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​Forza Motorsport 6 hands-on: Bigger, wetter, and a new card-based mod system

The Xbox racing sim franchise debuts this month with over 450 cars, 26 tracks, new night and rain racing modes, and an odd car-based mod system.

Turn 10/Microsoft Studios

Turn 10 Studios' Forza Motorsport racing sim franchise turned 10 years old this year and celebrated by announcing the next iteration at the 2015 Detroit auto show earlier this year. Forza Motorsport 6 will hit the Xbox One console on September 15 bringing more cars, more tracks and more new features than ever before. I was recently able to get a few hours behind the wheel of FM6's single-player career mode to check out some of those new features.

Like all Forza titles of recent memory, FM6 starts out with an inspirational video. The dramatic bit of cinema featuring a foot race between young boys and the question of "why do we race?" is a bit more high concept than I expected. It didn't get my hair standing on end like Forza 5's intro, but it's soon over. Next, Forza uses the racing sim trope of dropping the player into one of the best cars in the game -- the 2016 Ford GT cover car -- to teach the basic controls before taking a big step back and asking them to choose a much less powerful car to actually start their career with.

Motorsports' career starts with compact imports and gives the driver the choice of a handful of cars, with the Volkswagen GTI as their first free car. I chose an FD Mazda RX-7, which I then covered in a gaudy woodgrain finish using Forza's color customization tools, which feature a few new options for this generation. (Unfortunately, we were unable to capture video or screenshots of the wooden rotary.)

After a few races at a few familiar tracks (and a few new ones), I'd graduated to a 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata and confirmed that the gameplay, the physics, the visual fidelity of Forza Horizon 6 are on par with what I've come to expect from the franchise. The game looks fantastic and the level of detail is phenomenal. From the cockpit view of the MX-5, I could see that all of the gauges (including speedometer and tachometer) worked. Take a really close look and you'll see that the odometer also works and accurately tracks the number of miles driven since the car was virtually purchased with in-game currency. It's crazy.

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Turn 10/Microsoft Studios

Forza's Drivatar system returns for this iteration, which uses Microsoft's cloud processing backend to analyze your in-game driving style to create a digital avatar that that then appears in other players' races around the world. You may be playing the Forza 6 demo this weekend and trade paint with my Drivatar in my hot pink Miata. Of course, it's nigh impossible to test how accurate these avatars are to their creators, but I think that seeing my friends' names adds a bit of cheekiness and vindictiveness to my play.

Mod cards, prize spin

With each race, players will earn driver XP (experience points) and, when enough points are gathered, rank up to the next level. Aside from the bragging rights of having a number next you your gamertag that's one more than before, ranking up triggers a new feature called Prize Spin. If you've played Forza Horizon 2, this bit should be familiar. Prize Spin is sort of like a slot machine for prizes, ranging from in-game currency to new and rare cars for your digital garage. During my 2-hour play session, I managed to unlock the Audi R18 e-tron Quattro -- a carbon-fiber, 550-plus horsepower diesel hybrid LeMans prototype racer. It's pretty badass.

Also new to the Forza franchise is a feature called mod cards. Mod cards are like digital trading cards that can be used to modify a race in the single player career mode -- a bit like Fallout Shelter's lunchbox cards. Cards are acquired by buying mod card packs with in-game currency, which randomly awards five cards. More expensive mod card packs have a better chance of awarding the player with rare and powerful cards. Cards are divided further into Crew, Dare and Boost subcategories.

Boost mod cards are single use, awarding the player with improved starting grid position, improved payout for winning, more player or vehicle XP, and so on. Crew and Dare cards can be used over and over again, improving vehicle performance in some way or challenging the player to complete some stunt during the race. For example, I unlocked a "crew" type card called Grip Specialist that improved grip by 6 percent on any track and an additional 6 percent when racing on the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Other cards "dared" me to only use the chase camera for improved experience, "dared" me to pull off a number of clean draft passes, or "boosted" my experience upon winning.

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Turn 10/Microsoft Studios

Only three mod cards can be used per race, but more can be bought and held in the player's inventory. And to keep the game somewhat balanced, players can only use one Crew card and one Dare card per race, so I wasn't able to stack a grip boost on top of a power boost.

Some of Forza Motorsports' more hardcore fans may take issue with crossbreeding a collectable card game with a serious racing sim, but the feature didn't seem like a game breaker to me. For starters, the modest boosts awarded by the cards don't seem grossly overpowered and it's not like the game forced me to use them. Additionally, mod cards can only be used in the single player, career mode and not in any of the online multiplayer game types, which keeps all of the competitors on fairly even ground. Finally, you can only buy card packs with in-game currency and since Forza Motorsport 6 won't feature any microtransactions that let you buy in-game currency with real money, players won't be able to just pay to win.

Night and rain driving

About five races into Forza 6's career mode at Sebring International Raceway in Florida, the game introduces the player to one of its coolest new features: driving in the rain. Forza faithful will point out that weather was introduced previously in Forza Horizon 2, but Motorsport 6 takes this feature to a new level.

In the rain, traction is reduced, but the wet also affects how the game's physics engine simulates the tires heating up. The tracks, which have had their every bump, dip and bend meticulously laser-mapped, will form puddles, which further affect grip and can cause the cars to hydroplane. Racing in the rain also causes water to bead up on the car's virtual windshield and be slapped away by little virtual windshield wipers. In the case of my Mazda MX-5, which is driven with the top down even in the rain, the driver's helmet visor also gets a few drops of water landing on it and evaporating away. I thought this last bit was a nice touch.

I've been with the Forza franchise since Forza 2 on the Xbox 360 and have logged countless digital laps around Sebring, so there's a sort of gamer muscle memory. The appearance of puddles at familiar apexes, the elongation of the braking zones, and the thrill of four-wheel drifting around the turn 17 complex completely transforms this familiar track into a new and awesome experience.

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Turn 10/Microsoft Studios

A few races later, night driving is introduced, which poses its own set of challenges -- from reduced visibility to a cooler track surface, again, affecting the tires' grip. The level of illumination varies from course to course, some tracks feature floodlights and others, such as the Nurburgring Nordschleife, are inky black outside of the throw of your car's headlamps.

Forza Motorsport 6 features varying levels of AI difficulty, driver assist, and physics realism that can be customized, mixed, and matched by the driver to suit their play style. One of those settings is Vehicle Damage, which can be set to simulation level where a crash can leave the car's engine, suspension, and body inoperable or just cosmetic levels where the car gets banged up, but doesn't suffer any performance loss. Beware when choosing the former before a night drive; an errant bump could leave you without headlamps in the dark and out of luck.

Showcase events

Every few races in the single player career mode, Forza will throw the player a curve ball in the form of a Showcase event. These events place the driver into a historic car on a historic track and help to introduce the player to new parts of "the lore of motorsports."

The first Showcase unlocked puts the driver behind the wheel of a 220 mph Indycar racer searing its way around the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After four or five races at the 2016 Miata's pace, the racer's speed seemed unreal and took a few laps (and a few crashes) to get into a good cadence. I appreciated the change of pace and, as the sort of Forza fan that has a handful of cars that I usually run, also appreciated being temporarily forced outside of my safe zone and into a part of the game that I probably wouldn't experience otherwise.

Again, I see the Forza Horizon franchise's influence here. Motorsports' Showcases aren't as gonzo as Horizon's racing a stunt plane in a Boss Mustang or Horizon 2's Bucket List challenges, but the basic DNA of experiencing a legendary car under unique circumstances is still there.

Other Showcases feature other race series and tracks; all of them feature an intro spoken by some racing legend familiar with the car or course to explain the significance of what the player is about to embark upon. From the looks of the menu screens, there are dozens of these Showcases.

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Turn 10 / Microsoft Studios

More play, less pay

At its core, Forza Motorsport 6 promises more: more tracks, more cars, more game types and league play, and more of the racing that's kept Xbox racing fans interested for the five previous titles -- seven, if you count the Forza: Horizon franchises. FM6 is said to launch with over 450 cars when it hits the Xbox One on Septemeber 15. There's a wider variety of car types and racing classes including including electric Formula E, Australian V8 Supercars, BTCC racers and more. There will be 26 different tracks, many with options for day, night, rain, and alternate configurations that brings the number of unique configs above 100.

The other side of that "more" coin is less -- less of the things that enthusiasts and gamers complained loudly about in the previous title. Specifically, that means microtransactions. Forza Motorsport 6 will, according to Turn 10, "not feature any microtransactions at launch..." sort of. While it's true that players won't have to pay for tracks, mod packs, or in-game currency, Turn 10 will continue its tradition of offering periodic car packs (or a season pass bundle of six packs) down the line and that players will be asked to pay real money for them, but those packs won't come until after launch. Either way, there should be significantly less nickel and diming overall this generation.

Forza Motorsport 6 hits the Xbox One on September 15, retailing at $59.99 for the Standard Edition. A $79.99 Deluxe Editions is also available, adding the first DLC car pack and Forza VIP membership to the mix. And of course, there's a $99.99 Ultimate Edition that grants the first six DLC car packs and early access to the game, unlocking the download for play on September 10.

In Australia, the three editions will cost AU$99.95, AU$126.45, and AU$151.95, respectively. UK racers will have to wait a bit longer; FM6 doesn't get to that side of the pond until September 18 for £49.99, £65.99, £81.99 for Standard, Deluxe and Ultimate editions. However, neither the UK or Australian Ultimate editions appears to include early access to the game.

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