It’s new console time, which means one thing: it’s also time for new racing games. Driving simulations – also known as car porn – are the go-to genre of every new gaming platform, simply because they’re easy showcases for improved graphical horsepower. So here comes Forza Motorsport 5, the first-party exclusive for Microsoft’s Xbox One, which certainly is a shining gob of eye candy. The only trouble with the game is, if you squint a little, you can’t really tell the difference between it and Forza Motorsport 4, released for the Xbox 360 in 2011.
Sure, there might be improvements in polygon counts and – OMG! – lighting effects, but that’s hardly enough for anyone except the biggest fans of the genre to get excited about. The new Forza looks and plays very much the same as its predecessor (which to be fair, was amazing). If anything, it’s a step back from last year’s most recent entry, Forza Horizon, which effectively introduced the open-world concept to the franchise.
Forza 5 opens with the obligatory mantra to cars, a poetic overture extolling their virtues as read by Top Gear TV host Richard Hammond. The over-the-top fluff is what’s known in the genre as foreplay.
From there, it’s quickly on to the main action, or career mode, where you start off racing the McLaren P1 before cruelly getting busted back down to simple compact cars from the likes of Mazda and Volvo. You shuttle around the world to race on tracks in downtown Prague, the Swiss Alps, the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi and the Top Gear test track in Dunsfold, England, among others, where you perform on tracks of varying lengths and skill, with each demanding its own certain kinds of cars.
These are unlocked either by earning credits from racing or through microtransaction tokens that can be bought with real money. There is also a variety of race types, from chases (where you have to follow rival cars while ducking in and out of traffic) to passing challenges (where you score points for how many vehicles you can overtake in a given time frame). You can also go “bowling” on Top Gear’s track, where the goal is to knock over as many pins as you can with your car.
Does it all look and sound fantastic? Of course it does – that’s a no-brainer. The next-generation touches are subtle, such as the dramatic flares of sunlight when you drive toward it (which makes you wish you could pull down a glare visor) or the echo of your engine when you pass through a tunnel or spectator stands. But of course, the visuals and audio in Forza 4 were pretty spectacular too.
This instalment introduces something known as the “Drivatar,” which aside from being one of the all-time worst portmanteaus in the English language, is also a sort of opponent intelligence that finds its roots online. Turn 10 Studios touts the feature as a form of artificial intelligence that first learns driving habits from real players, then deploys them into the game. It’s a nice concept in theory, but not one that was fully testable before the game’s official release for lack of an online community.
Otherwise, Forza 5 suffers from some of the same problems as its direct predecessor. Unlocking new cars generally requires a lot of credits, which means either a lot of racing or a good chunk of microtransactions, also known as further investment on the part of the player.
Races, meanwhile, are usually a case of getting ahead early by driving aggressively, then switching to a more conservative style. Once you’re in first, you’ll usually stay there as long as you don’t mess up in spectacular fashion.
Online multiplayer is dogged by the reverse of that, where it’s really easy to get saddled in last place by one small mistake. Once there, it’s usually too steep a hill to climb to get back into the race, especially if your opponents are skilled. The result is an inordinately high number of people quitting out of frustration. I honestly don’t know what the fix is to the issue, but hopefully the developers will figure it out for a future Forza.
Forza Motorsport 5 is a fantastic driving game for fans of the genre, but it takes almost no chances. It’s content to drive a straight line, which is a little disappointing given that we’re now supposed to be at the dawn of a new era of gaming. If anything, last year’s Forza Horizon – which featured an open world and a storyline on top of the series’ usual car fetishism – was a much bolder and more exciting game. In retrospect, it might have been the better showcase for the next generation.