The brand new consoles have rolled off the production lines and into gamers' houses everywhere. The inevitable comparisons are being made on message boards and blogs alike. One of the comparisons is, of course the launch games.
With arguably little that's memorable on PlayStation 4, Microsoft has a great opening to get a solid punch in despite the heftier price tag of their console, not to mention all the dramatic baggage of the last six months.
Microsoft's best chance is Forza Motorsport 5, the latest entry in the consistently strong, interesting racing series from Turn 10.
Can Forza—always a critical darling, but never a blockbuster hit—give Microsoft the fuel it needs to get ahead early in this new generation of consoles?
The Smoothest Ride Yet
At first glance, Forza Motorsport 5 is in great working condition, but a deeper look reveals some a few leftover parts and some frustrating compromises made on the factory floor.
Each time one of the big racing sims—Forza and Gran Turismo—hits shelves, the two are set up against one another. This time around, that's more appropriate than ever. Forza Motorsport 5's core, the driving, is better than ever, but much of the experience around the driving shows signs of worrying neglect.
And the driving really is good. So good, in fact, that it does a great job of making up for all the other problems. Once your tires are on the track, things couldn't be better. The joy of approaching a corner, picking your line, and executing your turn perfectly is one of the purest experiences around. I'm enjoying races more than ever as I look forward to another chance to run a clean lap or improve a previous score.
Some crucial shifts in gameplay have made this all the more fun. One of the biggest is a move away from the standard first-second-third style of racing we've come to expect from driving games. Instead, a gold medal goes to anywhere from first to third place, silver goes to the next few, and so on for bronze. This takes the emphasis off a rush for first place and encourages the player to ride out all but the most drastic damage and spinouts. Races are lower stress and more fun than they've ever been.
Racing With Your Friends All Alone
Drivatars, even with their stupid names, add a new flavor to the racing experience. Drivatars are sort of amalgamations of other players' driving styles. As you play, Forza Motorsport 5 watches your driving style and comes up with something as close to you as it can. This learned AI then goes out and participates in races against other players, simultaneously earning you credits and giving the other players a better racing experience (or so Turn 10 hopes).
For the most part, Drivatars really work. I recommend turning the Drivatar difficulty up for a better experience. Crank it all the way up and then roll it back down until it's challenging instead of humiliating. Especially in races with fewer or more spread-out opponents, the Drivatars are fun to race against thanks to their unpredictability.
In the standard 16-car races, though, the first few corners are just a mess of vehicles losing headlights and paint, reminding me again how outdated those packed races are. It feels a bit like the driving equivalent of mowing down hundreds of enemies. More variety of race type and fewer opponents per race would make the Drivatars shine.
There are some more subtle changes that help the game, too. Rewinding now has a (very minor) cash penalty. This works in-tandem with the new podium system I described above to encourage players not to rewind for every door-ding and fender-bender. When you race in Rivals mode, each time you beat another player's score, their ghost is replaced with another player's, making it easy to keep pushing yourself to squeeze another tenth of a second out of each corner.
And finally, as much as graphics don't matter, this is a new console generation and, for a bit, graphics matter again. Forza 5 looks great. Racing games always show off a system's power well because they don't have humans all over to push the graphics back into the uncanny valley. Forza 5 especially shows some great lighting and all kinds of incredible detail from close-ups of different driving surfaces to the carporn seen in Forzavista mode.
Lost in a Sea of Menus
For as much as Forza plays like a dream, though, UI navigation is a bit of a nightmare. The menus are confusing and poorly organized and reek of a half-baked rush out the door for launch. Weird oversights abound.
For example, you can't check the leaderboards for a given race, only for your lap time versus the world/friends. Now that my friends Drivatars are showing up in my races, I want to see how badly we're whooping each other after each round.
There's no way to tune your car before a race, either. You have to go back to the main menu. When you're playing in career mode, the game pushes you automatically from one race to the next, so if you want to tune your car—let's say you want to stretch out the gear ratios for a track with lots of straight segments—you have to wait through a loading screen with unskippable speech before you can back out, tune your car, and then watch the loading again.
Even worse than the menus, though, are the tokens. Tokens have been a part of Forza Motorsport for years, but they always struck a great balance of making sure you knew they were present without ever making you feel like you needed to buy them. The previous games doled out cash and rewards at such a rate that tokens were really only there in case you wanted a particular car right now, not later.
Now, though, the game seems to be pushing microtransactions harder than ever and it's incredibly annoying. If tokens weren't present, I'd say that the game encourages you to spend a lot of time with a car, tuning it and getting used to it. In a way it does, but along with a slew of other missing features and bad menu decisions, it feels more like the game is trying to get you to grind for money in hopes you'll get bored and buy some tokens. Even leveling can be done through tokens, as the game will often remind you by putting sometimes two icons for it on the same screen.
Some of those missing features have been in Forza for years, too. The auction house allowed players to sell cars to each other; that's gone. You could gift cars to your friends; also gone. In the event you were more interested in driving a car than in owning it, you could try it out in Free Play mode, but Free Play lacks a large portion of the much-smaller collection of cars present in career mode. Car Clubs, which let you group up with your buddies to participate in events together and borrow cars, are also gone. All of these missing features, in light of the pervasive nature of tokens, come across like a sleazy salesman tricking you into checking out his deerskin suitcase of wonders. Let's not even talk about the fact that some of the higher level cars' token prices come out to something like $80 US. It's just insulting.
Forza has some major problems, but the core gameplay is as good as ever.
Forza has some major problems, but the core gameplay is as good as ever. The potential upshot of these problems is that, like the Xbox One software itself, patches are inevitable. Many of these problems can be fixed. But will they be fixed? That we don't know.
It's frustrating as a long-time fan of the series to see it in this rushed, micro-transaction-heavy state, but even with that, I'm having a great time racing. If you're a fan of Forza and its biggest competitor, you can't go wrong with Forza Motorsport 5, but it's not the must-own system-seller Microsoft was hoping for.
We purchased Forza Motorsport 5 via retail with personal funds. We played the game in every mode in a variety of different cars before starting this review.
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