Since the original Gran Turismo injected the once niche racing simulation genre with a dose of mass appeal, we've seen a number of games try to emulate the master. But none have really managed, because they never try anything different. How many simulation racers does the world need, anyway?
One more, apparently. Courtesy of Microsoft, Forza Motorsport is perhaps the closest thing to a real challenger, and while it appears exclusively on the Xbox, it's definitely good enough to be envied by gamers everywhere.
The bulk of the horsepower is in Career mode, where your goal is to complete races and level up, earning credits and cars along the way. A handful of vehicles are available at the start, but the exact choice of models depends on which of three regions you choose to call home. After you get your first ride, it's off to the races.
Unlike GT, Forza doesn't require you to have a fancy license or anything to get started, although most competitions have ride requirements, like having a front-wheel drive or compact class car, while other races require particular makes and models. It's a tried and true system that gives you a taste of the various rides, from the basic jalopies to the overpowered rockets.
No matter which race type you choose to take on, your earnings are based on the level of difficulty. You can select from three levels of A.I. aggressiveness and tinker with settings like Stability Management, Anti-Lock Brakes and Traction Control, all of which can be toggled at your leisure. Keeping them on makes the ride more luxurious, but the adventurous driver can turn these off and earn more credits and experience for doing so. It's great to see drivers get rewarded for removing the training wheels rather than the amount of cash put into the car.
One very cool option for casual drivers is the Suggested Line. Turning this on not only gives you a handy driving aid, it also uses dynamically adjusting colors to tell you to speed up (green) or slow down (yellow/red). It's an extremely useful tool for learning the courses. Once you get good enough, just turn it off and take the bonus credits.
A great deal of work has gone into recreating real-world physics, and it shows. Cars handle as they should, sliding around corners and maintaining a unique feel even after you've made some modifications. As if to mock GT, Forza sports a degree of damage modeling. Rubbing a wall not only takes the paint off your car, it also spreads it on the side of the wall itself. Lucky for the insurance companies, big hits won't cause the car to explode, but they might cause parts to fly off, messing up your car and your control scheme.
The AI is appropriately ruthless. Other games generally have two types of A.I. – overly aggressive or totally robotic. Forza's A.I. is a smart combination of the two. CPU cars tend to follow particular lines, but they aren't afraid to slip underneath your line to take the lead. They will also fight if necessary, blocking your passing moves or even giving you a little tap. It feels right.
Naturally, the higher your position at the end of a race, the more you will generally earn. However, turning off the assists prior to the race will net you an extra percentage of bonus points, which can significantly increase the amount of credits in your bank account. Winning races also earns the occasional prize car and increasing skill levels unlocks more tournaments. Again, Forza does a great job of rewarding skill without forcing amateur drivers to deal with a steep learning-curve or insane, unruly opponents. Talk about good gas mileage.
After you earn some dough, you can drop it on upgrades or new cars. A wide variety of vehicles are here, from the common Mazda Miata to the more exotic Vauxhall VX 220. Forza's 230 cars might not scratch the paint of Gran Turismo's whopping list of 700, but chances are you'll find something close to what you're looking for.
As your skill level increases, you begin to attract sponsors, who hook you up with discounts on their wares. Top sponsors are ready to go, like OZ, Mopar and Sparco, who offer products like fly wheels, engines, aero parts and more. Even the aesthics like custom paint jobs and decals are customizable. You won't find the ultra-flashy neon bulbs, stereo systems or hydros, though, so hardcore tuners might be a little disappointed.
One of the more interesting options is the Driveatar driving assistance program. By completing a kind of driving personality test, you will gain an auto-pilot who mimics your driving style. The Driveatar scores your performance on each type of turn and performs accordingly. It's really handy for long endurance races, but since the Driveatar costs a pretty penny to use, it probably won't see much action.
Other than the big Career, the single-player modes are quite basic: Arcade Race, Time Trials and Free Run. Of much more interest is the multiplayer, particularly online.
Up to eight total players can race via Xbox Live. Using the Optimatch system, you can specify the type of cars, competition and match you would like to run. In addition, Forza employs an ELO ranking system (developed by Arpad Elo for the U.S. Chess Federation) to help determine a player's skill level. You'll know exactly what you're up against. The lag is kept to a minimum and it generally works well.
Forza's online system tells you exactly where you are in the world - in terms of performance, that is. The top lap times are posted for each track, so you can how you stack up with the best. A marketplace is also available for you to sell your creations for a little extra cash. Cars even have a rarity rating, which helps you gauge a vehicle's true value. It's too bad exterior designs don't figure into the rarity score, since that's where you can really spend some time and make a car your own, but that's a niggling flaw in an otherwise excellent online offering.
Whether played alone or against the world, Forza sports some sweet exterior lines. The car models are fantastic, toning down the overpolished showroom look that often pervades sim racers. Both the real world and fictional tracks provide a routinely solid backdrop. Dynamic lighting and shadow effects are spot-on, especially during nighttime stadium races when the light sources are everywhere.
For all its fancy options, Forza doesn't have much of a stereo. The only channel plays a bunch of forgettable rock tracks with the occasional licensed tune. At least you can create your own custom playlists from the hard drive.
While it doesn't re-invent the wheel, Forza Motorsport pretty much perfects it. Its user-friendly options make it great for casual drivers and its generous reward system honors the skill of the experienced racer. Tack on a robust online component and sweet delivery and you wind up with a grand tour indeed.