The first racing game that I can remember playing in the comfort of my own home was Activision's seminal Pitstop. Leap forward 20 odd years and I'm still straining to make the best time around a winding circuit while overtaking my opponents. This time round there are more colours in the decal just above my right rear brake light then there were in the entire palette of Pitstop. And whereas Pitstop would let you change the wheels mid race if they became worn, these days I can change the rim of the wheel, alter the tyre pressure, camber, and suspension as well as apply a new lick of pearlescent paint to the car's bodywork. Yes, things have changed mightily in the last two decades yet some things still remain the same. Just as Pitstop was a furiously addictive driving game that captured the thrill of high-speed racing to the best of that era's technology so Forza is the pinnacle of today's accessible racing simulators.
Stuffed with more gaming options that many franchise manage over the course of three or four sequels, this first offering from Microsoft Game Studios can initially seem a daunting prospect. While the meat of the game is the extensive career mode, there are plenty of multiplayer and arcade options to play with as well as a fully integrated online component that is the best example yet of how on- and offline play can be integrated to make both elements richer then they would be in isolation. After playing around with some of the racing modes, (spending the first of many hours on the Time Trial mode, which, like the rest of the game compares your best efforts with every other Live enabled Forza owner) I pulled up my britches and went looking for a future as a racing driver. Although you can only first choose from point-to-point or the amateur series as you win more and more races new career paths open up. Each set of events can contain between two or five separate races. You only need to come in the top three in each race to progress to the next set, but coming in first will reward players with a free car and other potential goodies. Each race will also earn the player credits. The harder the race the more you earn, but the more you bash your car around the more credits will be automatically deducted from your total to repair the damage. Much like a cut-down RPG, you get to level up in Forza, with credits replacing XP. Every new level will unlock some new cars or give you a price reduction on certain kinds of upgrades. Once you complete all the offline career paths there's an online competition to master. There are also a wide range of circuits and courses to compete on as well. There are hill climbs and descents to test your breaking and acceleration skills, street circuits and specialist tracks to challenge your overall driving ability and some torturous endurance tracks to test your staying power. In short, Forza offers all the tarmac based racing you could reasonably ask for. Just don't come here if you want to experience any rallying or ice racing, as Forza doesn't mess around with such deviance.
The driving model is fantastic in Forza. Far more of a simulation than an arcade-like experience, the first initial few hours with Forza are a period of intense learning and more than occasional frustration. There seems to be little concession to the sensibilities of gamers brought up on a steady diet of F1GP xxxx and Ridge Racer with even the driving experience of Gran Turismo being more inclined to go easy on the player than with Forza. But it's not stupidly difficult and the reward of an intense feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that floods into a player as they begin to get to grips with the driving and win races. All the tears of baby Jesus that the proceeding torrents of swear words will have caused are worth it at these times. There's not much else I can say about the driving model other than it is capable of reproducing all kinds of different rides, from the asthmatic efforts of the hatchbacks to the fire breathing rockets that are the purpose-built race cars. Forza takes its simulation goals to their logical extension with a wide range of tuning options. As you buy new and improved parts for your cars you can begin to tweak certain settings, from the differential to the stiffness of your shocks and bump damping. If you are into tinkering with your car the number of options in Forza should keep you occupied for ages. You can even test your new setups on test tracks and as each car has its own set-up library the amount of configurations you can save and test out is phenomenal. Those of us who like a quick tinker with the more obvious things such as gear balance or tyre pressure need not fear the depth of Forza's tuning options. It's only necessary to master this aspect of the game if you really want to bother the leaders on the online scoreboards. To get a full and enjoyable race out of Forza requires no more knowledge of car mechanics than the game will teach you in its unfortunately limited tutorial areas. The game could certainly do with a more considered approach to teaching new players about both the basics and advanced driving techniques but in this day and age of games which lead you by the hand it is somewhat refreshing to have to figure out so much for yourself. Just make sure you rip a few CDs to your Xbox's hard drive and switch off the terrible music that comes with the game, (in one neat touch the music can be made to play in both the menus and in race, providing an unbroken listening experience.)
Physics is also uncompromising and although I laud the game for its strict adherence to emulating the real world, I did tire of the inevitable spinout that a bump into a tyre wall would cause. Put it this way, you will be very lucky indeed if a collision with a barrier at speed doesn't spin you to the back of the pack. Driving over grass and sand will considerably deprive your car of momentum so any plans of skating your way to victory in a straight line across the fields are quickly dismissed. Forza really wants you to drive your virtual car as if it were on a real circuit and the time penalty for going off-road is so severe that even the most careless driver is quickly doing their best to stay on the tarmac at all times. But it's a race, and the heat of the moment can lead to mistakes. So it's with great pleasure that you realise your AI opponents are not driving on rails and are just as prone to crashes and sliding off the track as the player is. With many racing games a nudge that send you to the back of the pack is as good as the end of your race. With Forza your chances are always high that the leaders will clumsily pile into a bend with the resulting carnage allowing the player to quickly catch-up and retake their position. The AI is also an aggressive driver. It will happily go door to door with you down long straights and while the AI isn't adverse to using their car to gently prod you out of position things never degenerate into a game of bumper cars. This game is also free of any gum-based elasticity so if you tear off over the horizon you don't have to fear the entire pack rubber-banding past you on the last straight. The AI is a realistic and fair competitor and is the most human like opponent AI I have ever had the pleasure to drive against.
For a game that delivers such a sublime racing experience to be burdened with a menu system such as Forza's is a terrible shame. Not only is it poorly laid out and demands an unnecessary number of button pushes to navigate to the commonly used areas but it is so clumsily implemented that at times I bypassed tuning my car for a race because I just could no longer be bothered to slide up and down the screen at such a leisurely pace. The garage is the most oft used menu option, so why it isn't mapped to one of the unused buttons, thereby making it accessible with one button push from anywhere in the game, is a mystery that will never be satisfactorily solved. It's like the menu system was programmed by a completely separate company form the rest of the game and was delivered with explicit instructions that it wasn't to be modified in any way shape or form, especially not to make it more user friendly. Having to retreat through four or five screens just to change your vehicle if you feel it unsuitable to an upcoming race series adds a level of frustration that should be confined to the track. Forza 2 will be able to sell itself to the fans with this simple line; "Now with working menus". Still, although the menus are the most cack-handed aspect of the whole Forza package they are aesthetically inoffensive.
There are a number of other minor problems with the interface. Forza is screaming out for a single page that displays your current career progress and the paths available to the player for progression. There were times when I could have sworn I was playing an old point and click adventure, so absolutely stuck as I was as to how to advance onto the next set of races. Each set of races will have certain restrictions, be they weight, BHP or class, amongst others. As you mod your cars their specs shift considerably, so your pool of suitable vehicles is in a constant flux. All of the different race sets will gift the player a free car if you come in first in all of the races in that set, so it's only natural that you will want to nab a free RX7 rather than shell out for one from the store. However, to find out which set has this vehicle as its prize requires searching through the different career paths until you find that race and then trying to remember which cars you have that are capable of winning that series for you. A simple overarching display screen, detailing the races to be driven and the cars to be won, would strip away a lot of tedious menu navigation and generally make the player's life that bit easier.
The first time you set off in a race in Forza is an amusing affair. Even with all the driving aids on you're guaranteed to careen off the track within three corners of the start. The driving model is both precise and individualistic, so as with all good driving games a certain period of adjustment is inevitable. Forza guides neophyte players along with its impressive dynamic racing line, a sting of coloured bars that threads its way through the course following an unadventurous racing line. The bars will change from green to yellow and then red when the player should slow their car down for an approaching bend or hilltop and quickly becomes relied upon as a near infallible guide of what to do next. The line is also dynamic, so those red braking bars will show up a lot quicker when driving a bullish Ferrari Enzo than when you are behind the wheel of a hesitant Vauxhall Corsa. It's an innovative system that works so well that like sleeping tablets and MMOs, it's very easy to develop a dependency.
So much so that I eventually had to force myself to turn it off and drive like a man. In conjunction with a number of other driving aids such as ABS and traction control Forza's driving line ensures that novice and experienced drivers are able to enjoy the Forza racing experience. You'll soon find yourself turning off some of the lesser aids such as stability management to gain the extra cash that the higher difficulty level rewards you with. Piling on the difficulty leads to greatly expanded earnings to spend on upgraded kit and flashier cars, but it's still a brave day when you finally banish the racing line for good. An issue I have with a few other driving games is also unfortunately present in Forza and was ultimately responsible for my hesitancy is ditching that green life-line. Thanks to the similarity of the colours of the track with those of the land on either side it can often be very challenging to determine when and where the next corner will appear from. Changing camera positions helps a little, but even when looking at the bumper of the car from high above corners will often appear out of nowhere, leaving too little time for the driver to react and break before skidding off onto the grass. Naturally this problem dissipates as you become more familiar with the tracks, but it always remains annoying that part of your brain tells your body to hitch up and try to peer over the horizon so as to get a better clue of what is coming next. The less-than-mild bloom effect that the developers have implemented compounds the problem as it blurs the line between track and kerb just where you don't need a bit of graphical polish. Saying that, the bloom effect gives the backgrounds a nice hazy atmosphere and makes for some of the most lifelike looking scenery in any driving game to date. It's also a cheeky way of sneaking in a pseudo motion blur affect.
The graphics in Forza are generally of a very high standard. The aforementioned scenery really does deserve special merit. The variety of locales present in the game hasn't led to any corner cutting in the art department. Real life tracks such as Silverstone and Leguna Seca have never looked more realistic and the fabricated courses are a rich source of impressive vistas and beautiful sunshine effects. All the trackside objects are full 3D models which really help to foster a greater sense of immersion but the framerate always remains constant and has a fluidity which belies the amount of detail packed into each track. On one or two occasions I did experience a clutch of dropped frames which made the game appear to freeze for a fraction of a second but this happens so infrequently that I feel some what silly even mentioning it. One area which has caused some discord is the quality of the car models themselves. I tend to side with those that believe they lack certain something and so have a tendency to appear a little flat. I feel inclined to place the blame on the bloom effect, for a close inspection of the models do show off a lot of detail and some striking representations of the world's best driving machines. Little touches in the game, such as skidmarks that persist till the end of the race and paintwork that rubs off onto objects you collide with all combine to make Forza a very pretty game indeed.
Forza is probably the most complete racing package available for any machine in any era. I haven't even mentioned the pimping options, (Forza includes a full paint and stickerbox along with a number of tinted window and flashy rim options), the mightily impressive Drivatar, (a virtual driver that you can train then let run races for you), and the sheer range of cars on offer, (over 200 cars from 50 manufacturers from the Asian, American and European regions). I've even criminally not detailed the comprehensive online component. Needless to say playing Forza online is at least as thrilling a racing experience as the offline mode and the number of options, leaderboards and people to race will ensure Live enabled gamers will be able to get so much out of the package they may not feel the need for another racing game for a very long time. Forza may sound like an intimidating game, yet while it is deep enough for the petrol heads it's still easy enough to pick up and play that bunch of drunken non-gamers can have a blast trying to out drive each other after a night down the pub. No mistaking though, this is a serious racing game for serious racing fans. If we can ignore the atrocious menus it is also a seriously well made game that should appeal to gamers of all persuasions. If you've held off for this long then you really should do yourself a favour and buy this essential game.