Forza Motorsport review: a vast simulation toolkit
Is Microsoft's rebooted flagship racing game a racing game at all?
When is a game not a game? This might sound like the sort of riddle that would drop out of a Christmas cracker, along with a paper crown and a tiny screwdriver set, but the answer in the new Forza Motorsport's case is: it's a 'platform'.
In many ways, if you're going to wring maximum enjoyment out of this rebooted version of Xbox's storied sim series, it's better not to think of it as a game at all. After all, the Builder's Cup career mode barely scratches the surface of the expansive car list and the wealth of tweakable options and rule-sets. Instead Forza Motorsport is a platform for racing, and tinkering with the advanced options in Free Play mode reveals that this is a vast simulation toolkit that offers near endless combinations of cars, circuits, regulations and conditions to be applied either online or offline. Plus, if Microsoft's pinky promises prove true, it's one that will be updated on an ongoing basis.
New additions to this toolkit include a proper, continuous day and night cycle and more convincing variable weather. While that might sound like something only there to please endurance racing anoraks prepared to risk deep vein thrombosis to race for 24 hours straight, the real benefit is that even the shorter races are more likely to be memorable. You'll remember holding your nerve as drizzle became a downpour, that time a crucial turn became a blind corner thanks to the setting sun or absolutely any occasion when you're asked to race through pea soup fog.
The inevitable downside of all this 'platform' stuff is that there's actually very little 'game' in there. Builder's Cup's unique selling point is that you upgrade your car in between races, either by rolling up your sleeves and bolting on individual parts or by pressing the seductively convenient 'quick upgrade' button. The problem is, the rest of the field levels up with you, so there's very little sense that you're making progress. Occasionally the 'best' new parts will combine to comically ruin the handling of your car, leaving you wrestling your way through the next event like you're trying to manhandle an unruly cat, but that's about as exciting as the upgrade path ever gets.
The thing that'll keep you coming back for more, like a petrolhead Oliver Twist, is the strength of the driving experience itself. This is the most dynamically involving Forza Motorsport game yet, ironing out the flaws in the previous games' handling model and, in particular, doing a great job of translating the violence of driving a thoroughbred racecar to your less glamorous sweatpants-on-the-sofa setup.
For those prepared to risk the first corner pile-ups of multiplayer, there's an overhauled structure there that brings it in line with Gran Turismo's Sport mode. Scheduled multiplayer races are designed so that you can flit effortlessly between them in much the same way as you do in a single player career, not least because you can 'rent' cars to fill holes in your collection and meet entry requirements. It's here where the true longevity of the 'platform' lies, if the game's new safety rating and penalty systems do their job to make sure competition remains both fierce and fair, then players will be flocking to it for years to come.
Forza Motorsport at launch feels almost experimental, with mixed results. The Builder's Cup career mode wrapper leaves us slightly cold, with the much touted upgrade progression feeling largely irrelevant to what actually happens on track. The promise of the platform approach, though, is that the game will drip feed new experiences on an ongoing basis, ones that should reach more dark corners of what is an enormously powerful race-generating toybox. Besides, Forza Motorsport has gotten the most important thing right: the way the cars feel to drive and race. Once you're behind the wheel, any frustrations melt away like so many worn tyres. And there will be so many worn tyres...
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