer by tuning it, but that then affects its racing class - adding parts will probably put it into a higher racing band. This means that although it might seem like a good idea to just tune the bejesus out of your car to win (a la GT4), it usually doesn’t work as the game will just rule that car out of that race/series, and force it to compete with even faster cars.
Other ways to make the game more of a simulation is by changing the game settings, which they encourage. The game starts with a very helpful racing line, but as you get better you can turn it off and you will earn 15% more credits per race. You can make the AI harder (even though they’re already pretty damn tough) or turn off ABS, traction control and suchlike too. You can turn off the car collision damage (that can result in a misfiring engine and wonky steering) to simply cosmetic, but it will cut your earnings by 15%. This means that those who fancy a challenge are rewarded by more credits, and those who want to play a great game but aren’t too good aren’t penalised too much either – so everybody wins!
You might have noticed that I mentioned that the AI is quite tough, and no I wasn’t on drugs - they’re actually good! I know those of you who have played GT4 have been left jaded by the frankly appalling AI, but this is a completely new world! Gone are the days where the competition drives around like it is stoned, never making aggressive passes or even nudging you - if you’re in the way of an opponent in Forza, you will at best get a dented bumper and rear panel to show for it, and be picking gravel out of your teeth and cursing loudly at worst. The AI’s appetite for destruction is so hefty that if you’re not around, they take out their aggression on each other! There’s nothing more satisfying than watching two other cars going head-to-head in your mirror, then watching both of them spin out! The AI in this game is great because although aggressive and competitive it makes mistakes, which makes it feel like you’re driving against human opponents rather than the “infallible racing bot 109” that you usually get.
The pack is also quite full, with seven other supercharged beasts gnawing at your rear bumper it can be a hectic experience, either with the AI or the online competition! Having those extra two cars (over GT4’s six) makes pack racing more possible and definitely more fun when you get to the tight corners!
Having the AI bash seven shades of British racing green out of your car is all well and good in GT4, when all you’ll get is a blurry screen and you’re off again. Forza features a frankly amazing damage model, in both looks and handling. Rubs against barriers will scrape off your paint; dents will appear from light shunts depending on direction and speed. Slam into a wall on a side panel and your steering alignment will be wrecked. Have a frontal crash and your engine won’t like it very much. When you get into the harder competitions tyre wear is important (as is fuel consumption), and simply ragging the engine unnecessarily above the red line will damage your car. This adds a much more tactical dynamic to the racing, as the damage model is accurate, and feels right when you have an impact, it also stops people from playing “supercar pinball” around the track and ‘wall riding’ a la Gran Turismo.
I like my music a lot. I’ve literally got about forty CDs in my car, and have a healthy list on my Xbox. This is why I nearly ejaculated at the custom soundtrack on Forza. It’s no ordinary custom soundtrack - as well as playing your tracks throughout the races, you can also set it to play while you’re on the menus too, which includes loading screens and Xbox live lobbies - EVERYWHERE! This is great for music lovers, as the music on Forza’s soundtrack is straight from “naff generic rock”, and none of the tracks even have lyrics, it’s just one long guitar riff after another!
I guess about now I should mention what makes this my new Mac-daddy racing game - the online mode. If you remember rightly, GT4 was delayed further in order to work on the online mode, and then they didn’t even include it! The online mode in Forza is extensive and quite possibly the most fun I’ve had on Xbox live, second to Halo 2, and definitely a cut just above the great PGR2. The layout for rooms is almost identical to the PGR2 format, but has more lobby options, and you can even form your own car clubs. There was a few problems waiting for races to finish and such, but when the game starts it’s truly fun - nearly every room I was in was with great company, even the Americans! The races were fun, and very violent, but no-one ever moaned - they just laughed it all off and went for your arse-end on the next corner!
As well as simple races online you can also host a room to show off and sell/buy cars – even customised ones (their are some true artists out there doing themed cars that you simply won’t believe), as well as compete in online career races, making the online mode more than just an extra - it’s actually linked so online winning go toward your offline bank balance, as well as your overall ELO rating (no, it’s nothing to do with the Electric Light Orchestra, it’s a ranking system which factors in the probability of a player winning, invented for chess by a guy called Arpad Elo). The only glitches with the online career parts seem to be of the kind that not too many complain about (one where people can earn loads of credits really quickly), but I’m sure a patch will be released for that soon.
There is simply so much to do and see in this game that me listing all of it wouldn’t do it justice, and it’s good for people to find some things out for themselves (like the great “car customiser” section). This game is good for all skills of players (except the really crap ones because it get pretty tough the higher you level-up), and after playing this game for hours online and in career mode I find it nearly impossible to find things wrong with this game. When I do, I usually rationalise by “Oh, that’s not right….but look at ALL the other things they’ve included!”. All is forgiven Microsoft, you have created the real driving simulator. Now stop reading this and go buy Forza, or I’ll come after you with my pink and yellow-spotted Enzo Ferrari…