Since it first appeared, the Xbox has seen some cracking racers. The originals of Project Gotham Racing and Ralisport Challenge were soon superseded by altogether more impressive sequels. PGR2 set a new standard for Live integration while RC2 is probably the most gorgeous racer released on any console, possibly any format. Along with other notables such as TOCA 2 and Burnout 3 the Xbox has so far been well served for arcade racers. But as yet it has had nothing that matches the scope of the current king of the racing series, Gran Turismo. But all that is set to change when Forza Motorsport is finally unleashed on an eager racing scene.
Developed by a team that includes some of the makers of both PGR and RC, Forza Motorsport will be the Xbox's first proper driving simulator. Featuring a full career mode along with a host of quick race options and some very tight Live integration, with Forza Motorsport Microsoft aims to take away one of the few remaining reasons for people to buy a PS2 over an Xbox. The developers of the game just want to make the best racing title in the history of gaming. If the number features in a game was enough to take the crown then it looks like GT4 is dead in the water even before it gets its full international release. Of course, we won't really know if Forza will take the laurels until we get to play some finished code, but in the meantime let's have a look at what sorts of goodies it has up its sleeve.
For a start it has a massive variety of cars to play with. Featuring over 240 models from over 40 different manufacturers, Forza Motorsport will have one of the genre's largest ever garages. Coming from the same sort of collecting angle as the GT series, Forza will give players the opportunity to own, tweak and race some of the fastest and most covetable racing machines on the planet. The full list is here, but to give a quick idea of the pedigree and choice that Forza will offer drivers will be able to get behind the wheel of vehicles as diverse as the Mclaren F1, Corvette, Shelby Mustang and Peugeot 206. Judging from the screenshots and my brief test drive down at Gamestars Live last year the game is going to be an absolute stunner. The detail of the car models boggles the mind. Every last aspect seems to have been accurately replicated and the shading effects are so good that the cars look a lot closer to reality than Kylie's face does these days. During my test drive I was particularly impressed by the damage model. It's highly unusual for car manufacturers to allow their babies to be smashed up in a virtual world so to see Porsches and Hondas crumple and take a battering was a pleasant surprise. Little touches like paintwork from your car marking any barriers you've had a run in with to expose the silvery primer underneath show an attention to detail, that if carried through the entire game, should ensure Forza its place on the Classic rostrum.
So you’ve acquired a fantastic car but aren't quite happy with the way it runs. If you earn yourself enough money on the track then the aftermarket world becomes your oyster. A variety of different engines, suspension kits, forced induction pressure, ignition timers, bolt-on superchargers, brakes, rims, racing slicks, fine-tuned gear ratios, can all be added into the cars. As well as slotting in new parts you can of course tweak everything to your taste. Tyre temperature and pressure along with gear ratios and the turbo can all be adjusted with the twist of a virtual spanner. And as the driving model is geared towards simulation rather than arcade thrills you should expect to have to spend some time in the garage to get the best performance out of your choice of car and parts. Forza will model brake and tyre temperatures as well as aerodynamic load and weight transfer. In fact, Forza will model everything that is practical, plus a few things that may seem excessive, such as the cooling effect on the brakes from the amount of air that passes under the chassis. Modifying an engine won't affect the handling of the car by way of some preset value. Rather Forza will use algorithms to determine the engine's new performance capabilities. Microsoft also claims that Forza will also have the most realistic simulation of tyre on asphalt contact in any game, a believable statement as over a month of development was spent on this element alone. As this is the point where the power of the car meets the road this should allow for unprecedented level of precision. A full-on physics engine will be part of the package with the developers hoping to skirt close enough to full on simulation while retaining a high fun factor.
Once you've tweaked the innards of your car to perfection you may find yourself less than fully impressed with its visual appearance. So it’s a good thing that Forza will cater to the modders as well as the rodders. Taking its cue from Need for Speed Underground - but leaving behind the neon garishness that defines boy racers Egamers will be able to replace and augment just about every part of their car's external appearance. From wheel rims to spoilers and from decals to customized paint jobs with side skirts, rear diffusers, hood vents, fender flares, air dams, all along for the ride. Thought must be given to the weight of these new parts as every item has mass and will affect the performance of the car. Forza will offer up the prospect of spending more time tweaking the cars than actually racing them.
Forza will also include an advanced AI system, which goes by the rather corny name Drivatar. In essence this means players will be able to instruct the AI to drive in a particular way, emulating the driving style of the human player and thereby giving them the kind of racing experience that no other opponent can deliver. If the player is notably bad at cornering the Drivatar racers will soon pick up the same weakness, making for some messy racing. New drivers can also count on a little artificial help in the form of driving aids. Traction control and stability management options will be joined by ABS, all of which should help to ease drivers into the detailed gameplay of Forza Motorsport.
So Forza has the cars, the driving model, the AI and the tweaking all covered. What about the tracks? The game will ship with 31 tracks, ranging from seven real world courses such as Germany's famous Nurburgring, California's Leguna Seca and Japan's Tsukuba circuit. Joining the exquisitely modelled real-world tracks will be some courses cooked up by the developers to offer the most thrilling and challenging tracks for your racing pleasure. Some of these are based on real place like the streets of New York City and Rio de Janeiro. Others are completely fictitious. Courses range from circuits on both race tracks and city streets to test tracks and public roads.
As if all these features and detail weren't enough, Forza Motorsport plans to go mental for Live as well. Taking a leaf out of RC2 Forza will update your stats online even if you are racing exclusively in single player. There will be over 1700 different leaderboards to compete on with a separate one for each car and track. While this could be viewed as overkill gamers certainly won't be able to moan about a lack of options. As well as the standard racing Live users will also be able to swap cars with other gamers. Say you have a really fancy and fully tricked-out Skyline that you wouldn't mind trading for something a little less ostentatious. Find another gamer in the market for a pink Nissan and you're in business. Forza will also support downloadable content, so all in it should have an incredibly long life both on and offline.
Delayed from a February release to April this year, Forza Motorsport is not only shaping up to be the most complete racer on any machine but it also looks and sounds like it will be an immense amount of fun to play. Rest assured we will have a review for you as soon as we can tear ourselves away from the TV screen.