When the last Forza Motorsport game released in 2017, Forza Horizon 4 wasn’t even out yet. Assetto Corsa was still awaiting its sequel, Project Cars 2 was hot on the scene and nobody knew exactly what Gran Turismo Sport was supposed to be.
Point is, six years is a long time in sim racing. A long enough time for Turn 10 Studios to tear almost everything down and start over, to dream up a new future for the hardcore side of the Forza brand. The result, for better or worse, is the biggest departure in series history since the team gave Gran Turismo its first genuine competition 18 years ago.
The Drive was fortunate enough to go hands-on with the new Forza Motorsport, due to release on October 10 for Xbox Series consoles and PC, at an event in New York. There, I sampled the game’s overhauled physics as well as the earliest slice of its experimental new single-player campaign, the Builder’s Cup.
Forza Motorsport Quick Specs
“New physics” are table stakes for any updated driving sim, but Forza Motorsport’s story truly begins where the rubber meets the road, as the team sought to raise the skill ceiling at the highest level of the game’s competitive multiplayer scene. That required punching up the handling, and the resulting investment quite literally informed the direction of the game’s development, as Turn 10 Creative Director Chris Esaki explained to me in an interview.
“I am a mechanics guy. I've always thought about game mechanics as kind of my specialty,” Esaki said. “And so I kind of approached it in that way. I took the lens of like, ‘OK, well, that means deeper gameplay, what does deeper gameplay mean for Forza? What are the systems that would have to be rethought if we were to really go after that skill and competition layer?’”
Those questions touched off a multi-year project to redevelop Forza Motorsport’s physics code, with tire simulation being Esaki’s “number one thing.”
“I just suspected that we need to readdress the tire model, and that was the first thing we took a look at,” Esaki said. “We went from a single point of contact for the [tire’s] entire contact patch, to now eight points of contact that really represent the outer edges of that contact patch [...] and then increased the polling frequency of the physics model by six times, just to get a lot more fidelity there.”
That increased fidelity uncovered deficiencies in the way the game replicated suspension behavior, so the team had to sort that out next. In the process, it found that the new physics were causing cars to collide with the old track geometry in strange yet invisible ways, in a manner Esaki likened to porpoising in Formula 1. And just like that, all the environments in the game suddenly had to be rebuilt, too.
Driving Forza Motorsport
So how are those physics, then? Bearing in mind I’ve had a sampling of only three cars in the introductory championship of the Builder’s Cup (the last-gen Ford Mustang GT, Subaru WRX STI, and Honda Civic Type R), I don’t think hardcore Motorsport fans are going to be blown away here. But they should be impressed.
You feel it most in rear-wheel-drive cars that invite you to steer with the throttle, like that bone-stock Mustang. Forza Motorsport 7 offered pin-sharp turn-in, but when grip left you, it disappeared all at once. All of a sudden, you were hanging the rear out whether you wanted or not, never quite swapping ends but never going fast, either.
Steering in the new Forza Motorsport feels a little more natural, more deliberate. When the rubber behind you wails in agony, you know why. And while it’s certainly not difficult to play with a controller—this isn’t iRacing, nor is it supposed to be—longtime Forza players will notice the overall level of grip has been reduced, and there’s a hint of understeer to contend with now. That means every stage of the corner requires a little extra planning, which isn’t a bad thing.
Fog, Frames, and Reflections
The madeover tracks satisfy their duties as far as the driving experience is concerned, but they also look good. Each of Forza Motorsport’s 20 environments supports time-of-day cycles and changeable weather, and the game reminds you of this fact from session to session in the Builder’s Cup. The start of your very first contest at the fictional Grand Oak Raceway begins with an Open Practice, where you’re asked to turn at least three laps and record one under a target time. This dusk run is tinged in blue, with a layer of fog blanketing the track surface. As the session progresses, the fog lifts, and by the time the race begins, it’s made way for clear skies, under which spectators, balloons, and tents now populate the grounds. The race day atmosphere isn’t something every racing game dev nails or even attempts to get right, but Turn 10’s done its homework here.
On track, everything runs at a steady clip of your choosing. Forza Motorsport offers locked 60-frame-per-second gameplay at 4K resolution, but for those willing to sacrifice some pixels or performance, ray tracing modes are available. Turn 10 provides Xbox Series X players the option of ray-traced reflections at variable resolution and 60 fps, or at 4K resolution and 30 fps. (It’s worth noting that ray-traced global illumination—technology that simulates how light bounces across surfaces—will be a PC-only feature.)
I mostly stuck to the 60 fps ray-tracing mode for my experience, and while it could leave the game a little blurry in static frames, the presentation in motion was lush, and I enjoyed noticing little self-reflections of details within my cars’ paintwork and windows, from the Mustang’s side mirrors to the WRX STI S209’s adjustable wing.
Slow Down and Enjoy the Car
No matter which car I chose in that first stage of the Builder’s Cup, I got to grow with it through the championship. The campaign works like this: Every race has a practice session, where your driving is evaluated corner by corner. The scores you're given translate into Car XP and Car Points, as do the objectives you’re asked to meet, like hitting target times. The former determines your car’s level, which grants access to certain classes of upgrades, while the latter is the currency you spend to purchase the upgrades you’ve unlocked. Meanwhile, winning races awards Credits, which are still used to buy cars, just like always.
Here’s the kicker though: You’ll have the chance to upgrade your car between races with the Car Points you just earned, up to a certain performance rating. So will all your competitors. That forces you to explore what each upgrade contributes to your build from round to round, rather than, say, spending an infinite amount of money on any car to immediately take it to the top of B Class. The idea is that you’ll grow with and eventually master each of your cars, rather than forgetting about them in a garage that numbers in the triple digits.
Is that a gameplay flow players will favor? I can’t say, but I know that after an endless line of racing games—some of them Forza titles—attempting to lure enthusiasts with the fantasy of car collecting, the idea of getting to know a handful of cars slowly and well seems refreshing. Esaki, the proud owner of a Porsche 914 he’s been mending and improving for almost three decades now, would seem to agree. And today, with Forza Horizon having seemingly perfected the car collection formula for a great many players, Motorsport is now free to hone in on those other aspects of the automotive experience we all love so much.
“[Forza Horizon’s] success has now allowed Motorsport to go back and realize, hey, look: Motorsport is about these things, like skill and competition,” Esaki said. “Our vision for the game is what we're delivering. And it has a specific point of view, which really doubles down on skill and competition, and falling in love with this car, with this new car progression meta. I truly believe the features we have made—that video game layer, if you will—I think it's just so holistic, it's so good, that the rest of it just doesn't really matter for us.”
There’s plenty more to discuss around Forza Motorsport, like the game’s new artificial intelligence built upon machine learning that beats you on merit, rather than with artificial speed boosts; the new Featured Multiplayer mode and rating system that aims to cultivate a thriving, competitive racing community; as well as Turn 10’s lengthy post-release support plans, where all tracks and most cars will arrive as free updates. Join us back here in about a month for the rest of that story, and our full review.
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