As we sat down to write this preview news started filtering through that Forza Motorsport, the long-heralded heir to Gran Turismo's console driving sim throne, was going to be delayed. Originally scheduled for an April worldwide release, Forza now won't feel the sunlight on its carbon-fibre bodywork until May.
We're glad - relieved, even. That might sound a little bit strange. It's certainly not that we want to wait another month to test drive the full, finished version of Microsoft Game Studio's racer.
In fact, the lure of over 230 licensed and fully customisable cars, visible and tangible car damage and extensive online modes that bridge the gap between racing the computer and fellow gamers across Xbox Live all have the insides of our driving gloves especially sweaty.
But we're pleased Forza has been delayed, because more than a couple of issues have lit up on the dashboard as we played through our early preview code. The extra month should give Team Forza time to screw down every last nut and polish every last gasket so that the finished game purrs like a kitten and roars like a tiger.
So, with that in mind, this hands-on preview might read a little bit like an MOT fail certificate - lots of problems that could, if left to rust, cause the wheels to fall off. But just like an MOT, everyone of those problems can be solved with a little bit of time, effort and money. Then Forza Motorsport can hit the road in perfect condition. May's not too long to wait for that, now, is it?
Stuck on the grid
Thing is, if Forza Motorsport is the Xbox's answer to Gran Turismo 4, chances are you were already expecting the kind of delay that has become synonymous with Yamauchi's baby. Indeed, the two games are so closely linked in our heads last week's review of the Japanese version of GT4 was written with Forza revving at the back of our minds, and it's been enlightening to play both so closely together.
In a lot of ways Forza could do everything GT4 has failed to do - allow you the freedom to fully customise your cars (both technically and visually), include meaningful visual and performance damage, pit you against believable computer AI and establish an online gaming community for hardcore driving game fans. If it could do all of these things and still nail the basics, Forza really could be the GT-killer everyone has been labelling it.
So rather than focus on the other stuff, let's start with those basics. After all, just like when you're test-driving a real car, the way it feels is the most important thing about a driving game. To be brutally honest, after spending an unhealthy amount of exhilarating hours chucking everything from a Nissan Micra to a McLaren F1 around GT4 with both a DualShock pad and Logitech's frankly astonishing Driving Force Pro steering wheel, Forza felt extremely wet.
Handle with care
At the moment there's very little sensation of actually being connected to the road. For a start, your motor steers as if it's hovering on a tiny cushion of air that negates any trace of feedback you should be getting from the tarmac.
As well as that, there's very little tangible reaction from the road surface or the body of your motor as you slam on the brakes or hammer the throttle, making judging braking and pull-away points more difficult than it should be.
Imagine playing football, or just going for a walk, with absolutely no feeling of touching the ground with your feet. You'd still be able to do it, sure, but without that essential feedback your brain would get confused and you'd find it difficult. That's what driving Forza's cars feels like, but in an automotive sense.
We're told by Microsoft that Forza is the most technically advanced driving sim on Xbox, that top automotive engineers have consulted on the physics and handling engines and that complicated mathematics govern every last component of your motor on-the-fly. Which is great and we don't doubt it's all true, but all those numbers and equations and formulas mean nothing if there's no soul to the way the cars handle. And the answer is simple: force feedback.
At the moment the only time the pad rumbles is when you floor the accelerator on the grid, slide hard when you hit a corner too fast, end up in the gravel or smack another motor. Even then, it's more of a quiver than a rumble. Now, we're sure Team Forza is in the process of tuning the force feedback to perfection and we assume it's a relatively easy thing to implement, but we're making a big deal about it because for a driving simulation to be truly satisfying the feedback you get from both the car and the tarmac has to be spot on. Gran Turismo has had it nailed since 1997, and Forza has to do the same.
Welcome to the showroom
So, that's the small matter of how the cars handle out of the way, and that leads us neatly onto the cars themselves. Forza has over 230 of the beasts from 45 manufacturers, and while that's not even close to GT4's 700-plus cars the range is perfectly adequate in terms of variety and depth. Forza splits them into six classes, from little production cars in Class D like your mum's Honda Civc to howling race banshees in the RClass like the Risi Competizione F333SP (the F should stand for "F*** ME THAT'S FAST!"). There's some repetition of models, but every incarnation of a particular car is sufficiently different in performance and looks to make it worthwhile.
You can access most of these cars straight away in the Arcade Mode, but when you start a Career Mode game you are asked to choose a region from Europe, Japan, or Asia. This dictates what cars you can buy throughout the early stages of the game. It sounds a little restrictive, but we're promised that you'll eventually get access to every motor in the game in the Career Mode and keeping you to a particular region makes the online Career Mode aspect more interesting. But we'll get to that later.
Drive for your life
The Career Mode is a little like Gran Turismo, and a lot different. You have to start out by buying a little dinger, just like in GT, but after that it's pretty straightforward. In the code we played there are no license tests to trawl through, just instant racing. Admittedly, the first few races open to you are extremely dull, chucking huge straights and hardly any corners at your 120bhp motor, but at least you're left to your own devices and trusted with the responsibility of teaching yourself how to drive.
Or, as you get better, teaching AI-controlled teammates to drive. We had a little play around with Forza's Drivatar feature for the first time and we're extremely intrigued. The idea is that you show an AI teammate your driving skills by doing laps and they learn from your habits and attitudes. All being well, they should eventually evolve into fully-fledged race drivers just as skilful as you are, at which point you can enter them into races to earn extra cash. This innovative idea not only appeals to our inflated sense of our own driving skills, it also adds a nice depth to the gameplay since you'll eventually be able to rule the roost over a big, multi-driver race team.
If you wanted, you could even design a livery for your team in Forza's impressive customisation section. A lot's been said about the ways in which you can visually and technically upgrade your motors, so we'll keep it short and sweet: it works very, very well. On the visual front you've got total license to make your car look as idiotic as possible with paint, vinyls and decals, and on the performance front a ton of officially licensed mods and upgrades keep things sweet for both Max Power whores and high-octane petrolheads with sump oil running through their veins.
Once you're fully pimped and tuned-up, it's time to race. Securing places in races earns you cash, which you can then use to buy mods and custom upgrades for your car, or save up for a whole new motor. It's not always that simple though: damaging your car during races not only affects your performance, making it harder to finish up the field, but also dumps a repair fee on you that is cut out of your profits at the end of the race.
And given that the AI of your computer-controlled opponents is so aggressive, getting through a race without dropping half your chassis on the blacktop is no mean feat. There are two sides to this AI coin: We're delighted to see AI drivers who don't stick dumbly to the racing line, but push, prod, poke and pulverise their way into the prime racing positions. It's brilliant to see two AI drivers having a good old ding-dong battle, sparks flying as bodywork rubs and tyres screeching as they spin out into the gravel. It definitely keeps you on your toes, too - more than once we were viciously fishtailed by an impatient pursuer as we dabbed the brake a fraction too early or failed to pull away from a chicane quick enough.
The problem at the moment is that every one of Forza's AI racers seems to drive like a blind cabbie stuffed full of steroids and amphetamine. They're mental. We've watched them blatantly broadside each other as they bludgeon their way into the racing line and witnessed them take out three of four cars with a suicidal lunge down the inside of a corner. While a couple of these loose cannons would make a nice change every so often, when every driver acts like that things start getting daft. We're really pleased to see some independent thought and aggressive attitude from Forza's AI drivers, but they definitely need to be toned down for the final version. Fortunately, we know for a fact that Team Forza are aware of this problem, so it should be all good in the end.
Write it off
At least when one of these motoring maniacs wallops you - or you do it to them - you don't just bounce off like a bumper car down the fairground (cough, GT4, cough). Praise be, Forza has visible and tangible car damage, and it makes a world of difference. Every tickle, shunt, or insurance-shredding smack shows up on your bodywork and affects your car's internals, and we love it. Suspension gets crooked, dragging your steering to the left or right; the engine gets battered, churning out less horses and choking with the effort; your tyres get bald like a middle-aged man, melting your cornering into impotence (also, funnily enough, like a middle-aged man); and your lovingly saved-for mods twist and shatter, negating the downforce they offered and making you look like a right fanny when you go to the local cruise.
The visual damage is nice too, even though it never even gets close to the orgasmically destructive limits of Rallisport Challenge 2 or Burnout 3. Paintwork scratches nicely, bonnets flap, and bumpers trail, turning perfect masterworks of automotive engineering into, well, slightly less perfect versions of the same car. Of course, the problem of all this damage is that collisions - whether they were your fault or not - become much more costly and potentially much more frustrating. Still, after the sanitised vision of vehicular contact offered in GT4, Forza's car damage is more than welcome.
So far we've managed to take the ring-road around the issue of how Forza actually looks. Bearing in mind that this is still a very early version of the game and thus ignoring the glitches, pauses and judders that will definitely be fixed in the final version, we have to point out that Forza doesn't look as good as GT4. Yeah, we don't get it either. It must be remembered that Yamauchi and his team at Polyphony have done an absolutely stellar job on GT4's visuals (as they did with GT3, too), but we're still slightly let down by Forza's bland backgrounds, unatmospheric environments and run-of-the-mill car models (which, incidentally, don't look totally grounded on the track, a problem which needs to be sorted out).
Some of the courses suffer particularly badly in a like-for-like comparison with GT4: Tsukuba and Laguna Seca both look far more attractive in the PS2 game, and GT4's depiction of downtown New York dumps all over Forza's. But... we have a sneaking suspicion that GT4 only looks as good as it does because of a load of last-minute visual tricks, like shiny light-reactive textures and hazy filters and other such technical stuff that we don't understand, so we're placing full faith in Team Forza's ability to do the same.
On the sound side of things, though, we don't have too many complaints. The engine noises sound satisfyingly throaty and rich and the disappointing lack of tactile feedback we talked about earlier is definitely not a problem in the aural department. In fact, in the current build of Forza, we found relying on the info the engine note was offering was far more reliable than trying to grasp for messages from the road. The Junkie XL-supplied tunes we heard were slightly less impressive, but you'll be able to rip your own tunes onto your car stereo.
On the grid online
But there's one other aspect of Forza that could ensure it leaves GT4 choking on it's carbon monoxide-flavoured dust - online play. We have to be honest. We haven't had the chance to play Forza online because the code we have isn't optimised for Live play. Therefore we're going to subtly bypass the issue by saying that if Forza can rectify all the problems we've mentioned, then the promise of eight-player online racing, 100-player community-based car clubs, tradable upgrades, visual customisations and entire cars, and the ability to use earnings from the career mode in the online mode and vice versa will be far too much for racing fans to turn down. Last week we said an online mode was exactly what GT4 needed, and if Forza can provide it to console racers desperate for sim-style competition it could blow its PS2 rival away.
What's the damage?
If Microsoft came to us right now and asked us what the damage was, we'd probably do that thing that mechanics do - you know, sucking air through their teeth as they look intently at nothing in particular. The difference between us and some fly-by-night spanner monkey is that we aren't making problems up to earn an extra bit of cash. We've had a good poke around under Forza's bonnet and there are definitely a few issues that need sorting out.
But it's like we said. Our hands-on with this early Forza code has resulted in a fairly lengthy list of problems on the MOT fail certificate, and yet for every problem there are five things that aren't just satisfactory - they're brilliant. If Team Forza drives off in its potentially groundbreaking racing game, tinker with it for a few months, and then pop it back into the C&VG.com garage with the problems fixed, we don't doubt it could be the ultimate console driving sim.
And hey - Team Forza's got another whole month to do it.