When Gran Turismo hit the PlayStation back in 1998 it revolutionised the racing genre. It brought hundreds of licensed cars to the finger tips of gamers and showed that there was more to racing games than power sliding. Six years later Gran Turismo 4 wowed PlayStation 2 owners, while Xbox owners were still waiting for their first taste of exclusive racing sim action. The wait is now over. Forza Motorsport has arrived and, for once, PlayStation owners have something to feel jealous about.
Let's first get some important issues out of the way. A demo of the game has been included on magazine cover discs and some Microsoft Game Studio titles. This demo wasn't very good and left people wondering what all the hype was about. Forget what you played in the demo as the final game is infinitely better. Secondly, the game only runs at 30 fps. For some people this is a huge deal, but I really can't see the problem. The game is smooth and it never feels like the framerate gets in the way of the control I have over my car. Now, onto the rest of the game.
Forza's main component is its Career mode. You start off by picking a region to be your home. Cars and parts from this region will then be cheaper to buy as you don't have to import them. The basic structure of the career mode is built around your credits. You earn credits for how you perform in races. As your total builds, your level increases and new races and race classes are opened up. This works very well, with the more challenging races only becoming available once you have put some serious time into the career. The credits you earn in each race also depend on how clean your race was, how rare your car was and what assists you were using. This rightly rewards the player who opts to use few assists, but losing credits due to some brutish AI racing can be a tad annoying. This isn't a short game either, with the career mode alone taking upwards of 25 hours to get 100% through.
Being a simulation, anyone from the school of Ridge Racer will initially have a hard time adjusting to the more restrained way of driving that you must adopt. Endless power-slides are nowhere to be found, but straight line breaking and hitting the apex of every corner certainly is. If you are new to this type of game, or your skills are a little rusty, the developers have been kind enough to include an excellent dynamically changing racing line. With this activated you can see the ideal line around every inch of the track and also know when to break. As you approach a breaking zone the colour of the racing line will change from green to yellow to red. These colours alter on the fly, taking your current speed into account. It really is a great way to get into the game and learn how to approach cornering. Even with it holding your hand around the track, you still have to give the game 100% concentration and contend with the somewhat aggressive AI drivers.
The one problem with the racing line is that you can become a little too reliant on it. While it is great for beginners, you'll soon want to turn it off and pinch a little more out of some of the corners. Once the line is off you will have to rely on your own skills and the game becomes a lot more rewarding because of it. All driving assists can also be disabled for the hardcore, and manual gears can be used if you are up to it. Gear shifting can be handily mapped to the right analogue stick, making it feel very natural. While mastering manual gear shifting will make you a better driver and result in faster lap times, you can easily get by sticking to automatic gears. Just focusing on maintaining a good racing line is enough for a lot of people.
The AI of your opponents is pretty damn good, particularly when on its highest setting. They won't stick to a single line around the track and often battle with each other for positions. If you try and take a corner a little too aggressively you better be ready for them to fight back at you. There is a bit of 'my car is better than yours' syndrome, with races often being down to who has the best car, but class and car restrictions prevent this from removing all the challenge from the game.
Hobbyists will get a kick out of how much you can modify your vehicles. There are a serious amount of upgrades that you can fit to change your car's performance and look. The game provides you with incredibly useful performance graphs and handy class indicators so you don't accidentally upgrade your car too much, making it unavailable for the race you were getting it ready for. Many of the parts are customisable, allowing you to really tinker with how your car is set up. I'd be lying if I said I knew what all the adjustments did, but if you are a wannabe car tuner (or a professional) you may well spend an unhealthy amount of time tweaking every last part to get the absolute best performance on each track.
Initially you may well be disappointed by what seems to be a fairly limiting decal customisation tool, but after a little time playing with it your opinion will change somewhat. It isn't easy, not by any stretch of the imagination, but great results can be achieved. Numerous arty people have already been customising their vehicles with serious works of art, with everything from famous logos to TV characters. Not only is this feature a great way to give your cars a personal touch, it is a reward for those people who are dedicated. There is no easy way to paint Darth Vader onto your car's bonnet; you can't import files from a PC. If you see someone driving around in a piece of art, chances are that they made it themselves, but not always.
Obviously predicting the needs of gamers, Forza allows you to trade cars with other players, either over Xbox live or System link, although the game decides on the price of your vehicles. In fact, Forza is built to support communities far better than any other racing game out there. Xbox Live is integrated into all aspects of the game. Sign-in to your account and see live scoreboards as you race in your single-player career. If you aren't doing as well as you'd like, why not download a replay of the top driver, or even download and use their custom tuning settings. All your race times are uploaded to the scoreboards and you can see where you sit in relation to every other Forza player. You're penalised for unclean races, so collisions or driving off the track will hurt your overall time, so it pays to drive cleanly. Car Clubs allow you to form clans and take on other clubs, and with the customisation features, clans can really have their own identity. Sure, Project Gotham Racing 2 had a lot of these features and really raised the bar for online games in general, but Forza has gone one step further. The only real problem with the online play is the inability to specify if you want players to be able to use the racing line, so you don't always know if you are all racing at an even level.
There is just so much to do in the game. Outside of career mode you have an online career and an arcade mode, which in itself has more than enough to keep most people happy. The number of cars in the game may not be up to GT4's level, but it doesn't really matter. There are a lot, plus cars in Foza take damage, affecting the car's handling and its appearance. This is something that Gran Turismo fans have wanted for years and Forza has it in the first game in the series. Even things like over revving can cause damage if you play with realistic damage on. The selection of courses is also wonderfully varied, with everything from hill climbs to authentically modelled real life race courses. You could argue that by the time you reach the later races that you have seen everything, but the racing never becomes stale.
A truly original feature is the 'Drivatar'. This is a driver who you train to drive like you do. By racing on a number of test tracks you teach the AI driver how you take certain corners and by repeating these tests the AI becomes more and more realistic. This Drivatar can then be used to race for you or you can race against it, and it works surprisingly well. It doesn't quite reflect how good you are at certain tracks, but for what it is trying to model, it does a very good job.
Forza has arrived late in the Xbox's life and it shows. Cars are modelled with impeccable attention to detail, environments are full with beautiful scenery, lighting casts shadows realistically and the framerate rarely misses a beat. It isn't a flashy looking game, but it doesn't need to be. Everything is there to make Forza a stunningly realistic game. The game's sense of speed is also excellent. While the external views give a solid impression of speed, the bumper cam is scarily fast and should only be used by seasoned players. The audio doesn't disappoint either, with engines accurately represented and a suitable (if not GT beating) soundtrack. Of course, you have the option of using your own custom soundtracks, so it's unlikely that you'll have an issue with the music you are racing along to.
There is a load I haven't really talked about in any great deal, but there is just so much to the game. If you want a racing game that models everything down to G-forces and tyre temperatures, then this is for you; equally, if you are new to the sim genre and fancy a go, Forza is perfect - Its helpful racing line will groom you into the race driver of your dreams. If you have grown tired of Gran Turismo's (admittedly excellent) Pokemon style gameplay, where collecting cars is the main focus, give Forza a try. As far as exhilarating racing experiences go, this is hard to beat.