Driving a hard bargain.
Sometimes not receiving a game by the publisher, as we have to indicate at the bottom of our reviews nowadays, is a blessing in disguise. Not only can I play through the game at my leisure without having to meet a strict embargo, but I can gauge the reactions of professional critics and user reviews, carefully comparing them to one another and of course to my own experience with the game. This is more difficult that it sounds, though, since I have to remain true to my voice while also listening to arguments from either side that actually have a valid point. More often than not, everyone generally settles around an overall score within a small range of opinions, but every once in a while, lines are drawn, battle stations are manned, and streams are crossed. Such is the case with Forza Motorsport 5.
On one side, both Forza veterans and newcomers alike will marvel at the unbridled clarity and breathtaking detail of the environments as they zip past gorgeously rendered race cars—all basking in the glory of 1080p and 60 frames per second. There may be no more satisfying reason to own an Xbox One than to behold the power of a Ferrari F12berlinetta as it hightails through the Swiss Alps and the curvaceous turns of the Silverstone Circuit.
Car fanatics will appreciate the details, from the distinguishable roars of different engines to the speedometers of the different dashboards, as well as the trigger buttons on the Xbox One controller which offer individual feedback for braking and acceleration. Every car can be examined further in the new Forzavista mode, an enhanced version of Forza Motorsport 4's Autovista mode where you can explore every inch of every car you possess.
AI difficulty has also taken a turn for the better with the introduction of Drivatars—proxy drivers that learn your behavior and skills on specific tracks who will race against other players in their single-player campaign. In turn, the opponents you'll compete against in Career mode are based on other players, so at first glance it would appear to onlooking strangers that you're playing online multiplayer. You can set the overall difficulty of the Drivatars, though it can be a bit suspect since I've found the same Drivatars on different difficulty settings. But giving this the benefit of the doubt, tying the skill of AI drivers with the skill of real players is an innovative concept that should be implemented in other games, even those outside of the racing genre.
Otherwise, Forza Motorsport 5 leverages a familiar portion of the franchise's existing features: the driving line, the earning of credits and manufacturer affinity, the Top Gear tie-ins and track, the power tier-ranking of cars, the corresponding tiered circuits in Career mode, the multiple driving assists, the tune-ups, the plethora of car upgrades, an enhanced paint and decal editor, and Kinect head tracking. As usual, opting out of driving assists, along with increasing the Drivatar difficulty, will increase earnings by a fixed percentage boost. The new Rivals Mode offers plenty of challenges where you can compete against the lap times of other racers and can continue around the track multiple times until you're comfortable with your placement.
On the quality of the presentation and vehicle physics, Forza Motorsport 5 is worth having in your library, if just to impress guests. But compared to Forza Motorsport 4 (which I would have given 4.5 stars), an unfortunate amount of content has been cut. About one-third of the tracks from FM4 has been unceremoniously chopped (the awesome Nürburgring is nowhere to be found), in addition to about half of the car roster. There's no question that a lot of effort went into producing high-quality cars and scenery, but perhaps Microsoft should have given Turn 10 Studios several more months to create more assets. In all, FM5 only has 14 tracks, which as realistically modeled as they are, becomes exceedingly repetitive when most circuits are comprised of an average of about eight tracks. Even if those 14 tracks are reversed, the tedium settles in much too soon. The unskippable Top Gear segments and audio narration only makes this worse.
Free Play mode has been gutted as well, allowing you to rent only a handful of cars from the entire roster of cars. You can't earn XP or credits driving a rented car anyway, so there's little reason why this is the case. Playing split-screen isn't that appealing either since you can't play with additional AI opponents. It's also disappointing that there are no weather effects, like rain, snow, or fog, all of which would add much needed variety to the races.
On top of that, you will earn the credits for achieving gold so long as you earn third place... no, you read that right. At first, I thought this was an interesting adjustment likely done for casual gamers that also provided some leeway for the variable difficulty of Drivatars, but it wasn't long until I felt under-rewarded for my efforts. I would pass the lead racer in the final turn, nab first place, and then immediately wonder why I went through all the work. While the objective with multiplayer-driven simulation racing games is to get the fastest lap time, there should also be an incentive, through prizes or more credits, to earn first place. Isn't the point of racing to win? Sure, you can increase the Drivatar difficulty (I normally play on Veteran difficulty), but it's in your best interest to increase it to the point where you can consistently get... third place.
And given how much Forza Motorsport 5 expects you to grind this time around, only the most hardcore racing simulation fans will have the patience to accumulate enough credits to purchase the rarest of liveries. Unlike FM4, you will not receive free cars when you attain higher driver levels nor when you complete a circuit, you will not be gifted manufacturer discounts or free upgrades for affinity, you can't sell cars for credits, you can't join car clubs, you can't auction cars, and you can't be gifted cars from other players. The only way to get credits apart from grinding is through your Drivatar, which will award you a minor amount of credits from participating in other races while you're away. Otherwise, if you want some of the high-end cars including the new open-wheel Lotus E21 which costs six-million credits, it will take you about week of nonstop grinding (less if you're a VIP member or just that hardcore).
The other alternative, which presents itself everywhere (in the same-sized font as the tally for credits, by the way), is to purchase cars and car upgrades with tokens (or TK). By the current conversion rate, it costs about $50 to unlock the Lotus E21 if you're using game's best deal for tokens, which would be like paying for Forza Motorsport 5 over again for just one car. (This means that the 1,250 car tokens given in the Limited Edition which is supposed to give you "instant access to any car in the game" is false.) Certainly, nobody in their right mind would do this aside from suckers or people who have obscene amounts of disposable income.
Microsoft certainly has a right to do this, but having microtransactions bleed into a game like this is a sorry sight and creates an elitist environment where the only people who belong to the core community are those at the top of the leaderboard or those who can pay. Those who play Forza to be a painter and recreate decals are now forced to grind. Those who play Forza to experience the thrill of driving their fantasy cars are now forced to grind. It's fine that the game makes you earn the cars you want, but the barrier of entry is too exorbitant and unfriendly.
It's understandable that Turn 10 wanted to toughen the in-game economy since Forza Motorsport 4 made it rather easy to obtain credits and cars, but this installment pushes the dial beyond the balance point all for the sake of making tokens attractive. This money-centric model also extends to the DLC, where purchasing car packs only unlocks cars for the marketplace where you have to purchase them again through credits or tokens. And of course, you can expect all of the cars and tracks that have been cut to be sold in future DLC packs. That last bit is speculation of course, but it wouldn't be surprising.
And what happened to the compatibility with racing wheels? People who purchased upwards of $1000 for a Fanatec racing wheel for FM4 have been left scratching their heads. After spending more than half of that amount on the Xbox One and the game, it's a hard sell to ask these people to purchase one of the compatible but clutch-less wheels too. Turn 10 shouldn't be at fault for hardware, but considering that Microsoft owns the company, there had to have been internal discussions about compatibility. The lack of wheel support is a detriment that will hopefully resolved soon.
If you're looking for a racer that plays fantastically, has picturesque environments and incredible detail, and makes your HDTV worth its purchase price, then Forza Motorsport 5 will fit the bill. But if you're a discerning fan of the Forza franchise, then the amount of content and options that has been lost and altered due to the heavy microtransaction model may make you wince. There's an unhealthy feeling that it's making you pay, literally, for your passion of cars. While Forza Motorsport 5 is a strong launch-day title for Xbox One, it has more style than substance and serves better as a foundation for future next-gen Forza Motorsport titles than the limited sampler that it really is.