Forza Motorsport 5 Review
Over the last five years, my favorite sim racing series has definitely been Forza Motorsport. While the PC games often model physics and tracks more accurately, they don't have the budgets of the big-name console games for the licensing of hundreds of cars, and there's no distinct control advantage if you have a steering wheel that works just as well on Xbox 360 as it does on PC.
But Forza Motorsport 5 is a little different. Sure, the graphics are better than ever and some great new tracks have been included, but when compared to Forza 4, it feels like as much was left out from the past game as was left in for this one. The compromises developer Turn 10 had to make in order to get their game out on Xbox One launch day are certainly hurting the game, especially in the eyes of the series' most dedicated of sim racing fans, but there's even more at play here that sim racing fans need to make sure they're aware of - and that they don't let Turn 10 or publisher Microsoft get away with in the long run.
The first thing that Forza fans will likely notice about this new entry is that has less than half the cars the past game did, and its track count feels really anemic. It's easy to call out Turn 10 and say they left out a bunch of stuff, and it might lead you to believe, considering that there are already DLC cars out, that they purposely did this so they can milk the fans for a bunch of money beyond the $60 asking price. That might be true, but let's get something straight here at least: Turn 10 didn't "leave out" anything. They updated nearly every car and re-captured (in real life, with crazy wacky technology) every track that's in Forza 5, just like they did when they moved to the HD era with Forza 3, the first entry in the series on Xbox 360. The reason Gran Turismo 6 has so many cars is because those guys are still making use of the work they did back in the fourth game a decade ago, but Forza 5 is made almost entirely of new work. The cost of that is the lack of content compared to past games, but the benefit is that it looks really, really good at 1080p. Still, I get it: most gamers don't care and all they see is that this game has stuff taken out, and they're not really interested in the realities of how launch games or made or why it's a good idea in the long run to throw out old content from a past era.
But honestly, the lack of track variety is a problem that's big enough that it might have been better dealt with by leaving in past-gen versions of tracks that were in Forza 4. The lack of content here becomes even more apparent when sat along side the series' main competitor, Gran Turismo 6, which included an overwhelmingly large number of tracks with variations involving both rain and a day-night cycle. To contrast, races in Forza 5 are trapped in time without weather or night racing. You're also often racing in a late afternoon setting so that the developers can inexplicably dump the sun in your face, blinding you whenever you wind up driving west. And you'll be revisiting the same tracks very often over the course of a career, making it seem like the developers are betting that most of its players won't ever play the game long enough to get sick of any one track. (The structure of the career and the automatic upgrades, rather than tasking the player with figuring that stuff out, would support that idea as well - more on that later.) And hey, that stuff might even be true, but I don't think it's a good idea to base the entire structure of your sim racing game off of that kind of attitude. Developers have gone on-record saying that the tracks they threw out and haven't brought back are in dire need of a complete rework due to some serious deficits in realism, but I think that in the case of Forza 5 - which includes a mere 14 tracks - they might have been better off leaving them in. And I wouldn't even be saying any of this if it wasn't iconic tracks like the Nurburgring or Suzuka getting left behind.
The career is structured in such a way that new players will buy a car that's pre-upgraded to max-out for the class they're racing in, and the game funnels players onto the next race without asking if they want to change anything about their car. It is possible to do this, but you'll have to load the next race, then quit, then perform upgrades and tuning on your car, then go back and continue your career. It's a hassle, and it's one that could have been solved by adding an option allowing players to tweak their car between races. For that matter, the game doesn't actually make it seem like you can manually upgrade a car at all before you buy it for a career, but you can: all you have to do is browse through the valid cars Forza 5 allows for a race series, pick one and remember what it is, quit to the main menu, then go buy it yourself and upgrade it how you want within whatever that race series' class limit was. All of this pushes the game towards accessibility for new players, but they didn't have to make it less convenient for seasoned players to do things how they want at the same time.
Then there's the matter of the paid transactions that are placed there to bilk the gullible or lazy out of more money on top of what they spent to buy the game. Sure, these little payments have been in for the last two Forza games (Horizon included), but now they're also used for "boosting" your XP progress rather than just for buying cars. Many Xbox One launch games have this mechanic, and across the launch lineup, they're much pushier and in your face than we saw throughout the last generation. I find this particularly bothersome for this next generation - not just because it's greedy, but it actually causes developers to change their games' designs to make these little "features" more appealing. Even here in Forza 5, Turn 10 responded to fan outcry regarding painfully slow progress by patching the game to increase in-game money made and to reduce the cost of cars. I'm convinced that had there been no way to spend real-world money on any of this stuff, this wouldn't have been a problem in the first place. Again, it's a relatively small thing here in Forza 5, but what happens when every game starts doing this?
But with all of that complaining out of the way, I found that once again, Turn 10 has captured the fun of driving and racing in a near-sim setting in a way that no other studio does - and then they spice things up with some new features that you won't get elsewhere. First, there's Drivatar, which is a silly name for an interesting feature that is constantly developing AI profiles in offline races based off of real players' driving behavior. Sure, they also will pull dirty moves that players do, like late braking and sneaking inside on a corner to squeeze you out and put them ahead of you, but I think that Turn 10 has it right in that most offline racers do this as well. Either way, I did experiment with turning up Drivatar difficulty and managed to get opponents that are cleaner drivers, even when I'd experiment with forcing them off of the apex or optimal line. Basically, if you want to drive this game as much like a sim as possible, I recommend turning the Drivatar difficulty up. Way up, if you can handle it.
The new livery system is really handy, too, because this time around players aren't buying the liveries from other players with in-game money; instead, they get them for free, and those who make those liveries perks in other ways. And it's been integrated right into the buying screen, now, so you can pick a car, then pick a livery custom-made for that car before ever spending your in-game cash. That's a great idea, and it should really help put a focus on the community's great work in making some really solid-looking cars.
The improvement in overall visuals can't be ignored, either; despite months of speculation from enthusiast gamers about the lack of graphics processing power in the Xbox One, it's hard to tell there was ever an issue when it comes to a game like Forza 5, which delivers full 1080p visuals at a very consistent 60fps. (Gran Turismo 6 over on PS3 kind of runs at 1080p, but it has to scale up a bit to get there and the game drops frames quite a bit.) Simply put, there is no modern racing game on consoles that can do that, and yes, the overall visual quality does rival the more serious PC racing sims out there. You'll see tons of cars on-screen at once, great texture quality all around, and some solid lighting effects - sure, each track is essentially locked to one time of the day and that low sun angle can get annoying on more than a couple of tracks, but Turn 10 laser-focused on what looks good for the Xbox One's launch and for better or worse, they did succeed at that.
The controller situation is frustrating, as Microsoft insisted that past steering wheels are obsolete and instead tried to introduce some redesigned wheel system that only the new products going forward include. (Yes, Microsoft insists they have redesigned the wheel - no, it hasn't been explained at all how, or why our $300+ devices from two years ago are suddenly worthless.) So what's the solution they had for Xbox One's launch? Nothing on actual launch day, as the $400 Thrustmaster wheel that was supposed to come out alongside the game is only now trickling towards general availability over a month after release, and it's a pretty iffy value with no H-pattern shifter module and no clutch pedal. (You'll have to buy those separately - later, whenever they become available.) Sure, the Xbox One gamepads do have that rumble inside each trigger which kind of gives you a feel of loss of grip on each side of the car, but it's not like having a wheel actually fight back at you. Forza 5 is a great game, but this is not the way for sim racing developers to treat their most dedicated of fans that bought serious hardware to play their games. Someone, somewhere: get Microsoft to allow some kind of adapter or something to allow wheels like the Fanatec CSR (which is fully Forza-branded!) to work with this game. The reasons against are flimsy and silly.
So many compromises wind up getting made when games are launched alongside a brand new console, and while Turn 10 avoided the most dangerous of pitfalls in making Forza Motorsport 5 an Xbox One launch game, they still wound up falling into a few of them. The biggest issue is the perception gamers will have that Turn 10 cut a bunch of content in order to make the launch and then will have the audacity to charge fans extra to put it back into the game. Whether that's a fair assessment or not, it's the one many gamers will have regardless of the realities of recreating most of the game's content at a higher fidelity, and let's face it: those pushier microtransactions included this time around make it much easier for us as gamers to sit on the cynical side of things. Beyond that, this serves as a solid, fun-feeling sim-ish racing game with hundreds of well-modeled cars, innovative AI, and some great tracks. I think what Turn 10 needs to do now to get back into gamers' good interests is to support their enthusiast gamers by adding compatibility with older racing wheels, give out free cars and tracks for at least half of their DLC releases, and keep innovating with new gameplay modes and such to make sure that people keep coming back to race both offline and online. If they can't do that, well, then I guess we can just hope for something a bit more supportive of racing fans in two years, right? (Yeah, that doesn't sound very appealing to me, either.)
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy provided by Microsoft.