Console launches usually have at least one racing game because, as it turns out, video game cars usually look really damn good. And while Forza is, in one form or another, an annual franchise, Forza Motorsport 7 is positioned to complement the launch of the Xbox One X and show off the new hardware. From the outside, Forza Motorsport 7 looks like a safe yet worthy refinement of Xbox’s popular (mostly) exclusive racing series. But while some of the enhancements are minor, surface-level additions, thanks to the robustness of the Xbox One X, most of Forza’s improvements lie under the hood.
From day one, Turn 10 Studios went into Forza Motorsport 7 eager to take advantage of the new specs and that is immediately noticeable. Technical jargon aside, the game is gorgeous and runs extremely well. Cars glisten fantastically under the natural light and courses look appropriately stunning; both of which benefit from the game’s ever-changing weather system. Apart from being visually pleasing, the dynamic climate also impacts the gameplay. Rain could impair your vision and place puddles in the track that were not previously there, something drivers will have to adjust to on the fly from lap to lap. The time of day, temperature, and season can all differ when you load into a track and it will change the racing experience, something John Wendl, content director at Turn 10 Studios, says was all done to make the game a more thrilling racing experience.
“We took a step back to say ‘What does that do to the racing experience and what opportunities might there be?’” said Wendl. “And that led to not just throwing more pixels at the screen, but rethinking that experience. How can we leverage this to make it more thrilling, more exciting, more human?”
Thinking about the Xbox One X and higher-end PCs also let them ratchet up the game’s effects and push where they couldn’t before. Solid lighting, reflections, and particle effects will be present in other versions of the game, but the more capable hardware allows Turn 10 Studios to crank those visual details up to 11. They were able to go back and actually dial up those effects because, even after running at native 4K, they were only using about 70% of the Xbox One X’s GPU capability. While I didn’t get to see a side-by-side comparison, I was able to pick out the smaller details, like seeing my driver’s reflection on the windshield. Oddly, it’s the details like this that help reinforce how good a game looks and shows how important the improvements to the Xbox One X are to Forza Motorsport 7 and the car porn game it’s trying to be.
Although, contrary to what you might think, many of the enhancements aren’t exclusive to the Xbox One X. While the native 4K resolution, HDR, and 4K frame buffer are limited to the faster, stronger Xbox One X (and high-end PCs), many of the system-agnostic technical upgrades are there because of Turn 10 Studios’ commitment to exploring the stronger hardware. With the souped-up Xbox on the horizon, they went into development ready to take full advantage of the new power at their fingertips, but found out that the rising tide raised all boats or, in this case, cars.
“A lot of the stuff that we found through thinking about 4K also benefits the Xbox One S, the original Xbox One, and lower-end PCs,” said Wendl. “So things like the dynamic weather system, the skies, and photogrammetry (a system that uses real-life photos to help make realistic 3D landscapes) are the things that we came upon to help leverage 4K but they benefit even at 1080p as well.”
Beautiful visuals and real-time puddles help augment the core racing experience, which is as solid as it ever was. Forza veterans will quickly acclimate to the smooth controls they’ve come to love and newer players will have a healthy helping of assists they can switch off at their leisure. Forza Motorsport 7 has even added a friction assist toggle to keep newer players from spinning out if they slide off the track and into a gravel trap. I felt the whiplash of switching these assists off a few races in and, while it made me adapt and learn how to be a better driver, I appreciated the ability to tailor my experience to my needs.
Driver customization is something skilled professionals and casual fans can appreciate. For the first time in Forza Motorsport, players can equip their motorist with gear that ranges from classic racing outfits to goofier costumes like Master Chief’s armor or an atmospheric diving suit. Your appearance will be reflected in your Drivatar when it shows up in your friends’ games and, while random loot boxes dictate most of the gear you get, it’s still fun to play dress-up and customize your driver as you wait for the next race to load. According to Wendl, this was another way for them to attempt to humanize the game.
“Car customization and personalization has always been a staple of the Forza franchise,” he said, “And now the driver is out of the car, rendered with an incredible level of detail, and also fully customizable with over 300 unique pieces of driver gear spanning decades of motorsport history and pop culture. This was part of making a more human connection with the player.”
Turn 10 Studios is also making an effort to connect to the player through the different kinds of racing tournaments in the Forza Driving Cup. Each branch specializes in a particular kind of vehicle, which lets players experiment and find the car they want to drive and what parts of the campaign they want to do. I was pleased with being able to choose my own path and that choice is how Turn 10 Studios is trying to more effectively grab players.
“No matter what your interest in cars or racing is, we’re trying to hook that player emotionally,” said Wendl. “We believe everybody has an interest and a passion for cars somewhere deep down and that’s what the game is trying to bring out of people.”
With over 300 pieces of driver gear, 700 or so highly-detailed cars, and more than 30 tracks, Forza Motorsport 7 is the biggest Forza Motorsport ever. But it’s also one of the most important Forza games because of its relation to the upcoming Xbox One X. The Xbox One has a relatively meager holiday lineup and, while the other games I saw running on the Xbox One X looked fantastic, they’re not as inextricably linked to the Xbox brand as Forza. Those other games can help a new system but don’t carry the same amount of responsibility as a first-party title during a console launch. However, even if the Xbox One X fails to move the needle, Forza Motorsport 7 looks to continue the franchise’s critical success since it maintains what made the franchise so popular in addition to being a bigger, more impressive technical juggernaut.