I’m sitting in one of the most realistic virtual racing rigs I’ve ever seen, about to play Forza. The simulator features a full-size racer seat – the kind that curves around your back slightly, to brace the driver and better protect their spine – and has a real safety harness-style seatbelt that wraps around the chest.
It’s all attached to a rumbling gyroscopic base that pitches and shifts the whole affair in response to in-game actions, while floor pedals control acceleration, brake, and clutch. There’s no gear stick, but paddles behind the steering wheel shift up and down like an actual race vehicle. A panoramic view is delivered thanks to a bank of three monitors, perfectly replicating the in-car experience, while bursts of air blast into your face just to enhance the sensation of speed. If it were any more accurate, it would actually be a car.
Problem: the simulator is so realistic, it’s like driving a real car – something I haven’t had a need to do in around three years. When your usual approach to racing games is to select auto transmission, hold down the ‘go fast’ button, and hope for the best, suddenly having to control every facet of what is essentially a real vehicle while driving at speed is a shock.
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Accordingly, my performance around the Forza track is, simply put, abysmal. I panic, forget that changing gears is a thing you’re meant to do, and crash or spin out so many times it stops being funny. I reach, on instinct, for a handbrake that isn’t there, jolted around by the rig’s motion, all while a growing crowd looks on, either amused or appalled at my failure.
The one small concession in my favour is that the game’s been set to semi-automatic, so once I do remember to change gears and not try to hit 70mph in first, I’m not having to hit the clutch as I change gears. Once I gain my bearings, now fully sucked into this automotive experience, I finally complete a competent lap before a clearly disapproving usher tells me my time on the sim is up.
It was brilliant, but I clearly shouldn’t be allowed on real roads again before I have some refresher lessons.
License to thrill
The blame for my public shaming can be laid at the feet of Ford. The motor company has, for the second consecutive year, set up presence at Gamescom in Cologne, with its “4D” simulator (and the massive screens broadcasting my shocking performance to the public) central to its presence on the show floor.
The reason for the seemingly unlikely appearance is two-fold. From a purely gaming perspective, it reinforces Ford’s partnership with Microsoft, with the former licensing several of its vehicles for use in various Forza games. The 4D simulator will be playable by racing fans for the duration of Gamescom, allowing them to experience the Xbox franchise in arguably its purest form.
The bigger reason though was the reveal of the new Ford Ranger Raptor, its monstrously powerful new pick-up truck. Ford calls it “the toughest and most high-performing version ever of Europe’s best-selling pick-up”, designed for off-road events – it features six “Terrain Management System” modes catering to different environments – and packing a “bi-turbo version of Ford’s 2.0l EcoBlue diesel engine”. It’s a beast, essentially, and its debut was the first time a car has been revealed at Gamescom. The real thing will be available to buy in EU countries in 2019.
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Perhaps more interestingly for gamers was the announcement that the Raptor will feature in Forza Horizon 4 when it launches in October. With Playground Games’ latest racing festival taking place across the UK’s countryside, mountain ranges, and beaches – and with terrain and weather conditions shifting with the seasons – the Raptor will likely be a powerful addition to your in-game garage. How accurately the Raptor will be recreated wasn’t revealed, though if its Terrain Management System is somehow included, that could add a unique dynamic to driving it in the game.
Big Truck Energy
Ford’s interest in the gaming sphere is set to expand beyond its association with Forza, too. The company also used Gamescom to announce a new ‘Project P1 Design Challenge’. Set to launch later this year, details are currently relatively sparse but it will see Ford looking to partner with the player community to “engage in the design of future Ford Performance cars”.
Quite what this entails is something of a mystery, but Ford’s European Design Director Amko Leenarts says they want to tap into younger drivers needs and concerns, citing millennials’ “environmental awareness” and Gen Z being “digital natives”, and looking for ways to connect them with future vehicles.
Until more information is revealed later in 2018, the programme sounds like a curiosity, but one worth keeping an eye on. Until then, players can get to grips with the Ford Ranger Raptor in virtual form in Forza Horizon 4 in just a few weeks’ time.
Forza Horizon 4 launches on Xbox One and Windows 10 on 2 October 2018.
Fancy a blast on Ford’s new simulator? How about Ford’s new truck? Let us on Twitter at @trustedreviews