Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Forza Motorsport

Forza is essentially Microsoft's answer to Sony's Gran Turismo series, and quite possibly the last "big" game to appear on the Xbox. While it doesn't equal GT4 in the amount of cars, tracks, or quality of the graphics, it beats it in the racing department, and it basically fixes every complaint I have with GT4 (and the GT series in general)

First looks could perhaps be somewhat disappointing. Graphically, it's actually one of the worst looking racing games for the Xbox in some time. To my eye, it's about on par with the original Sega GT on most tracks and in terms of what the car models look like, a far cry back from titles like Apex and Toca 2.

That said, apparently the reason for this is that each track (including off track terrain) is pretty much completely rendered in 3D, not just bitmaps. On some tracks this effect is quite impressive, like the Kaido Mountain track. But on most, especially the real racetracks, the result is a very dull looking track. The textures used also seem to be fairly simple. Not blocky or blurry. But simple.

Really, the graphics remind me of the Grand Theft Auto 3 series than anything else, though thankfully, the Xbox version of those games.

Similarly, I think they used dynamic lighting for the tracks. While neat in theory, in practice, the lighting looks quite odd on most tracks. Ones during noon make everything washed out while the ones at night are very murky. This definitely needed some tweaking..

There are 4 racing views, but unfortunately, basically consist of 2 behind the car views and 2 bumper cams. There's one bumper cam that's fixed and is very low, then another which varies from car to car and is generally still low. No dash, roof, or hood view. Which unfortunately has been my view of choice, since the vast majority of racing games nowdays have a hood view (even those from EA).

The sound is okay, but I think the larger engines (V8s and up could use some work). I don't understand why getting a V8 to sound like a V8 and not a vaccuum cleaner is so difficult.

The music that came with the game can only be described as awful. It's Junkie XL, originally sort of a Prodigy wannabe (), but who later gained prominence for remixing Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation". But in this, the music simply seems to be distorted guitar riffs from classic rock songs. Just weird. Mercifully, custom soundtracks are supported. You can even map the volume and song selection to the D-pad.

The car selection is okay. There are 200+ cars, but many are simply variations on the same model. There's probably only close to 120 or so truly different cars. But most of them are worth driving. There are no refridgerators on wheels or 50 hp '60s compact cars from Japan.

Ferrari is covered well, as is Porsche. But TVR only has 3 cars, Aston Martin 2, Jaquar 2. The US only has 50 or so cars, and a good chunk of them (10 or so) are actually just re-branded Japanese models. Could have used more American cars, especially older muscle cars. I mean, c'mon, there are more MR2s in the game than Mustangs. (I actually like the MR2, but the Mustang is a legendary car and deserves more than just 6. Though better than GT4's 4). And no Dodge Charger? The Challenger is close, but not close enough.

Car modification is excellent for the most part. Very slick and very quick to do. The only real problem is that many cars don't have upgrades or modifications, even when they should. For instance, it's very easy to add a super-charger to an old muscle car in real life. It fact, quite common. But that doesn't seem to be an option for any of them.

Cars get rated from 0 to 10 on a number of areas. Speed, Acceleration, Braking, Handling, and Rarity. The higher the better.

Cars can be in 6 different classes, D, C, B, A, S, and R, in order of the more powerful/fast. Each of the first 5 are broken into sub-categories from 4 to 1, while the race class is broken up into GT, GTS, and P1.

Just how a car's class gets determined is somewhat arcane, both in terms of the car's 0 to 10 stats and their performance in the game. For instance, A maxed out 1970 Boss Mustang has a speed of 6.3, Accel of 6.5, Brake of 5.0, Corner of 4.8, and Rarity of 8.4. It has a class of S4. But so does my Mercedes SLR with a Speed of 8.1, Accel of 6.9, Brake of 5.1, Corner 5.0 and Rarity of 9.3.

The SLR is much faster, with a top speed of 207 mph and 0-60 in 3.7 s. The Mustang is no slouch at a top speed of 173 mph and 0-60 in 4.3s, but is clearly outclassed. Yet they get the same exact rating.

I maxed out the Mustang to compete in the heavyweight car races, but it was generally outgunned by a Ferrari 612 which was faster and quicker, yet in a lower class (A2, I believe). I still won the series with my Mustang, but only by getting in front of the Ferrari by taking the first turn more aggresively and blocking him. So I think this needs tweaking.

The visual modification is also fairly impressive. You can paint most cars any color you want, but there is only about 50 different colors. However, this does include some metallic and pearlescent (ie, color changing depending on the angle). Generally speaking, you can paint the entire car, the hood, the mirrors, and the spoiler different colors.

The vinyl/decal system is both extremely impressive and irksome at the same time. If you have the patience and talent, you can literally make any sort of design you want.
OTOH, the selection of premade vinyls/decals is somewhat small-ish, and you can't write text directly on the car (though of course, you could reshape the vinyls into lines and make letters from that.), so if you don't have talent or patience, what you can do will be frustratingly lousy.

Personally, I think it would have been better to have a system like Tokyxo Xtreme Racer 3, where you could paint a car pixel by pixel in an ingame paint program (and plug in a USB mouse). But for technical reasons, that might not have been possible. (Presumably that could make the filesizes too big to transmit on Xbox Live!, and of course, there is no USB port on the Xbox and few people probably have Xbox only mice)

There's a decent amount of tracks. Not a huge amount, but a good selection.

One really notable thing is how they handle Laguna Seca. In pretty much every other game that has Laguna Seca, it's possible to simply cheat your way through that horrible hairpin. Basically by going offroad you can simply plow ahead. In this, though, if you do it you will get stuck in the gravel. Brilliant solution!

I actually liked most the fictional tracks more than the real world ones. The real ones seem somewhat off, at least from other games, and so gives me trouble (though Laguna Seca and Tsukuba seem identical to the GT4 versions). Especially tricky is a course which is based loosely on the Bathurst track in Australia, but not actually identical. I keep thinking it's going to be like Bathurst, but then there is a difference, and boom, I crash.

You can either race yourself, or use something called a "Drivatar", which is supposedly an AI based on your driving habits. Basically, you race 3 laps on 5 different courses in different cars, and you get rated on how you took various turns.

This is actually sort of neat, but not that useful in the game. For one, you are probably a better driver than your Drivatar. It's not nearly as aggressive in passing as a human driver, so unless you start first (there is automatic qualifying for each race), it likely won't win. But if it doesn't win, you won't be getting much money, since as near as I can tell, it takes around 85% of the winnings.

So far I've been fairly negative on Forza. So why do I like it so much? Well, where Forza shines is the gameplay. The racing itself in particular, which is what really counts in a racing game.

First off, Forza is extremely realistic in terms of physics. Cars feel like their real versions. At least the ones in the game that I've driven in real life. Don't believe it's realistic? Well, in the replay view you can turn on telemetry and get all sorts of information on the RPMs and power of the car, friction and tire pressure/temperature and a few other things. I don't know if it's realistic portrayal of the tire pressures, but you can feel the difference in the car if you change the tire pressure, so it's a complex system at least.

Secondly, the racing itself is just about unsurpassed in any racing game I've played (and I've pretty much played them all). The computer AI actually exists, reacting to what the player does, not just following the racing line. It's good, but not perfect. The only real complaint is it is perhaps not that aggressive at passing, but it's not that wilting, either.

There's various levels of damage, cosmetic, medium, and simulation (ie, realistic). But more importantly, collisions with other cars or the track itself are inelastic. That is, there's a crunch when you hit something, and you stop. You don't bounce off. This forces you to actually drive like a sane person.

The early races in the game can be won by simply having a much better car than your opponents. But in the middle of the game, there start to be heavy restrictions on the car that can enter a race. It has to be a certain class, or weight or horsepower. This leads to extremely competitive races. When you win a race, you'll feel like you've actually accomplished something.

In the first few days I had Forza, I had more exciting, competive, enjoyable races than I have had in the 3 or so months I've had GT4. Don't get me wrong, GT4 is a great game, but Forza sets the bar to a higher level.

I suspect the graphics will be improved dramatically in Forza 2 on the next Xbox. In fact, I suspect the reason the graphics were done the way they were in the game was so that it could easily be ported to the Xbox 2, and all they would have to do is increase the polygon count and texture detail to make it look a lot better. So I would not be surprised to see that in the near future, not long after the launch of the next Xbox. Thus for the time being, Forza is the new reigning King of racing games.