The hallmarks of Forza Motorsport exist outside of the series’ handling model, which goes so far beyond mechanical obsession that it captures the fantasy of driving supercars rather than just the maths that makes them work. The comprehensiveness of Forza 4’s featureset was second to none, meeting the needs of the extreme enthusiast and the most casual Sunday driver, but it’s a featureset eviscerated to meet Xbox One’s launch day. Forza 5 is a game defined not by its options, but by the absence of them.
Forget the longed-for dynamic weather and night racing: on the way to the new generation, Forza has lost some 300 cars, over 20 locations and countless tracks, gaining versions of Spa-Francorchamps, Mount Panorama, Yas Marina and the city of Prague by way of small compensation. And by losing tracks, Forza loses the variety of racing that made it great. Without Fujimi Kaido, there is no touge racing; without drag strips, there can be no drag racing; with only one oval, there is no real Daytona; without the Nürburgring, there is no iconic endurance race; and without the beautiful Camino Viejo De Montserrat, there is no joy.
Montserrat was the showpiece of Forza 3 – the moment sim racing stopped being po-faced – and losing it is endemic of a step back to the days when Forza had no car clubs where friends could share their hard-earned vehicles, where the UI was lumpen and slow, and where a sliver of content was stretched to breaking point and beyond. Forza 5’s 200 cars and 14 tracks make for a substantial package, but are limited enough that the game abandons the notion of offering free cars as awards, simply doling out credits instead. UI transitions are glacial and the Top Gear cutscenes unskippable, as if length were a substitute for Forza’s usual breadth. The game’s campaign is divided into eight leagues, each with between three and seven race series, but it omits the usual event-list browser to obfuscate comparisons with its predecessors.
Criminally, Forza 5 removes test driving of any kind and limits to just a handful the cars available in its Free Play mode. It’s perhaps understandable that players might want to immediately leap into the Lotus F1 car making its series debut, but here it’s locked behind six million credits’ worth of racing, which means hours of laps around the same half-dozen locations. In previous Forzas, you might hire an AI driver to race on your behalf to scrape enough together for the more valuable cars, but not in Forza 5, where the feature has been cut. Yet Forza 5’s shortcomings aren’t a result of bad design, but of tight deadlines.
The new features Turn 10 has found time to add, however, are Forza at its very best. The Drivatar system is the neatest psychological trick pulled in a racing game for quite some time, simply placing your friends’ names above AI racers as the cars supposedly replicate their driving styles based on analysis of their races. ‘Supposedly’ because who can say how accurate the Drivatars are? And it doesn’t matter – just seeing a friend’s name above a car makes racing more personal and more exciting, and the AI seems more human and aggressive than before, so certainly something has changed, even if it’s difficult to measure.
The new tracks, particularly the fantasy track of Prague – which in parts brings to mind racing on the European city circuits of Project Gotham Racing 2 back in the early days of Xbox Live – are also as good as Forza has ever been, mixing race-friendly wide corners and steep climbs with close-up inner-city detail and long lines of sight from the hills. But it’s only in the fictional city circuit where Forza’s new visual fidelity jumps off the screen, while upgraded racetracks such as Silverstone and Catalunya are as flat and lifeless now as they ever were. Forza 4 was already so close an approximation of reality that the million-polygon models made possible by increased processing power for Forza 5 offer only minimal returns. Reality, it seems, is a poor showman, and it’s no wonder developers are returning to the fantasy and sci-fi genres to best show off the power of new consoles.
It all brings Project Gotham to mind in another way, too. Play Forza 5 and you can’t help think of Project Gotham Racing 3 – Microsoft’s flagship racer for Xbox 360’s launch, stripped of courses, cars and features in the name of its HD makeover – and certainly this game is among the prettiest on either of the new platforms. Forza 4 was gorgeous too, though, and the Xbox One makeover is too modest for its cost.
There is a menu option for the Forza Marketplace, but it hasn’t yet been activated; presumably it’s still being tested prior to launch. It’s one of the countless features Forza players ordinarily expect that we’ve lost on the way to Xbox One. A quick list? There’s no way to sell unused cars back to the AI or to other players, no bespoke onscreen speedometers, no test driving a car before purchase, no kid-friendly Kinect steering or Kinect support in Forzavista, no opportunity to load a circuit-specific tuning setup before a career race, no exiting from a race series without loading up the next track, no unicorn cars, no auction house, no storefront, and no surprise, really. Forza 5 is a launch game with all the spectacle and disappointment we’ve come to expect from launch games. While the handling is still magic and the content on offer is substantial in a way, Forza 5 is best seen as a foundation for what Forza 6 will be in a couple of years. By comparison, this launch-day sampler will seem awfully limited, far from the hoped-for victory lap impossible on prior hardware. After all, it seems limited by comparison with Forza 4 now.