Before I'd finished the first lap of the first race of Forza Motorsport 5's career mode, it was clear to me that I was playing a very good game. The quality of the visuals smack you in the face right out the gate. The interior of the cabin is detailed, almost photorealistic. You can see the reflection of your gloves on the inside of the windscreen. The crisp lines of the cars that slink in your rearview mirror are a marvel. The glare of the sunlight ahead of you impedes your vision as you slide in and out of turns. This is next-gen racing.
However, Forza's beauty isn't just skin deep. The same level of quality pervades through almost every one of its many facets. From the audio down to the handling of the cars, everything is top notch. Turn 10 has done a fine job in updating their long-running racer series for Microsoft's new console.
The main course is the career mode. Here you're presented with a selection of different Leagues, each containing several Championship Series. These series consist of around 10-15 different events; a few are compulsory, others are awarded as bonus races upon completion of the series. Each series requires a specific type of car which can be bought using credits earned through competing in races. Start off small, race cheap cars. Earn more credits, buy bigger cars, race in faster events.
As your garage swells with new additions and you take more vehicles out on the track, you'll be able to really appreciate the subtle differences in the way the different cars handle. Everything from the suspension to the tyre physics has been refined, and the extra power of next-gen allows calculations that weren't possible on Xbox 360. Every lap is about finding purchase on the tracks, braking at the right moment, getting as much speed as possible as you come out of each corner, and settling into good lines as you charge down long straights.
As you ascend through the ranks, earning credits and XP as you go, you have more choice as to which races you can enter. Many of the cars are perfectly affordable when you've got a few laps under your belt, but there's some that will require time, dedication and a whole heap of credits before they'll be in your garage (you can sidestep organic progression should you wish, via the purchase of Tokens that allow you to unlock cars when you might not have the credits - unlocking the McLaren P1 early, for example, would set you back around £15). You can also use Tokens to boost the amount of XP you earn for a limited period of time, helping you level up faster. Boosters or not, to earn the big bucks you'll have to navigate through a variety of different race-types. Many are your standard 16-car races, but there's some creative ideas thrown in to break up the pacing and get you doing different things.
In one event you might be driving around the Top Gear test track, knocking over giant bowling pins or avoiding London-themed cardboard cutouts. At times you'll even be racing The Stig in one-on-one contests. There are other races that either have you competing with three of four other racers while you drift in and out of slower moving traffic, or driving one your own as you slalom through barrels for points. These events are not the standout feature by any stretch of the imagination, and they're not even a particularly good advert for what makes Forza so exciting, but they do break up the relentless onslaught of races.
For the most part it's straight up racing. You versus fifteen virtual opponents, each powered by Forza Motorsport 5's major innovation - Drivatar. In a nutshell; over time information on your racing style is collected and used to form a digital representation of you, and this version of you is used in races against other players. Other people's Drivatars are the opponents that line up against you in every race. It might not sound like a significant thing, but it is: it changes the feel of every single-player race. You're no longer battling against AI-controlled cars, instead you're racing against the virtual souls of everyone who's ever played the game.
Lining up against a stranger's Drivatar makes a genuine difference. In many ways you reap what you sow. If, like me, you're not the best race driver, and from time to time you use the side of another car as an impromptu cushion because you've hit the brakes too late going into a sharp corner, you'll be racing against Drivatars that exhibit similar behavior. On ‘normal' difficulty you'll be confronted with profiles that drive in a comparable manner, so you can guarantee there'll be contact in and around corners, and that from time to time you'll see erratic driving from your opponents.
It's nothing too drastic, certainly not when compared to the treatment you'll receive when your friend's Drivatars join you on the starting grid. Gamereactor Germany's Christian Gaca was also reviewing the game, and we both featured in each other's careers as Drivatars. The virtual Gaca was much more aggressive towards me than the other racers, with Turn 10 making sure that friendly rivalries standout while you're racing.
The difference this makes is huge. There is no pain so exquisite as seeing your friend's Drivatar fly past you because you left too much space on the inside as you rounded a corner. Making sure you finish ahead of your virtual friend becomes a point of pride, something to strive for in each and every race. Duels form on the track, and it brings out a more aggressive style as you push harder towards the finish line.
As you push up the difficulty of the Drivatars, the cleaner the races become. Your friends will be put in your races, even if they're better than you. I'm not sure whether they're toned down to match the level of difficulty you select, but friends are prioritised over randomly selected Drivatars. But even the random racers start to become familiar names, as they're kept with you throughout a Championship Series. It reminds you that you're competing with other players, and gives each race an extra dimension and that added pressure brings with it a welcome challenge.
When it comes to challenge, there's a plethora of ways to tweak the experience to your tastes. The most obvious is increasing the quality of the Drivatars you face, but you can also adjust the amount of assistance you're given by the game. It starts off very user friendly, with assisted brakes, steering, automatic transmission, and cosmetic damage. As you grow more comfortable these can be switched off or changed, giving you more control over the car and making each and every race a challenge in itself. With the assists on even I looked like a pretty decent racer, but as each layer of protection was peeled back, my flaws became increasingly apparent. It forced me to improve.
The amount of assists you turn off, and the more difficult the Drivatars you race, the more credits you'll earn for each race. You can take your preferences with you into multiplayer should you wish. We sampled several games, and the servers were working just fine. It's your standard multiplayer racing experience, only with gorgeous graphics. Players must match up similar cars and they can pick the track and whatnot. There's online events, some of which have restrictions in place, and in private matches the host can select the which car classes can be selected (or keep it entirely open). You can also rent cars for multiplayer races, allowing you to get behind the wheel of some incredible rides - you just don't earn XP/Credits for driving them.
Whilst you're racing around with friends (or strangers) you might notice the quality of the audio. Even switching between the cockpit and the third-person view gives the engine's growl a different edge. Turn 10 has done a great job capturing the sounds of racing, and the orchestral soundtrack adds another layer of gloss to the overall package. For the most part it's led by atmospheric strings and pounding drum beats, it's suitably dramatic, but perhaps won't keep your attention forever.
There's several other features of note. Players can, as you'd expect, customise and upgrade their cars. There's a wealth of options for those who like to tinker with the minutest of details, or for the rest of us there's a quick upgrade option, where the car is optimised to the max and you pay a hefty sum for the additional power. You can also customise the look of your vehicles with the robust set of tools offered. Players can even share their creations online for others to use, the best getting votes from the community. There's already a healthy selection on offer and the game's not even out yet. Rounding off the package there's a mode where you can create your own events, controlling which track layouts to use, and how many opponents you'll face. There's also split-screen mode, which we weren't able to test out on account of only having one controller.
While we're on the subject, the new features of the Xbox One's controller are used really well by Turn 10. You get feedback through your fingertips via the new 'impulse' triggers. It's a small feature but it really connects you to the surface you're racing on and immerses you further in the racing. The analog sticks feels responsive, left steers the car and flicking the right allows you to quickly look around you (you can also use the Kinect for this - it tracks the movements of your head so if you look to the left, the camera pans in that direction). Having said that, I spent a lot of time wishing I had a decent steering wheel in my hands, just to complete the immersion.
As you'll have no doubt surmised by now, I like Forza 5 very much. However, there's one thing that holds it back from true greatness: content, or a lack thereof.
There's fourteen tracks in all, and for the most part they're brilliant. Prague was my personal favourite, with some beautiful vistas on display, and some frantic street racing in amongst the imposing gothic architecture of the city. Le Mans, Bathurst, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Laguna Seca, Silverstone: they're all brilliantly constructed, highly detailed, and a pleasure to drive on. There's just not enough of them. Nowhere near enough. The same could be said of the cars. Where Forza Motorsport 4 had around 500, there's only 200 here. That's less of an issue for me. As I write this I've only sat in a small percentage of the vehicles on offer, but I have driven on all of the tracks, many, many times.
The game that Turn 10 has served up needs more variety. I'm currently sitting at level 40, with over a hundred levels still to climb before I reach the ceiling. There's hundreds of races/events, just enough cars (and more promised in a series of DLC packs) to keep petrolheads happy, but after awhile the small number of tracks begins to get a little frustrating. The reason behind the reduced count (there's half as many as there was in Forza 4) is because they've been remodelled to fully take advantage of the additional power of Xbox One, and while each and every one impresses in some way, there's just not enough variety there, even when you consider the different variations of each track. Turn 10 has tried to stretch too little content over too much game.
It is, however, the only issue I have with the game. Well, there's the inclusion of the Top Gear team (Clarkson, May and Hammond), who introduce each Championship Series with a little talk about the cars that feature in that particular class. It's taking every ounce of strength I have to remain impartial and not dock a point for their inclusion. I can't stand them, but I accept that many race enthusiasts don't feel the same way as I do about the popular trio, and so the score remains intact.
Even Jeremy Clarkson and a shortage of tracks can't diminish my enthusiasm for Forza 5. It needs more content: more cars and, in an ideal world, the same again number of tracks. But that doesn't stop it from being an absolutely brilliant racing game. It takes full advantage of the additional horsepower of Xbox One, and the introduction of Drivatars gives new life to the career mode. There's plenty of options to sink your teeth into, it's visually stunning, and the car handling is first rate. If you're still not sure which launch title to pick up when you get your new Xbox One at the end of the week, put this right at the top of the list.