I was recently given an opportunity to sneak away from work and spend an afternoon playing the latest installment of Turn 10's Forza racing sim series, Forza Motorsport 5. The game is scheduled to launch alongside the Xbox One on November 22 and as a Microsoft Studios property, it should be a good indicator of what the next-generation console is capable of.
Forza 5 utilizes a number of the Xbox One's new hardware and software features. Its force feedback utilizes the Xbox One controller's advanced rumbling triggers. Its AI is processed in the cloud via the always-on Xbox Live connection. Its graphics are decidedly next-gen.
After plopping down onto one of the dozen or so couches in front of one of the dozen or so Xbox One gameplay stations at the event, I grabbed the Xbox One controller and hit start.
'A celebration of all things four-wheeled and fast'
The game starts out with a short video vignette that sets the tone for the game; it's a sort of love letter to cars that is narrated by "Top Gear's" Jeremy Clarkson, and our first hint of the game's ties to the world-famous motoring show.
To use Clarkson's own words, Forza 5 is "a celebration of all things four-wheeled and fast," and the introductory video features footage of all sorts of racing, from Formula 1 to exotics, from sports cars to economy cars.
After that, the game drops you into its Autovista mode where you are presented with the flagship vehicle for the title, the McLaren P1. You're told to open the door, climb inside, and start the engine.
Even more Autovista to explore
One of the first things that Turn 10's Dan Greenawalt pointed out to me was that every car in the game is available in the game's Autovista mode.
For those unfamiliar, Autovista is a virtual walk-around that debuted in Forza Motorsport 4 for the Xbox 360, where players can open the doors, settle into the driver's seat, fire up the engine, and peek under the hood of the digital cars just like they would in a showroom. (Since most of us will never get to kick the tires of a P1 or a Huayra or get our fingerprint on the paint, it's perhaps better than a showroom.)
Where Forza 4 only featured about two dozen Autovista cars, every single one of Forza 5's more than 180 vehicles will get the virtual walk-around treatment. Not all cars are created equally, though. Some cars are still treated as halo cars and have more-detailed Autovista experiences complete with a voice-over history and description of the vehicle by one of "Top Gear's" presenters. Other cars won't be as detailed -- maybe the hood doesn't open to display a modeled engine, maybe you can't pop the trunk -- and feature voice-over by the female Forza narrator that's unique to the automaker and not the specific vehicle. However, all of the cars will have detailed interiors, doors that can open, and full specs.
Zoom way in while using the Autovista mode or the photo mode -- that lets users snap still photos using virtual camera controls to share with other players -- and you'll see the flecks in metallic paint or a slight orange peel texture when looking at older vehicles. The level of exterior detail is phenomenal.
Feeling the ABS through your fingertips
So, I'm in the P1 and pressing the virtual start button on its digital dashboard, and before I know it I'm trading paint with other exotics in Forza's first race. This is a common trope for racing sims -- dropping you into one of the game's best cars for the first race and then scaling back and making you earn your way back to it -- but it's a good way to keep the excitement built by the intro video elevated and to give players a taste of the game right off of the bat.
I noticed a lack of licensed music in this game. In its place, there's a driving, cinematic score to the races that adds a level of urgency and drama to each race. I was only able to play for a total of 1 hour, so the music didn't feel too repetitive, but ask me after a month if my opinion changes about that.
I'm familiar with Forza's mechanics, but was only just getting used to the new Xbox One controller, so I finished this first race in second place with the P1 in less than stellar condition. The game takes advantage of the controller's new force feedback, so when you pull the right trigger to accelerate, you'll feel a bit of vibration through your fingertip the way that you would through your accelerator pedal. Likewise, pulling hard on the left trigger to brake causes the trigger to vibrate and pulse through your fingertip, signaling that the ABS system is active. Larger bumps and shakes can be felt through the larger rumble motors near the palms of your hands. The difference in force feedback is subtle and won't change the way you play racing games, but the attention to detail is nice.
Forza's Replay feature is still there for when you get into trouble. Go off track or crash spectacularly and you can rewind the action a few seconds with the touch of a button and try again.
'People don't finish racing games, racing games finish them'
Once I was out of the P1, it was time to choose the first car for my virtual garage from the sport compact class. After a brief video description of the class, narrated by the "Top Gear" presenters, I was presented with a short list of cars. I, of course, chose the 2013 Mazda MX-5, because the Miata is always the answer.
Greenawalt, during his presentation, stated that "people don't finish racing games, racing games finish them," explaining further that historically, racing games forced players down a linear path of ever-faster cars that eventually exceeds their skill level. I, for example, spent most of my time in Forza Horizon tooling around in a first-generation Mazda Miata and, when the game forced me into cars that I didn't want to drive, I lost interest.
Forza 5 tries to address this, allowing drivers to stick with the cars that they want to drive by splitting the single-player campaign into eight Career Leagues that correspond to different classes of vehicle and featuring multiple race series nested within. Players can jump among leagues as their skill level and stable of vehicles improve, but they can also stick to their league and progress through the game in their Scion FR-S.
After only an hour of play, I'm not sure if this League system really adds as much flexibility to the single-player racing as Turn 10 claims, but it looks promising. If it means that I don't have to slog through truck/SUV races, sign me up.
When choosing your car, Forza will automatically download the most popular custom designs from the community and present them alongside the standard paint color picker. What's interesting is that, as you choose designs for your cars and rate them, the game will attempt to match your tastes and, ideally, will have a good idea of what you like in custom graphics. I chose an odd wood finish for my Mazda, because it looked silly, and hit the button to proceed into the first race in the series in the Bernese Alps.
Drivatars and cloud-based AI
Lining up on the starting grid, I remembered something odd that was stated earlier during Turn 10's presentation: "Forza Motorsport 5 doesn't have AI drivers; you're always racing against real people thanks to Drivatar technology." While that statement is a bit misleading, I understand the point Turn 10 is trying to make. Here's how it works.
Drivatars are "driving avatars," and every Forza 5 player has one. As you drive, the game keeps tabs on your driving habits -- when you pass, how aggressive you are, what racing lines you prefer, and more -- and uploads that data to the cloud as part of your Drivatar training. After a few races, Turn 10 claims that your Drivatar should behave and race roughly like you do and will race on your behalf on other players' games, earning credits for you while you're at work or asleep. The more you play, the closer your Drivatar gets to replicating you; the better driver you are, the better your Drivatar will be.
So, you may hop into a race one day and find that you're surrounded by you Xbox One friends' digital doppelgangers.
Back in your single-player race, players have access to Drivatar difficulty scalable with eight levels of difficulty. Set this level lower and you'll be matched with lower-skilled Drivatars. Kick it up a few notches to be matched against the best in the world.
I asked if there are any behaviors that don't get factored into the Drivatar syncing, and Turn 10 told me that things like wall-bouncing, corner-cutting, or driving backward on the track and crashing head-on into the leader are ignored by the Drivatar system. So it should be impossible to create a virtual griefer to wreak havoc from the cloud -- a Trollatar, if you will.
After this year's online issues that plagued the SimCity and Grand Theft Auto V launches, I'm just a smidgen worried about basing Forza 5's AI in the cloud, and I'm hoping that there's some sort of local AI redundancy for those times when connection to the Web isn't possible. We'll have to wait until after the Xbox One's launch to see. Here's hoping that Microsoft has figured these connectivity issues out for the next generation.
Back on the road
After the race through the Alps, it was off to the "Top Gear" test track in Dunsfold, England, for a wacky Top Gear Challenge. In this particular race, the track was littered with dozens of trash cans, suitcases, and other debris, and my Drivatar opponents and I had to plow trough all of this. I got my first taste of the vindictiveness of the Drivatar when I accidentally plowed into a Genesis Coupe on a particularly tight corner, and he reacted by PIT maneuvering me off of the track. What's odd is that in that moment, I found myself thinking about the "guy" like I would a real, live player. We traded paint, I talked trash -- to no one -- and felt a genuine sense of rivalry. My red-misted bumping match with the Hyundai resulted in my barely finishing the race in seventh place, with the Miata barely in one piece, but I felt like I earned that place.
At the end of each race, the players is awarded experience points (XP) toward raising Driver Level and earning Affinity points for the car's manufacturer. Gaining Driver Levels earns the player bonus virtual currency for buying and upgrading cars; gaining Affinity Levels earns discounts on upgrades for a particular make of vehicle.
After a few races, I finished the first series and was popped back into the Autovista mode, which serves as the hub for the game. Here drivers can choose the car that they'll take into the next race, change racing series, purchase new cars, and customize their current stable.
In previous Forza games, I found that I spent as much time customizing my virtual garage as I did racing, so I took this opportunity to adjust the Miata's color scheme, ditching the wood grain in favor of the dark gray paint and hot-pink-wheeled design that has become my trademark over the past four generations of Forza. Fellow customizers will be happy to learn that carbon fiber and carbon Kevlar have been added to the solid, metallic, and color-shifting paint options, but I didn't see matte paint as an option, which is a finish that many players begged for in the Forza Motorsport 4 forums. Perhaps I missed it.
While I was customizing, I upgraded my Miata's performance to be competitive in a higher class, selected a different League, and hit the road again.
My last race was an epic battle at the Spa-Francorchamps against a field of proper sports cars. My upgraded Miata performed admirably, struggling up through the field, passing Corvettes, Vipers, Cadillac CTS-Vs. Paint was traded; egos were bruised; and I snatched victory from an Audi RS5 in the second-to-last turn of the race.
As hard as you want or as easy as you like
Watching the crisply rendered race replay, I felt just a little bit bad about knocking the Drivatar difficulty down a notch before starting the race. But as I watched my severely outclassed Mazda Miata with hot pink wheels play David on a track full of Goliaths, I was reminded of the thing that I like the most about the Forza series: it can be both extremely realistic for hard-core racing sim fans, but also extremely accessible for people who just like cars.
Players can turn on a racing line overlay that shows where you should accelerate, brake, and apex for the fastest lap, or they can turn it off and figure it out for themselves. The cars can automatically brake when approaching corners so that less skilled players can focus on turning and accelerating (the best parts of driving) without flying off of the track. Antilock braking, traction control, and more can all be adjusted. Vehicle damage can be just cosmetic or can be realistic, adversely affecting the performance when knocked up too badly. There's also the sliding scale of Drivatar difficulty.
From one race to the next, you can go from getting a fairly accurate portrayal of the racing experience to beating German supercoupes with a tiny, underpowered Japanese roadster. You can decide how you want to have your fun.