- Review Price: £33.00
After several false starts, Microsoft finally has an answer to Gran Turismo. It’s not that the Xbox suffers from a lack of great racing games – Rallisport Challenge 2 is arguably the best rally racer on any platform, and the Xbox incarnation of Burnout 3 must stand as one of the finest arcade racers around – but it has never had a serious driving game that could match Polyphony’s classics punch for punch. Sega GT was a decent sort of effort, but the handling was never that convincing and the gameplay never that compelling. Two Project Gothams bought us real-world racing thrills, and plenty of great, tail-sliding moments, not to mention some compulsive online play, but never quite managed to match Gran Turismo for sheer, cavernous depth.
A lot has been riding on Forza Motorsport, and after three years of work and some pretty heavy investment, it delivers. In some respects Gran Turismo still leaves it trailing, but in the final turn it not only matches GT4, but in some ways actually surpasses it.
Amazingly, one way it doesn’t is in the one way you expected it to: the graphics. Don’t get me wrong, Forza looks great. The cars and tracks are detailed, beautifully textured and surrounded by lush scenery and clever lighting, and while the 30fps frame rate is half GT4’s 60fps, it still delivers an incredible sense of speed. And yet, somehow, Gran Turismo looks more solid. Compare a GT4 motor with its Forza equivalent, and it seems less like a skin of textures on a polygon mesh, and more like a mass of steel and chrome. Compare Forza’s New York track with the similar GT4 version, and it’s the latter that seems more like a bite out of the real Big Apple.
And despite Microsoft’s promotion of Forza’s advanced physics engine, GT4 still has the better handling. Again, Forza is streets ahead of most racers, and hits a perfect balance between enjoyable simulation and po-faced accuracy, but it never quite matches GT4’s gritty, seat-of-the-pants model, where you can almost feel every change in the relation between tyre and tarmac. In these two respects, GT4 still does it better.
Also, GT4 still wins in the numbers game. Forza manages an impressive roster of marques and models, with such infamous GT no-shows as Ferrari and Porsche included, and an excellent selection of European, Asian and American favourites. However, compare its 250-strong line-up to GT4’s 700-odd collection and Forza is left eating dust. Needless to say, GT4 also wins out on tracks, game modes and competitions. Basically, if you want the most comprehensive and most realistic serious driving sim out there, then GT4 is still your boy.
So why do I think Forza is the better game? Simple. The races are better, and a lot of it is just down to attitude. I love GT4, but the first few hours are a chore. First, there’s the license tests, and then several long sessions where you’re racing second-hand boy racer cars at slow speeds in the little leagues. It’s a game you pick away at more than play, and at times it feels the challenge is less in the driving, and more in the spending. You lose, you spend, you win – that’s how it goes.
Stuff that, says Forza, and hands you a decent car – say, an Audi TT – right at the start, shoves you out there on the race track, then generously rewards early victories with even more capable models. The tinkering and upgrading is still important, but Forza does this better too, with a simple ratings system that enables you to see that while engine upgrade x will boost your speed and acceleration, it’s also going to wreck your cornering capability. A set of excellent driving aids helps you keep your head above water in the early stages, and there’s a sweetener to switch them off. The game adjusts the credits you win racing to the difficulty of the race. Turn off driving aids and turn up car damage or the difficulty of the AI, and you’re on the way to earning big money.
Which brings us to the two areas where Forza really triumphs: AI and car damage. There are those who feel that Forza’s AI is too aggressive. Cars slam into you from behind, carve you up from the front, and shove their way past you on a regular basis, and it can make the game a slightly frustrating experience. But it also keeps the racing tight, tough and unpredictable. GT4’s AI was an improvement on GT3’s, but there was still the sense that, given a car of equal or better speed, all you had to do was accelerate sooner and brake later than the rest of the goons making their way around the track. In Forza, you meet drivers who seem determined to give you a hard time, and as a result, when you win you feel that it’s not just because you drove the faster car, but because you took calculated risks and drove the better race. Each lap turns into a mini-drama on its own, and each win a satisfying victory.
And there’s bad news for those of us that relied on GT’s disinterest in car damage as a driving aid. With Forza, the days of slamming into the car ahead to slow for a corner or into the side of a slowcoach to nudge yourself around are well and truly over. You’ll crush your bumper, wreck your steering and destroy your suspension if you push it. Once again, the balance is superb. Forza’s car damage doesn’t punish you for every crash with a race-ending write-off, but it gives you enough grief to make you think twice about doing something stupid.
Take all that, and combine it with some excellent track designs, ranging from real-world racetracks that are all smooth curves and tight corners to city street races and hair-raising twisty mountain descents, and you have a racing game that grabs your attention and holds it for hour after hour. Like GT, it creates that horrid vicious circle where you win a new car or buy a new upgrade, then can’t resist racing to try it out, then can’t stop racing until you win, at which point you buy a new car or upgrade. It’s horribly addictive.
Two other features are also worth a mention. One, the drivatar, is a bit of a gimmick; a facility to train an AI driver to drive races for you, using the AI’s impressions of your own style and talents. In practice, I’m not entirely sure what the use is. It can be a good way to get through a dull championship, but you have to pay the drivatar and it takes a sizable portion of your winning credits. And sadly, like a small child mimicking Daddy’s swearwords in the playground, the drivatar reflects your own worst tendencies. Watching me crash repeatedly around a hairpin on the Tokyo circuit obviously affected the poor mite’s nerves, for in a race half an hour later it performed exactly the same trick and fell from first place to sixth in seconds.
Luckily, the other feature is a killer. Unlike GT4, Forza actually allows you to race online. Eight-player burn-ups are guaranteed to be an Xbox Live! staple, there’s an online career mode for the terminally competitive, and you can even trade your customised cars with the masses. Where GT feared to tread, Microsoft has taken a bold step forward.
In fact, bold is a great way to describe Forza Motorsport as a whole. Rather than ape Gran Turismo, it has taken its styles and fashioned them into something more aggressive, more thrilling, and frequently more fun. It’s a stark reminder that realism isn’t everything, and that sometimes the big numbers don’t add up. GT4 should win on points, but it’s Forza Motorsport that has stolen my heart.