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Review: Forza Motorsport 5 is a beautiful simulation but subdued racer

By Justin Towell on Wednesday 20th Nov 2013 at 2:00 PM UTC

After days spent with Xbox One's demonstrably beautiful racer, we loaded up its Xbox 360 predecessor and realised what's missing from Forza Motorsport 5: Vitality, speed and exhilaration.

Forza 4 itself could be criticised for being too sterile, but it looks outright rebellious when compared to the series' next-gen debut. The main problem with Forza 5 lies in the core simulation. The cars slide everywhere - they understeer going into corners, they oversteer midway through, they have so much inertia it feels like you're running with a packed supermarket trolley and trying to stop before you crash into the frozen foods section.

The result is a gameplay experience that is centred around the precarious balance of a car being driven at the very limit of its capabilities. The optional assists will soften the difficulty to varying degrees, but if you don't like the idea of wrestling with a car that's constantly on the ragged edge of control, this game is not for you. Yes, even though it looks this good, you won't have fun for very long if you don't enjoy transferring weight appropriately from one wheel to another.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the frustrating nature of the hyper-realistic simulation, Forza 5 offers encouragement by displaying a 'good turn' or 'perfect turn' message if you apply the brakes gently enough, coax the car onto the apex and move out to the opposite curve, accelerating as you go. Depending on how frustrated you are, this will either come across as helpful or patronising. We'll go with helpful.

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To soften the inevitable excursions of the asphalt, the rewind function from previous iterations makes its return, although you still can't choose exactly which point you want to resume from, which is disappointing, especially considering you need to spend in-game credits to access the feature.

Those credits can build up, however, thanks to manufacturer loyalty and difficulty bonuses that stack up according to how many assists you can switch off without losing. It's a neat balance, although the winnings do feel paltry, especially when you have to buy a new car just to enter most series.

Xbox Live is integrated into the entire experience, informing you of your closest rival on every lap, moving to the next the moment you best them. Almost every event has an online leaderboard, although if you want to climb the ladder you'll need to challenge ghosts of other gamers without other cars on the track holding you up.

The ghost cars are real people, but other competitors are not mere CPU drones - these are cloud-processed simulations of real people (or, as the game calls them, 'drivatars'). It sounds great, but in practice it's flawed. These simulated drivers make believable mistakes and lunges, but they also brake in unlikely places and drive off-road onto grass for no obvious reason. They're bound to improve, but they're not quite there yet.

"The AI drivatar system sounds great, but in practice it's flawed"

Such niggles will be forgiven by many, simply because the game looks incredible. The 60 frames per second action rendered at 1080p with remarkable texture resolution is, at times, an astonishing spectacle. The top of the hill after Eau Rouge at Spa looks so convincing, your brain will accept it as reality. It's a fleeting few seconds of absolute perfection, but bodes well for the future.

That said, the graphical effects can go a bit too far over the top. The game fills the in-car view with gorgeous sun flare, but forgets that people usually wear sunglasses to avoid such distracting light in the first place.

There are a couple of small graphical compromises, in particular the replays (and rear-view mirrors and windshield reflections) which run at 30 frames per second instead of 60. When you've spent hours playing such a smooth game, anything less becomes jarring. A few environmental reflections are noticeably fake, and dust kicked up by other cars is disappointingly meagre. Not that these imperfections matter too much - Forza 5 is incredibly handsome in all directions.

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The game is made far better for the inclusion of Top Gear presenters, Clarkson, Hammond and May. They introduce every championship theme with abundant passion, not to mention wit and knowledge. What a shame the actual game feels more like Top Gear circa 1987: A worthy but too-straight-laced approach to motoring. And one that focuses far too much on cars that weren't designed for racing.

Perhaps in an effort to make the experience more heart-pumping, the in-game soundtrack is a never-ending crescendo of orchestral anxiety. It is, however, completely at odds with the hatchback you're pootling around in. It's a bit like listening to house music on a school run.

Championships are grouped into event types like Timeless Supercars, Grand Touring, Superminis, but almost all cars are required to take part in Top Gear-themed nonsense events, like giant ten-pin bowling, or scattering hundreds of London-themed physics objects on the famous Top Gear test track. It is quite impressive to watch hundreds of physics objects flying around in 1080p without any slow-down, but it is at odds with the po-faced seriousness of everything else.

"You could easily triple the price of the game with microtransactions"

Though such trivial additions have made it into the game, the few things Forza fans really wanted, such as night races and wet weather conditions, have been left out. Also omitted are existing fan-favourite tracks (no Suzuka Circuit? Really?), eventually making this a one-note and repetitive experience. Nordschleife is reportedly being reworked, and arriving via DLC, but it's strange to see such a Forza staple absent from the initial track list.

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Another issue is how long it takes before you get to own anything resembling a proper racing car in career mode. Sure, you can borrow a vehicle for a quick blast in a custom race, but if you want to progress your career, you'll have to grind for credits. About six hours of racing bought us a Ferrari F40, which was cheaper than the F50, but finally unlocked that sense of playing a real racing game.

Turn 10 wants you to feel a sense of pride in ownership by not making it hard to earn vehicles. It's an admirable notion, though undermined by the option to just outright buy cars with real money.

If you're happy to spend pounds instead of time, modern Indycars, Nicki Lauda's 1976 Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus and more are waiting for you. You could easily triple the price of the game with these microtransactions if you buy the biggest bundle of tokens.

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But if the cars threaten to damage your wallet, you needn't worry so much about damaging your cars. There is a decent level of collision modelling, which is dynamic to an extent, resulting in some pleasantly dented rear bumpers. And no matter how much you smash your car up, it's always fixed for free and ready for the next race. Damage even dynamically affects how cars perform, going so far as to punish players who use other racers as brakes by screwing up their gearbox into an unusable state. From now on, all racing games should do that.

But Forza 5 is not a racing game. Not really. It's a driving simulation that features races. Despite all the quality of the production, these chases aren't as thrilling as those of Forza 4, let alone GRID or F1 2013. So unless you're convinced the remarkable graphics and attention to automotive detail are absolutely worth your money, there are other racing games that play much better.

The verdict

Turn 10's next-gen racer looks remarkable but doesn't handle as well as Forza 4

  • Remarkable visuals
  • Meticulously detailed
  • Ai system carries potential
  • Punishing car handling
  • Limited number of tracks
  • Microtransactions
7
Format
Xbox One
Developer
Microsoft
Publisher
Microsoft
Genre
Racing / Driving