Before I dive into the complex meat of Forza Motorsport, there's something I have to get off my chest. Do the developers behind these racing sims really think it's fun to make players race working-class street cars? I mean, not that the option to do so isn't appreciated. It's certainly nice to be able to take a Civic or Talon, tweak it, and drive it 100 miles per hour. What's not so nice, though, is that in seemingly every single one of these types of games, racing these boring cars is required before "unlocking" the cars that really make the game worth playing. I don't know about anyone else, but when I play racing games, I want to race cars that I'll probably never own—Porches, Ferraris, Vipers, Corvettes, and all the other kinds of cars that only people who think Gucci shoes are cheap can drive. I had hoped that Forza would let me jump into the game with at least some reasonably beefy cars, but I hoped in vain and was forced to spend many boring hours trudging along with average cars before getting to the cool ones. Had I not had to do that, I certainly would have enjoyed Forza more than I did.
Having said that, I still really enjoyed—and am still enjoying—Forza Motorsport. I'm by no means a big fan of racing games, although I do enjoy them from time to time. I've always found sim games like Gran Turismo and Colin McRae to be more overwhelming than fun. I generally prefer to stick to more "pick-up-and-play" fare like Project Gotham. But Forza, despite being pretty overwhelming with the sheer magnitude of options, has been surprisingly accessible for me. The features of the game are innumerable, and it does take a fair amount of patience to get into the groove of the game, but for those who can stick it out, as I did, there is a lot to like about this game.
The meat and potatoes of the game—the racing itself—is as well-done as I've seen in any sim, and boasts a few nice tweaks that set it apart from the pack. The handling is very tight and consistent. I'm no expert on racing cars in real life, but the cars certainly feel realistic to me. But to take the realism a step further, Forza features a real-time damage model that affects both the look and performance of the car. While the visual effect is subtler, the effect on performance is noticeable very quickly. Sliding into objects on the track or other cars will bring up a small grid on the right side of the screen showing the extent of damage to the vehicle. A little carelessness won't make winning impossible, but pound up a car enough, and it will be unraceable.
Additionally, the game features a real-time driving line that shows the optimal way to drive the course. It's similar to a feature introduced way back in Ferrari 355 Challenge for the Dreamcast, but it's more fleshed out here. While F355's line simply showed the optimal path through the course, Forza's is color coded to show the player when to accelerate, slow down, or brake. Even more impressive is that the line changes color in real-time to adapt to the player's driving. Following the line is by no means a sure fire way to win consistently, but it's certainly a nice start get players accustomed to the game.
And while I had heard that the artificial intelligence was a step above Gran Turismo's complete absence of it, I was a bit disappointed. The opposing cars are a little aggressive in certain circumstances, and thankfully there is no artificial "rubber-band" that alters their performance to keep the race close, but as in almost all racing games, they pretty much stick to the course line as stubbornly as possible. It's certainly no comparison to racing against human opponents online. And while I would expect as much, I was hoping Forza would close the gap a bit more than it did. I would like to see more cars misjudging turns, ramming into other cars, or peeling out. Sega pulled it off in F355 years ago, so I don't see why it hasn't become standard yet.
Overall, the racing is very good. Personally, I enjoyed the more visceral feel of Project Gotham 2, which also incorporated real-time damage. But as a pure sim, Forza's racing is as good as one could hope for. The only real complaint I have is the difficulty. Forza requires a balance of aggression and precision that is difficult to master even in the early stages of the game. This makes the long walk through the slower cars that much more exasperating, as pulling off a win is difficult when the track is raced well, and virtually impossible if even one misjudged turn results in a crash.
When it comes to features, Forza is a sim fan's wet dream. There are some really unique elements here, some of which are very welcome additions to the game. While it's pretty much standard to allow players to make cosmetic upgrades to cars, Forza allows a remarkable degree of customization to the car itself, including tires, transmission (right down to each individual gear), suspension, clutch, brakes, etc. Players can purchase parts and upgrade (or downgrade) cars to another class. (Theoretically, that boring Civic has the potential to be a world-class racer.) Changing a car's appearance also presents an almost limitless array of options.
But what I really enjoyed is that after spending some time customizing a car, players can run simulations to test the performance of the vehicle. A detailed analysis called "telemetry" allows players to see, in immaculate detail, all the factors affecting the performance of their cars, giving them insight into how to optimally upgrade. I won't pretend that the telemetry system is accessible—it's complicated and a real challenge to get a grasp of—but the fact that it's there at all is an impressive feat indeed. I'm sure that auto lovers and armchair mechanics everywhere will love the options here.
Additionally, players can "teach" a computer-controlled car (aptly coined a "drivatar") to simulate their racing techniques and enter races for them. I'm not sure that I understand the appeal, as I'd rather win races myself than rely on artificial intelligence to do it for me, but skilled players wishing to make a hasty run through the career mode may enjoy "teaching" the computer to do their dirty work for them on the track. It's certainly another unique feature, and while a little offbeat, it's definitely interesting.
Aside from these features, Forza offers the virtually mandatory array of single and multiplayer gameplay modes, none of which offer any real surprises but all of which are competently done. As one might expect there are tons of unlockable cars, and while Gran Turismo takes the cake in the sheer volume of cars, Forza gets points for offering some unique cars and, of course, the almighty Ferrari license. Online mode is a standout feature as well. Players can swap parts online, as well as create groups called "car clubs" that compete for scores on online boards, in addition to completing career mode races against other players rather than drab computer-controlled opponents.
Personally, as much as I have been impressed by Forza, I found it to be just a little too much. It's a fantastic game, but one best suited to those willing to invest some serious time into their racing games. Those who thrive on the detailed science of auto racing will find a game that offers tons of interesting and well-done features that will sap away hours of off-the-track time. For those of us who could pass on the tweaking and analysis and want to just get into the grit of the game, Forza is a tall order. But with a little patience (and a tolerance for boring cars), its exceptional attention to detail makes it a rewarding trip.