I've been a huge fan of the Forza series ever since 1 or 2 back on the original Xbox. Because of this, I can safely say I was very eager for the release of Forza 6. It got the usual hype, and made the rounds at all the popular gaming conventions, so I pretty much knew what to expect. The Forza series has always been more evolution than transformation each time a new one comes out. It usually comes in the form of more cars, more tracks, and a couple new features. Now that Forza 5 has been out on the Xbox one for 2 years, Turn 10 Studios have had a chance to really capitalize on that platform to create a truly memorable driving experience.
The game saw the addition of Drivatars in the 5th iteration. This was revolutionary because it allowed real people's driving styles to inform how the A.I. behaves on track. It created a lot of dynamic racing, which was good. The bad news is that racing across the board was more like multiplayer has been, where the A.I. is so aggressive they prefer to bash you around rather than try to race cleanly. This problem was the natural conclusion of trying to mimic real player's driving style, as more often than not players are unprofessional and aggressive.
This version of the game keeps the Drivatars, and understandably so from a marketing perspective. I think Turn 10 realized the ramifications of real player driving habits, and have thankfully added a mute button, if you will, which limits the 'aggression' of the drivatars, which basically adjusts the balance of how they behave vs. professionally driven AI cars. I can tell you first hand that this has helped very much, and races are much cleaner than they were in Forza 5. I am coming from the perspective of single player racing, which is what I do most of the time.
The start of each race is still frustrating, I have to admit. It takes about 2-3 turns before the grid separates enough to not have a bottle-neck cluster of cars that bang & bash their way around the corners.
Night & Rain
These are 2 of the most obvious additions to the game. Both night and wet-weather racing make their debut into the Forza franchise. Before you get too excited though you can only have these on some of the more famous tracks, and you cannot have both at the same time. You pick your circuit, and then you have the option to have either day, night, or wet conditions if that course offers all of them. The other courses just have normal daytime driving conditions. This also means that there is no dynamic transitions between these weather conditions. It's a step in the right direction though, even if other comparable games have been offering dynamic weather on all tracks for some time now. It's worth noting that the games that offer this don't have nearly the level of polish and performance consistency of Forza, who only add features if they are tested and perfect. The studio does move at an iceberg pace with these features, but when they do come out with them they are damn-near perfect.
Night racing is claustrophobic and sometimes downright terrifying. I found myself at the back of Spa at night, with my headlights broken trying to make it back to the pits. I did not want to just abort the race, which is not in the spirit of simulation, so I decided to get to the pits and repair. The act of getting there was near the top of the most stressful in-game situations I've played. I had to make sure I followed other drivers, using their head & tail lights for guidance, and at times the blackness was just too enveloping. I made it to the pits with a fresh respect for the dangers of real night racing.
The rain is a whole other challenge in-and-of itself. The tracks are dangerous, and you have to be so careful to turn a good lap. Everything is fighting against you from the lack of grip, the numerous puddles, and the increased braking zones, which force you to re-learn a familiar track all over again.
With these new features, Turn-10 have managed to force you to re-learn and re-experience the game in fresh new ways. It's a huge leap forward for them, and it makes the game that much more fun and replay-able.
I really want to judge the game by it's own merits, but since I actively play some other racing games, it seems worth wile to take a look at how it stacks up against the others. Right now I'm playing Forza 6, Project CARS, and F1 2015. They are all good and bad in different ways. Forza is the most accessible of the three, in which picking it up and playing is easy and fun. It also has the best tuning and customizing of the group by a long shot.
What Project CARS does for me that Forza just doesn't do at all is simulation of race weekends and actual motorsport racing. Project CARS has a visceral on-track experience that no other game has yet to match. With the pit-stop strategies, tire choices, qualifying, and practice sessions available, Project CARS hands down wins the faithful recreation of racing. The downside that comes with this approach is the amount of effort required to race. Project CARS requires a wheel to enjoy, which takes time to setup. And when you factor in the time it takes to practice, qualify, and then do a full race, the time commitment is quite high.
Another worthy contender is Formula 1 2015. I'm only putting this in here because I love Formula 1, and because Forza offers an F1 car in it's lineup. The actual driving of the cars in F1 is so much easier than it's Forza equivalent. The cars have more grip, and are easier to throw around the track. And you also get the addition of licensed tracks, drivers, and cars. Pit stops, tire choices, and qualifying are also crucial to the gameplay experience here, which make the motorsports aspect stronger than Forza. The same problems that Project CARS had in comparison are true with F1 as well. Performance, polish, & UI/UX all suffer, and make the game sometimes frustrating to play.
Where Forza shines most in comparison is in it's build quality, amount of content, and the ability to customize your cars, which I will explain below.
Graphics & Performance
You probably already know what I'm going to say here. This has always been the strongest aspect of the franchise, so without a doubt this is the best part of the game. The visuals on screen are second-to-none. The locations are beautiful, the cars are amazing, and the lighting is way better than the previous version where everything seemed blown out by the sun. Rainy tracks look incredible, and night is damn-near terrifying, especially if you're not intimately familiar with the track. The car models are so close to perfect, it's hard to believe they can get any better from here on out. One small gripe is that the user-generated decals still render very pixelated & low res, especially when looking at them closely in photo mode.
Taking into account the previous chapter, the fact that all of this happens at a rock-solid 60 fps is just plain witchcraft. There is so much happening on the screen at any one time, and it all looks so good, it's incredible that Turn 10 can achieve both seemingly impossible tasks at the same time. Well done.
This is where things begin to unravel. The word gameplay is a little too abstract, so let me break it down into more manageable chunks so I can better explain my thoughts.
Driving Physics & AI
The general driving physics in the game are pretty good as long as you are in a lower level. The sweet spot in the game for me is around the high B, low A classes. Beyond that the cars are just too twitchy drive, and it's just not an enjoyable experience. I say all of this with the mindset of playing with a controller, which most of the time I do. I'm sure some of the higher-powered cars perform better with a wheel setup, but the casual nature of the game lends itself to sitting on the couch with a gamepad rather than climbing into a fully built sim rig. The tough thing is that the lower class cars are better with a gamepad, and boring with a wheel, whereas the higher classes are impossible with a pad, but better with a wheel. This is why I landed in the classes I found fun, which are right at the limit of control while still being able to play casually.
UPDATE: I've spent some time recently the LaFerrari in various events. Normally I would steer clear of hypercars in Forza because of their twitchy-ness. But as I continued to play, forcing myself to learn the nuances of the car, it really started to come alive. There was a moment a couple hours into driving the LaFerrari that things started clicking. I started to understand the car and respect it's properties. After that I began getting better and better with the car, and it's now one of my more favorite cars in the garage. So bravo to Turn 10 for building in these nuances, and allowing each car to behave differently so you have something different and new to discover with each car.
This is by far my biggest problem with the game. The career is essentially a rags-to-riches series of events where you win races, earn money, and unlock series with better cars. Then you simply rinse and repeat until the cows come home. This is nothing new, and has been largely unchanged in all the previous Forza's that I can remember.
But my real issue with the career mode is that it teaches you (and forces you) to drive poorly, and rewards you for doing so. You always start 13th or below in the grid, and the point of each race is to battle through the grid and end up on the podium. You cannot progress unless you get 3rd place or better. That means if you want to get further into the career, you have to muscle your way into the podium no matter what, and no matter who you have to bash to get there. The added problem is that you are limited to only 3 or 4 laps of any given circuit. So from the start line, you are already driving at maximum, and dive-bombing every turn in order to desperately gain positions. The best driver in the world cannot gain 10+ positions in 3 laps. So the only way to get through the career mode is to drive horribly, which closes the loop because if you do drive like that to win, the drivatars will become more aggressive and unruly, thereby making it even harder to race cleanly.
This mode is arguably where Forza really shines, and the simulator side of the game comes out. When you race rivals, you are on the track by yourself, racing other player's ghost cars to gain spots on the global leaderboards. Since you are unaffected by bad drivatars and super short podium sprints, you can start to take your time, log some laps, and start working on your technique, driving like, and lap times. You will certainly find yourself getting better an better while doing rival events. The downside is that they can be fairly lonesome and boring, since you are on the track for long periods of time with no opponents. But if you really want to simulate driving on a track, the rivals mode is the best place to experience that. It's also a good learning tool to be a better driver.
This is a surprisingly fun mode in certain ways. The strange Top-Gear oriented events are still present, which I usually just bypass. But the addition of historic showcases, and recreation of classic motorsports events is where things start getting really fun. I tried a Nikki Lauda/James Hunt battle at Hokkenheim, and I had an absolute blast during that race. While I was driving, I caught myself thinking that this was what they experienced, and part of me really wished I was living in that time and driving those cars like they did. That's what it's all about right there. It's a whole different game at that point, and it taps into more of an emotional part of your brain much more than the rest of the game. I would love more of these features in upcoming DLC's and future versions of the game.
What is the purpose of this game? Where does it fit in to the crowded library of racing games? These are the questions that I ultimately asked myself. If you start with the idea that there is no one perfect racing game, then you can put this one at the top of your list, and then go about your day. If you really want to find out what makes a racing game great, and then start to compare what's out there, that is where things get a little more complicated. For all the things that Forza does perfectly (which there are many) there are still a couple things that, depending on who you talk to, keep this game from being a truly perfect racing simulator.