(Xbox One Review) Forza Motorsport 5

Developer: Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Racing / Arcade
Players: 1-16
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 7 = Good

The Forza Motorsport franchise has been a staple of my gaming library since its debut on the original Xbox in 2005. Like many, I was immediately taken by Turn 10 Studios’ broad, inclusive approach to the genre. Their forward-thinking design allowed gamers to slowly make their way from an arcade-oriented racer to one more akin to a traditional sim by adjusting a wide variety of driving aides. In an especially inspired decision, the assists could be left on for as long as players wanted, rewarding those who went without them with additional points with which to purchase cars and upgrades, all without penalizing those who preferred driving with these features engaged. There was also an emphasis on car customization and damage, both actual and cosmetic, elements that were less robust or totally absent in many of its rivals. Eight years and two console generations later, Microsoft’s flagship racer series continues with an entry that carries the torch of its predecessors by taking some bold leaps forward, but unlike its predecessors, they do not always pay off.

Turn 10 returned to the series’ traditional roots with Forza 5. Moving away from the open-world approach of their last release, the spin-off Forza Horizon, the game follows a more traditional tournament-style setup and progression system. There is no grand campaign, however, but a career based around various leagues that each host several series which encompass numerous car type- and class-specific events. For example, Sport Compact includes Modern Sport, Early Sport, Production Rally, Modern Hot Hatch, Early Hot Hatch, and Super Mini, each hosting 13-15 events. As before, progression is restricted by the vehicles within the player’s garage. New cars will be attained throughout play as races are won and cash accrued, with the increased rewards for higher position placement and lowered dependence on the many driving assists. Things are different this time around, though, in that players do not receive cars as rewards as they did in the past, but only experience, money, and affinity. This change represents a broad design shift away from what the series had been building towards, from one focused on amassing to one of cherry-picking, and that change is prominent throughout Forza 5.

The pivot away from a system that inundates players with cars to one that slowly affords the means with which to purchase them over hours of play will undoubtedly be a contentious issue for many longtime fans. Not only are cars not offered as rewards, but they can be quite expensive to buy due to many new restrictions on what can be done with one once purchased: cars cannot be gifted, auctioned off, or resold. Car clubs are also gone, and with it the ability to easily share and try out a wide range of vehicles before buying or acquiring the means to do so. Adding to the cost is that affinity no longer offers manufacturer discounts but small, tiered bonus payouts for winning while driving one particular manufacturer’s line; now, instead of being able to quickly upgrade and customize cars, players must save up the few extra bucks (5% on up) per race. The change also means that players won’t be able to build a vast collection of rides, a deliberate choice on the part of Turn 10 borne out by their significantly reduced number of on-disc vehicles from Forza 4, down from 500 to 200. The lowered car count is very much in line with the series’ new approach, but it’s hard not to become annoyed when the noticeably smaller handful of purchasable rides are dotted with DLC cars (which frequently happen to be slightly better than the best available on-disc offerings). Fortunately, there are several avenues of income in addition to race winnings that will see what is available gradually make their way into the player’s garage, which include a sizable prize when leveling up and when others race against the player’s Drivatar.

The Drivatar system is Forza 5’s most significant addition to the series. The game begins by having players race against on-disc Drivatars that are modeled after the developers, until enough of the player’s behavioral patterns have been ascertained to form a rough approximation of their skill, which is then uploaded to the cloud. The process continues after the initial upload, with the Drivatar becoming a better representation of the player and their current skill level the more they race. Players race against the Drivatars of their friends and strangers, who in turn race against the player’s. This is a really neat system, and it can lead to some amazing races. There is a significant downside to this approach, however: offline play has become more like traditional online play in all of the worst ways. It doesn’t take long to play online in any game to realize that many people behave terribly in multiplayer, and that type of behavior bleeds over into single player because of the new system, which means that a great many races ended up being absolutely infuriating. We received review code a few weeks after the game launched, and that means we were able to play with the benefits of the first update, which included tweaks to the economy and the removal of several ads for purchasing tokens with real money for faster leveling (which, save for one small notice at the top of the pre-race screen, are all gone). Great stuff—fantastic, even. On the flipside, that also means that we played the game after hundreds of thousands of players have had their Drivatars uploaded to the cloud, and the cascading effect of the jerks in that group was felt in full force.

In spite of its advanced features, the Drivatar system doesn’t seem to effectively take into account that it only takes one person to ruin things for everyone. Turn 10 has stated that they can negate the effects of cheating on the system, but they have so far been unable to do anything with the erratic behavior exhibited by cars based on player behavior. I don’t think they necessarily want to, either, as they have actually achieved what they wanted: an AI that drives like real players. But the game doesn’t take into account the disproportionate amount of disruption caused by handfuls of poor sports. The AI is so aggressive that the player has to be aggressive in turn, unless they allow themselves to be forced off the track (and often into some incredibly sticky grass), caught in a crash, or corralled into a guard rail. Instead of one overly aggressive driver, it now appears as if that there are actually two—and on it goes. The result is that the AI treats their often incredibly expensive vehicles as if they are bumper cars, routinely slamming into others for no reason. To put it into perspective, I found myself in one race a good distance behind the third car on a straightaway when out of nowhere I was suddenly rammed by the car coming up from the rear. The car didn’t bump my bumper or attempt to pass me, but came up alongside the driver’s side and took a hard right into me. The car just happened to be driven by the Drivatar of a good friend who I know takes his racing seriously, and in playing previous Forza games with him online, I know he avoids contact as much as possible. The problem is that this isn’t an anomaly: it happens all of the time. I experienced such reckless behavior even after setting the difficulty to the highest level possible, which is supposed to make the experience as close to a sim as the mechanics allow. Many of my races were salvaged only by abundant use of the rewind feature, which was once a great way to save from having to re-race a long course after a slip-up at the cost of some credits but is now absolutely essential just to place in a respectable position. In truth, the lower car count became less of an issue the more I played the game, as I was completely focused on getting through a race unscathed rather than on what I would buy next or might be missing out on.

The cars that place in the higher spots are, unsurprisingly, much more cautious about slamming into others. That doesn’t mean they won’t, but it does make getting to the front all the more important. But the frustrations felt at being bounced around until breaking away from the pack is compounded when a track features especially tight turns, with each section causing a metallic melee that feels more like a brawl than a race. The AI made some tracks such a pain to race that I really didn’t enjoy them, which wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if there was a robust track selection—here again Forza 5 comes up short from 4. Down to 14 from 26, the lack of tracks means that players will be racing on the same circuits much more often. Not only does this lead to a creeping sense of repetitiveness, but it also reduces the break between races on less-favored courses. I came to find this to have a much greater impact on my enjoyment of the game than the car count and tweaked reward system, as those didn’t affect my traditional approach to the series—I always labored over one or two cars at a time—as much as finding myself being sandwiched between several AI cars again on another tight turn on a track whose existence I had just cursed 10 minutes before.

There are times when the game throws some fun curveballs that break up the ongoing swear-heavy battle against the army of barbarous Drivatar hordes. These generally come in the form of Top Gear events, which involve racing a ‘digital cousin’ of The Stig, knocking down bowling pins, and driving through obstacles. The hosts of the show introduce each new series as well, which fans should enjoy, though the unskippable narrative bits will likely prove a little tiresome to everyone else.

One of the reasons why these events are so successful at being more engaging than the standard races is that they tend to highlight the core components of what makes the series itself so enjoyable, and the cars in particular. The game is at its best when the AI stops behaving like a wounded boar or when a particularly well-designed track pops into rotation, and with the new haptic triggers in the Xbox One controller offering varying stages of rumble to better emulate speed and grip, the game comes close to pure racing bliss. Offline play might not be as strong as before, but it can still definitely sink its hooks in.

Multiplayer has also undergone a few changes. Broken up into Hoppers, players get to choose from a variety of event types based on car class and type. Several unique modes join the regular array of races, including unlimited drift and the recently added Tag/Virus variants (bump cars to tag or pass ‘it’ along or stay away from cars to remain ‘it’). Participation in each is encouraged by the ability to purchase, upgrade, or rent a car appropriate for the event from the pre-race menu; the latter requires the player to forfeit any earned credit or experience, though. Given the Drivatar system’s function of emulating real players in offline races, one would assume that multiplayer would be underwhelming. Initially, I found that to be the case. However, I quickly noticed that actual players were far less likely to haphazardly ram into me than their AI counterparts, and were generally much more interested in getting on with the race. Because of this, I found that I enjoyed racing against other players despite placing much worse than in single player. For those leery of going headfirst into online play, a Free Play mode is also available to practice outside of a tournament setting either alone or with a friend; as a bonus, players earn cash and experience.

For a game all about racing, actually getting into a race is overly cumbersome. After joining multiplayer, players must then create a match request, wait, “ok” or “cancel” the subsequent Join screen after the request is complete, and then connect to the server. Players are unable to see the details of the match they are about to join, which means that they will frequently join a race already in progress, leaving them to check out their cars or twiddle their thumbs. Public lobbies are also gone, meaning private matches are by invitation only. Obtuse interface design isn’t limited to multiplayer, either. The menus are sleek, but their implementation can be downright bizarre. For example, exiting back to the main menu requires starting the next race. Instead of backing out in-between races, which is as a natural breaking-off point as there can be in a racer, the game requires the next race to be initiated before  the option to pause and quit. Tuning, a significant factor in previous titles, is also handled automatically whenever a car is purchased from the events screen. If the series requires a car not in the player’s garage, then a handful of vehicles will be brought up for purchase, with marks for those recommended by Turn 10. These cars are automatically optimized once purchased, but these tweaks aren’t always for the best, and further tuning and altering requires backing out to the main menu. It’s also not easy to compare cars, either, which can make selection tedious. For a series as aged and praised as Forza, the myriad interface oversights and omissions are both strange and unnecessarily taxing.

Despite the game’s many head-shaking decisions, it remains a Forza, which means that it is based around one of the genre’s soundest foundations: fantastic driving mechanics, an incredibly smooth and welcoming difficulty curve, and outstanding production values. The driving assists remain a valued staple of the franchise, and the game’s features include monthly events and the Rivals system, which offers players the chance to go head to head against other players of similar skill; these all combine to create a range of modes that will keep the game fresh for years to come. It also remains one of the few series that causes me to scoot closer to the edge of my seat the longer I play, which is always a good sign. But as one of the more reliable series to come out in the past decade, and one of my personal favorites, this is the first one that had me frequently asking, “Why?”

Forza 5 features the same fantastic driving model and assists-laden difficulty curve that has earned the series so many accolades, but this time out, they have been joined by numerous questionable design decisions. The new Drivatar system is one of the more intriguing additions, taking the behavior of other racers via cloud uploads and downloads for a more realistic driving experience that evolves over time. The perpetual AI alterations that result mean that the system is in a constant state of flux, but at the time of this review, I found it to be both fascinating and incredibly frustrating. The ram-happy behavior of the AI makes the races feel too similar to overly aggressive online matches and less like real sim events, which makes actual multiplayer feel oddly sedated in comparison. The shift to a more car-conscious approach also means collectors will find far fewer to buy, while tweakers will have to work harder to modify their rides as they and others must work their way through a byzantine interface. The drop in tracks from Forza 4 also leads to a sense of repetition, while the lack of old favorites—e.g, Nuremburg—is just disappointing. Turn 10 has already released one update at the time of this review, which addressed many of the microtransaction and in-game economy complaints, but it’s surprising such an astute studio even had to do so. For all it attempts with cloud technology and AI alteration, Forza 5 is the first release to feel like it spends much of its time just spinning its wheels.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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