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TVG finally gets its hands on the Xbox driving simulator and finds that it bridges several gaps...
- The most realistic driving sim on the Xbox
- The technical telemetry
- The unique Drivatar feature
- The true integration of online/offline in a racing sim
- The visuals need some refinement before it hits the stores
- Frame rate
- Glitches and bugs
- Lengthy loading times
- System crashes
It can be said that since its release in November 2003 Project Gotham Racing 2 has become the racing title for Xbox, winning a host of awards including the BAFTA Interactive Award in the Best Racing category in 2004 as well as being nominated for a lot more. It was the game that helped to launch Xbox Live, and is still regarded as one of the best examples of the online service to date; itâ??s still listed on the Top Ten most played Live games in Europe and it still resides in the US Top Twenty. In fact PGR2 is the only game in the European Top Ten to have been released over eight months ago â?“ no other game in the Top Ten comes close. One last thing, how many people have played â??Cat and Mouseâ?? on PGR2 Live?
This month sees the release of the first game that is probably best described as PGR2â??s cousin â?“ Forza Motorsport. Itâ??s a game that has been pitched by some as â??Gran Turismo for Xboxâ??, indeed that was one of the impressions here at TVG Towers before last months Hands-On preview, where the game ended up being described as straddling somewhere between PGR2 and the eminent Gran Turismo 4 on PlayStation2. In the preview it was stated that the game needed some tweaks and a bit of polish before it was released, but did Team Forza manage to finish the development with a flourish?
Aside from the crashes, bugs, and long loading times there was very little wrong with the game, although the visuals did seem to require a little more work. The delay in the gameâ??s release was definitely time well spent with the extra refinement evident throughout every aspect of Forza.
Essentially you can sum up Forza Motorsport in a nutshell just by watching the introductory sequence with itâ??s rock instrumental, shots of cars, and its sheer brashness. This is not your operatic slow-motion Jeremy â??Look at my Ferrari F40 on the narrow lanes above Monacoâ?? Clarkson of GT4, instead Forza is Jeremy â??Pedal to the metal round the fastest track in a Ford Mustangâ?? Clarkson. The interface is quite easy to navigate providing players with a good sense of structure despite the sheer amount of content held, while the integration of the offline and online side of the game (which weâ??ll talk about a little later) is probably the best seen in an Xbox title to date.
Measuring and comparing the cars is achieved in various ways but aside from the usual rigid methods such as â??Country of Originâ?? and â??Forward Wheel Driveâ??, which of course make appearances, Forza includes a dynamic class system that helps to determine a number of things. Ranging from the lowly D4 series, which are very much run-of-the-mill cars, right through to the S1 (Ultra-High Production cars) series that counts the Enzo Ferrari amongst its ranks, and the GT series of cars that are pretty much one of a kind, gamers can measure exactly where their motor stands up against any other car in the game. The performance class system in Forza also means that you can easily see how the various upgrades affect the carâ??s performance; when you see that by adding a top-spec turbocharger it shifts your vehicle from a C4 to C1 you can understand immediately that by buying the component you might be able to shake off your opponents.
Forza also allows you to see a complete breakdown of your car so that you can see how different setups change the performance, and it also allows for some minute changes to be accomplished a la Gran Turismo 4. As players upgrade various car components such as the transmission the level of tuning is increased so that everything can be tested for the ultimate in car setups, the repercussions of which will be discussed shortly. These setups can also be saved for various tracks, so that your Enzo be quickly configured as players change from a street track to a specialist race track. Another key component in Forza that seriously affects the gameplay is the concept of the Drivatar, which allows players to â??trainâ?? the AI to drive how you drive. This is achieved by initially driving around a few courses allowing the game to calculate your style. This then unlocks other components such as the ability to race against your AI and a few other vehicles (which can be made up of other Drivatars gamers may have.) Itâ??s somewhat unusual to find yourself being second-guessed, and is all the more worrying when you try to race against your AI self â?“ and you lose. Drivatars can be trained continually and can also be trained on specific tracks, which means that the more you use the facility the more it should drive like you. The Drivatar system is basically there to give players the option to complete races, such as the lengthy Endurance events, without the need to physically drive the car â?“ just load a Drivatar and let him race.
Complementing the Drivatar system is the level of opponent AI in the game, which comes across as deliberate and assertive. These cars will fight you for position as they try to over-take, and theyâ??ll do their very best to dodge your car if its parked in the track. Not only that, but theyâ??ll also fight with each other for position, and coupled with the fact that a driver is actually visible results in a natural almost organic experience. Unlike in the Gran Turismo series, Forza does try its best to make players feel like theyâ??re racing against actual drivers and not racing as a procession of vehicles just hugging the perfect race line. Aside from the gameâ??s AI, there has also been a refinement of the driving experience between the Preview and Review builds of the game, especially in the actual car handling. Whereby the cars felt a bit sluggish before, they now handle a lot better â?“ in fact at times the cars do feel a little too light to drive, although the distinct lack of subtleties of GT4 in the way that the cars rock with changing factors such as the change in weight distribution, is a little disappointing. Having said that the races are enjoyable to play and even though itâ??s quite easy to win enough credits to build up a race winning car, the challenges do being to build up as you progress through the levels and enter the more â??Professionalâ?? races.
Back to the race selection, and Forza allows the layer to choose whether to participate in an Arcade mode, Free Run, Time Trial or the main Career mode, and whilst there will be times where gamers will have a go at the first two options, itâ??s the Career mode that will attract the most game time. The Arcade mode does allow players to unlock more cars and tracks to play in the Time Trial and Multiplayer modes, but they cannot be used during the Career mode. There are lots of races to complete in Forza, with the developers integrating a PGR2 style ranking that unlocks more tracks and races as players progress. Within those race types (which include Amateur, Professional, and Endurance races), there are events that once again are locked depending on the playerâ??s level and car type. What is perhaps quite neat is the efficiency by which the game allows you to go back and choose a suitable car for that event; for instance if gamers try to race a Forward Wheel Drive event in a Rear Wheel car, the game advises players of their eligible vehicles suitable for that event and allows them to jump straight into the garage with one button â?“ itâ??s certainly a lot more efficient than the long-winded method built into every iteration of Gran Turismo.
Visually the car models are very nice, surpassing the models in PGR2, although the debate as to whether they reach the standards of GT4 is sure to last over many a forum thread. The cars do have damage modelling (see Polyphony, it can be done) although the fact that cars canâ??t be completely totalled is a bit of a letdown. On the whole though the damage does severely affect the performance and handling of the cars, and itâ??s almost a wincing experience when a million dollar car like the Enzo scrapes along a barrier at 200mph leaving its scarlet paintwork run behind it.
Like the cars, the actual environments in Forza are beautiful, and the developers can take a very large pat on the back for providing the some of the most realistic locations in a game on the Xbox. From the real world tracks of Laguna Seca and Nurburgring Nordschleife to the city races of New York and fictitious tracks made especially for Forza, the gameworld is stunning. The level of detail in the environments is reflected (quite literally) in the quality of reflections that the cars give off that gives an amazingly realistic visual condition.
If the in-race detail isnâ??t enough to impressive, then itâ??s worth taking note of the obscene amount of data and telemetry available to a player whilst watching a replay. The data includes everything from g-force to a complete and detailed breakdown of the pressures and temperatures exerted on the tires through the race. Whilst itâ??s almost incomprehensible to really understand what all of the telemetry data means, itâ??s a fantastic way for Team Forza to show that they really meant the game to be a driving simulator.
Despite all of the fuss about the cars and the Drivatar, perhaps the key feature of interest in Forza Motorsport is its level of integration between online and Live play. As well as reaching the same level of integration that PGR2 set over a year ago, in many ways it also surpasses it in a range of different ways. Worries about racing against cars vastly superior to anything in the playerâ??s garage are reduced by the option to limit the choice of cars by their performance class, and thereâ??s also the option of racing with the â??ELOâ?? system that is based on the world ranking method used in Chess to consider too.
These it has to be said are all things to be considered as the peak of current Live experiences, but Forza outdoes them by allowing gamers to exchange car â??skinsâ??, to selling cars over Live itself â?“ if you have the requested number of credits. Whilst this certainly seems to be the start of the marketplace that J. Allard recently spoke about, one last little details about this exciting idea is that gamers can watch the replays from other gamers on the scoreboards, and not only that but players can also download and save that carâ??s setup to their Xbox so that they can have an identical car. This is free downloadable content on a grand scale indeed! The Live play also includes the option to turn off collisions between cars, so moaners who have long complained about being pushed off the track can stop whining like small children and just get on with the race at hand.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Live play in Forza is that itâ??s synergy with the â??offlineâ?? game. Unlike Project Gotham Racing 2, the Career mode can be developed during competitive online play, and the game shows itâ??s intent by making the online section the very first option after entering the mode. Forza is certainly a game that seems to be building bridges between this generation and the next-generation of online play, and shows exactly how the integration of online and offline gameplay should be approached.
It has to be said that one of the neat features of the Gran Turismo series was its range of music which included everything from Saes-Saint to Franz Ferdinand, and perhaps what is interesting is that Forza has precisely zero licensed songs. This is a game that aside from one â??playlistâ?? of Forza atmospheric instrumentals has no music as it relies and almost expects players to utilise the playlists that theyâ??ve already saved onto their Xboxs instead, which means that no only can gamers listen to exactly the right music to suit them, but Team Forza saved a huge amount of money just by avoiding to pay the artist feesâ?¦
So far as the actual sound of the game, it certainly seems impressive with all of the cars sounding about right, and although the sounds change as the car is modified with different clutches (cue lots of hissing during gear changes), itâ??s really hard to tell some of the cars apart if theyâ??re in the same class. The cars donâ??t quite sound as delightful as they did in GT4 although to be honest a vast majority of people probably couldnâ??t tell the difference between the sound of an Enzo going at 200mph and a similar spec car going at the same speed.
The multiplayer is probably the most thorough and integrated of any Live game that will exponentially increase the game’s longevity for months to come like it’s PGR2 cousin. The Drivatar system works very well, which means that players won’t be forced into driving 200 lap monster races just to 100% the game, and handling is much lighter and improved compared to its preview build.
Along with Halo 2 and PGR2 this truly stands as one of the games to get Live for – it rarely puts a foot wrong but when you consider that it’s the first game in a franchise to be, Team Forza has done an incredible job.
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