Forza Motorsport Hands-On Impressions
By James Smith -- Staff Writer
Platform: Microsoft Xbox
Perhaps one of the most anticipated racing titles on the Xbox is Forza Motorsport. Many expect great things from this title and have tagged it the Gran Turismo killer. Here at SGN weíve received a recent beta of the full version of the game and put it through its paces. Will it truly be the GT killer or is it just another racing game?
The build version came with plenty of warnings of known bugs and issues in the game. We have to put our trust in Microsoft that things will work themselves out once the final release code is completed. I personally have no reason to doubt that on many fronts. The graphics, for example, need help in the build version. Due to data not being optimized on the disc, load times are long and the game tends to freeze at times. It may take 2-3 seconds or more for the game to restart the action. Some of the textures are missing as well. You can bet the game wonít be let out the door like this, and fortunately the beta provides a glimpse of the positive things to come.
Track design is nicely done with graphical touches like excellently executed elevation changes. Tracks like Laguna Seca look like the real deal, and some of the hill climbs are done to perfection. Having just returned from Japan where I spent time bike riding in the mountains, I can attest to the level of detail Microsoft has paid to the game. The programming staff has mimicked the landscape, complete with an image of Fuji in the distance. Road markings are typical Japanese. Similarly, Nurburgring has the road graffiti painted on the track surface. While it doesnít look as clear as PGR2, it does add to the realism of the game.
The game will feature visible damage, and the variety of damage is immense. Body panels dent or tear off, glass shatters, and mirrors fall off. Before all this damage accumulates, cars have incredible detail including an animated driver. The only unfortunate thing is that the game currently does not a true in car camera. Four views are available which are split between a pair of third person and a low and high bumper camera.
The audio is shaping up nicely. Cars have unique sounds and while driving you can pick up on where your opponents are with careful listening. Collisions and scapes against the wall or your opponents sounds realistic, as done an off track excursion. Driving through gravel causes your car to pick up a few pebbles that take a few extra seconds to shake loose.
All the graphics and sound mean nothing if the game has lousy play. There are a few issues with the game which hopefully will get shored up prior to its release. The game features running in several series. Amateur races are single events with easy opponents and low payouts. Point-to-point races utilize portions of the ĎRing or hill climbs (or drops). Professional races have a little tougher competition and nice paychecks. Championship series races string multiple evens together while endurance races test your stamina to remain in front of the television. If you donít have to miss any action while you race long events, the Drivatar can be used to learn your driving tendencies and recreate them in the game.
Veteran racers may get turned off by the ease of the game. Hopefully Microsoft will toughen up the racing in the final release. If not, expect a long, drawn out game just like Gran Turismo 3 on the PS2. Races end up being chores to finish rather than enjoyable events. In one event, I took my stock Skyline V35 (your basic Infiniti G35 Coupe) up against some heavyweights, including a few Ferrari 355s, a Porsche GT3, an Esprit, and an NSX-R. Despite being underpowered for the race, I came in first. This was with the difficulty set to the maximum and all driver aids turned off. In fact, driving without the aids is not difficult at all. I was a little loose when I took a stock Elise and upgraded it to the max. A significant weight reduction coupled with a three- to four-fold increase in horsepower left me with a difficult beast to maintain. But I was able to grab the reigns and drive the car to many victories with no aids.
Rubberband AI is evident in the game. At one circuit I let the 7 AI cars (you heard right Ė 7 AI cars and not the paltry 5 of Gran Turismo) get a 20 seconds head start. I battled back to claim second spot, finishing just off the winnerís pace. I caught up with most of the field during the first lap. Yet if I drive aggressively from the start, I canít put the same 20 second distance between me and the last place car.
The biggest letdown in the beta is the driver AI. On some courses cars donít want to deviate from the racing line. The racing line is displayed on the course (you can turn it off), and on the hill climbs the AI is notoriously dedicated to staying on line. I was constantly bumped when I had track position, and it was all because I was on the racing line. On traditional circuits, the AI would mix up their driving styles more, but if they wanted to get to a space, they would force their way rather than adhering to proper race etiquette. I can only count a handful of times I was rear ended in the game. Contrast this to the endless bumping in Gran Turismo and you realize Forza is a step up. Overall, the AI is infinitely better than Gran Turismo, but not as good as other racing titles on the Xbox. TOCA Race Driver 2, for example, has much better AI.
As mentioned previously, damage is included and itís not just cosmetic. If you hit other cars or road hazards too often, youíll accumulate damage which affects the mechanics of your machine. Iíve had suspension damage which tugs the car in an undesired direction and an engine which doesnít want to put out as much power as when fresh. The damage model is a step in the right direction, but I feel the programmers should increase the amount of damage in the game. Head-on collisions with the wall should force you out of competition. Instead, damage is relatively benign and you can continue on to easy victory. I again have to bring up TOCA 2 and its damage model, which more accurately reflects the decrease in performance from hazardous driving. If the full damage setting is made more realistic, racing fans will have a tasty treat. As it stands now, itís bland.
If youíre a fan of upgrades, youíre in luck. The game will feature numerous performance upgrades. The effect they have on your car is tangible. You can complement those upgrades with cosmetic additions and set your car apart from the competition. The customization shows up nicely on the high polygon count cars.
So does it look like Forza is the GT killer? Well, honestly at this stage I would say no. If the game ships as is with the expected bug fixes, the games would be on near level par with perhaps GT edging out Microsoftís efforts. However, if the development team can implement a few tweaks than GT fans watch out. By bumping up the difficulty so that winning races isnít a breeze like it is in Gran Turismo, Forza will become a race fanís racing game. The AI as it stands is already better than Gran Turismo, and unlike GT there is a damage model. Throw in online play and you realize this actually may be the Gran Turismo killer.