Through the first three generations of Xbox, Forza Motorsport cemented itself as a racing game institution with its biennial releases. It’s been a much, much longer wait for the eighth game, though, with Turn 10 Studios reinventing the wheel of what Forza is as a racing game. The result is a game that fits in better with the current pantheon of ‘simcade’ racers with more serious-feeling multiplayer, but which has lost some of its US-centric racing personality.
One of the first jobs for any Forza game is to be a technical showcase of Xbox consoles, and Forza Motorsport delivers in that regard. There’s a choice of graphics modes, with Performance targeting full 4K and 60fps, while Performance RT blends in ray-traced reflection and ambient occlusion for a subtly more realistic image at the sacrifice of resolution to retain that 60fps. Finally, the Quality mode improves RT quality, but drops to 30fps, which is distinctly unpleasant after racing at 60fps. Personally, I settled on Performance so the scenery could more consistently resolve at a higher resolution.
Whatever graphics mode, the newly created tracks are wonderful, whether it’s a real-world Laguna Seca, Spa-Francorchamps and Watkins Glen, or a reworked Maple Valley. There’s a bunch of US circuits that stand out from the video game usuals, and South Africa’s Kyalami is also a great inclusion. There’s a lot more trackside detail compared to Forza Motorsport 7, and dynamic weather and time of day are applicable for all circuits, from foggy mornings to racing in thunderstorms. It’s a great-looking game, though there is some pop-in for car LOD, most noticeable in low light and under headlights.
Forza Motorsport is really built on two new pillars of progression that run through both the single-player Builder’s Cup career and online multiplayer. One of these is having the abbreviated concept of a race weekend, starting off with a practice session to learn the track before the roar of motorsports comes to life during a race event. For online races you can set a qualifying time during that practice window, but the career sidesteps this with a Challenge the Grid system, where you select a starting position in return for a greater cash payout at the end.
Having practice (and qualifying) is a major step forward for this series to capture the ebb and flow of a motorsports event and getting people to be better at the game in general. Naturally the game comes with a full suite of assists, from ABS and Traction Control, through to stability assists, racing lines and even assisted steering, but helping people to feel comfortable in turning these down or off is a challenge, and the only real answer is familiarity.
Practice is practically mandatory, tasking you with running three laps with an optional time trial target, and certain sections having their own mini time trials. You’re also scored and rewarded with XP for every corner that you take. It toes a very fine line of being encouraging without putting too many demands on you, but it’s also an underdeveloped concept when compared to the various practice session mini-games seen in Codemasters’ F1 series. Thankfully you can skip it, if you want, though this currently requires heading out on track and then selecting a menu option.
Still, it’s a good warm up for when the race kicks off. In career you pick your starting position, with the game then projecting your finish position, which can tie in with how you think you’re doing in the championship. If you choose anywhere in the middle or back half of the grid, then prepare yourself for some seriously wonky AI until you get toward the front. I stuck it on difficulty level 6 of 8, and the drivatars just do not know how to race. Even when they’re taking a decent line, they will brake through corners that are meant to be flat or have a little lift, but it’s also very common to see them way off the racing line, trundling along, failing to give up on a corner that you’ve taken, and more. Get to the front, though, and when they’re not fighting, the AI can be plenty fast and challenging to catch up and pass. The main problem is that they’re not predictable enough in their stupidity.
Another factor here is your car and how you’re tasked with upgrading and improving it over time in what Turn 10 has nicknamed a ‘CarPG’ progression. As you drive each car, and the better you drive the tracks through practice and races, you earn car-specific experience and level it up over time. That unlocks new car part categories, as well as the CP that you put towards them, like getting skill points on an RPG ability tree.
Through a four to six race series, it’s a nice meta game to gradually improve your chosen car from a basic road car to a track warrior with wings, race tyres and engine mods. If you’re having to be tentative and cautious in race one, by the final race, you’re really pushing thanks to the added mechanical grip and feel that you’ve built up for the car over a couple hours of racing.
There’s a bit of give and take with this system, though. Firstly, all your race winnings can now go to buying cars and not on pricey car parts; any time you respec a car, it’s totally free; unlocking a category gives you all the sports, race and other options at once, you just have to contend with the CP limit of the car’s level. A lot of that is good as a progression system, but it also means that you can’t just buy a car and then max it out in one go – not so great for more social racing if a buddy has a particular idea to recreate BTCC races, or something.
Car collecting will be greatly sped up if you buy the Premium Edition of the game with the VIP membership. This doubles the base earnings from a race, so you’ll typically receive around 30,000 cr. instead of 15,000 cr., and that dramatically brings down the time it takes to save up for a high end car from around twenty races for 300,000 cr. to more like ten. It does seem a bit stingy for standard players.
Heading online sees Forza follow in the footsteps of other games with having races on a schedule, instead of more dynamic on-the-fly matchmaking. This ties into the whole race weekend vibe, as you have to sign up for an event, which then drops you into practice, and the race itself kicks off at a set time.
First things first, you have to take part in three introductory races in the Qualifier Series, which lets the game award you a safety rating and ranking for matchmaking in future, but once that’s out of the way, you’ll find a bit more variety to the events available at any one time than compared to GT7, with each category – Touring Car, Forza GT, and other time-limited themes and groups – having its own schedule and track playlist.
More of the underlying race simulation elements comes to the fore during online racing with the tyre wear and fuel usage having more of an impact once you’re running race cars with slick tyres. A soft tyre will generally wear down and basically stop turning by the end of a short event, so you’re best off just sticking with the medium compound unless you’re up for a heartbreaking final lap, but for medium-length races, you will need to pit and that opens up some marginal strategic options to explore.
Where Forza has generally been a gamepad-first racer over the past 18 years, the enhanced physics engine had me plugging in an Xbox-capable Fanatec wheel, and I’ve really rather enjoyed it, especially with an eye to more competitive racing. Through review, I’ve leant on a few assists, such as sticking with the Standard steering instead of Simulation, which I found a little easier to intuit across a range of cars, and relying on that crutch of a racing line through corners – yeah, I’m a bit lazy when it comes to finding braking points.
Unfortunately, wheels aren’t yet first class controllers on Xbox. The Fanatec CSL Elite wheel base has a rev indicator strip, the McLaren GT3 V2 wheel has an OLED for a digital speedometer, but they don’t work on Xbox. It’s also not recognising or duplicating some buttons and paddles, so I don’t have a good way to map looking left or right while racing – thankfully you can turn on proximity indicators. This is a common issue for Xbox licensed wheels, and we’ve had years of finger pointing and lacking communication to fix it. The only answer is to play on a PC to get the most out of a racing wheel.
As is so common, Forza Motorsport is aiming to be a long-term platform that Turn 10 will continue to grow and evolve as a live service. There is a feeling that the game at launch is focused on getting the basics right with the racing, career, progression and online. It’s lacking some of the bombast of Forza Motorsport 7 with a more neutral tone to track intros and none of the quirky driver suits (I’ll miss my Viva Piñata suit). Still, what we can look forward to is the regular addition of new cars and tracks, as well as the featured events to show them off – right now, GT7 has more than a year’s head start down the live service track, but Forza can certainly catch up.