According to Forza Motorsport 5 developer Turn 10 Studios, this game isn’t about finishing first anymore; it’s about finishing third. We’ll let you sit with that idea for a moment, because we came to Forza 5 wondering if being the first sim racing game out of the block on Xbox One and having played a role in the hardware’s development might have reduced some of the fire in the belly of this racing beast. Previous titles had competitors on Xbox 360 and other platforms by which we could judge Turn 10’s output. Forza 5 has the track to itself, so how important was it to the developer to make a game worthy of such an easily won pole?
Like Sebastian Vettel speeding around the Nürburgring all on his own, Forza 5 is thankfully just as concerned with beating its own lap time as it ever was in dominating the competition. Like no other game from Turn 10 before it, Forza 5 carries the weight of a console launch on its back, regularly referred to as the defining game of the new generation, and it carries that weight with confidence.
Because let’s face it, Forza has never exactly been a lightweight game. It is rich with gearhead trivia and tinkering, but also intimidating in its demanding mechanics. Concessions were made in the last couple of Forza games to open it up a little to casual racers and those unfamiliar with the concept that the left trigger can be used to brake. Forza 5 carries over that trend, allowing a lot for newcomers and lapsed players in its progression and tutorials, but also just managing to engage our competitive instincts in a more immediate and visceral way than some might imagine.
Which brings us back to that peculiar statement about finishing third, not first. What Turn 10 was getting at is that Forza rewards a ‘gold’ finish in many races to those that finish third and up. So in a literal sense, getting in to the top three is just as good as taking first place. The other half of that equation is the need to get into first in order for a race to feel fulfilling. That’s a little more intangible and can really only speak to your personal experience of Forza, but the game has been structured in such a way as to constantly encourage you to seek greater challenges and develop your driving ability a little further. Reducing the incentive to hit pole is part of that retraining process.
But clearly that’s going to prove divisive. “I am not designed to come second or third,” Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna is quoted as saying. “I am designed to win.” But what if it’s more fun to fight for fifth than first? Turn 10 eases players in with assists and easier AI, gradually pushing you to up the challenge and we have to say we think it got the formula right on this one. The moment to moment battles in Forza 5 are more intense, more personal and far more unpredictable an experience than anything we’ve seen from this series before.
At the heart of this is perhaps the one area of genuine innovation with Forza 5 that isn’t purely cosmetic; the Drivatar system. If we’re being honest, we found it difficult to exactly discern what was true cloud-based, player-influenced driving and what was just the AI doing its thing. It’s not really something that announces itself in an obvious way. What you do see is really very aggressive, sometimes defensive drivers who use the full width of the track and block you from overtaking. We even got rear-ended a few times and spun out. There’s something about the imperfection of all this that while contrary to the principles of precision and detail that Forza is renowned for, brings realism to the experience.
What’s more, we grew to recognise liveries and Gamertags hovering over cars in different challenges and grow to loathe those drivers. We were drawn to the edge of our seats as we approached the last corners of the race, Impulse triggers vibrating furiously, imploring us to slow down, but intensely needing at our core to overtake that godforsaken BMW M5 at all costs. To finish fourth. And it was totally worth it.
Neither can we deny a slight thrill at seeing how our Drivatar had been earning us credits in the cloud while we were gone, tormenting BMW drivers around the world, no doubt, and bringing in the cash we would need to progress to greater challenges and sweeter rides down the line. As more and more players join and as you feel more confident to increase the difficulty you’re racing against, we think you’ll see this really pay off.
The mealy way in-game cash is handed out is really where some of the structure of Forza comes in. At first it appears you can hop around the world, grabbing classic cars or track toys on a whim, but actually the limits of your purse will guide you around the classes in much the same way as any career mode would do. It means you have to fight a little while before earning the right to drive that McLaren P1 again (it’s the first car you drive as an introduction and tease of things to come). There’s almost a grinding element to how you have to keep pushing to get enough money to move to the races you really want, but there’s always a new challenge somewhere for you.
Much like Forza 4, Turn 10 hasn’t skimped on the sillier side of things either. Forza Motorsport 5 is possibly the most fun we’ve ever had driving in a sim racer. In combination with the imprecision of Drivatar mentioned earlier, Top Gear challenges that involve wheelie bins and bowling pins delight again and again. The Chase events are another highlight as with only four competitive cars on the track, weaving in and out of slow-moving traffic keeps things interesting lap after lap. There may only be 14 tracks at launch, but there’s a strong variety of experiences here to keep you playing for a long while.
And it’s at this point that we realise we haven’t talked about how superb Forza Motorsport 5 looks. It’s 1080p and runs at a smooth 60 frames per second, giving everything a crispness worthy of the meticulous car models that have been designed here. Turn 10 says it takes it about six months to make each and every car and it’s there to be seen.
Out on the courses, for the most part, it’s difficult to judge everything. The lighting is glorious with shadows and ‘god rays’ spilling into the cockpit, there’s even a great reflection of your gloves on the windscreen if the light hits just right. The Prague circuits though do stand out as something very special with the tall, close architecture giving greater voice to the speed of the game. And the physics of Forza, whether used in crashes, to cause a Formula 1 car to leap into the air or throw some cardboard cutouts to fly around the Top Gear track remain deeply impressive.
There’s room for improvement of course, as there should be with any launch title. Clearly the number of cars available in Forza 5 is lower than we’ve seen before and while having Autovista view for all those that are included is a nice touch, it doesn’t necessarily compensate fans who just want to get out there and drive everything under the sun. Neither does spending an additional £39.99 on a season pass for more cars each month. But perhaps we need to step back a little and appreciate that 200 cars is no small feat. As a technical achievement straight off the grid as the lights flashed green on this generation, Forza Motorsport 5 is a world-beater.