Dan Greenawalt, the smooth creative director of Microsoft's racing studio Turn 10, arrived outside the entrance of a grand downtown Los Angeles venue in the back seat of a two-seater IndyCar racecar yesterday evening. It had driven, with just two howlingly loud blips of the throttle, all of 50 metres up the street from where it had been parked. Greenawalt got out, grinning, and chatted for a second with the driver, a chiselled, blonde IndyCar pilot called Josef Newgarden. Then he walked through the gates to Forza Motorsport 5's E3 event to scattered applause, arriving at the party he had just left.
Meaningless PR stunts like this happen at E3 all the time. It turned out that this one had a point, though. An hour later, Greenawalt - one of the most relentless PR machines in Microsoft's ranks, which is really saying something - was doing some more grinning and standing next to racing drivers as he announced Forza 5's deal with IndyCar, America's premier open-wheel racing series. IndyCar brings open-wheel racing cars to the Forza games for the first time, with four teams represented.
Greenawalt went on to announce that Forza 5 will also feature classic Formula 1 cars in a tie-in with the upcoming Ron Howard film Rush, which tells the story of Grand Prix greats James Hunt and Nicki Lauda and their tumultuous, dangerous 1976 season. Their McLaren M23 and Ferrari 312-2 will be in the game. It's not quite the deep collaboration with the automotive industry that Gran Turismo 6 showcased last month, but hey - this is Hollywood, after all.
These thoroughbred racers will join "hundreds" of cars in Forza Motorsport 5's garage, all of them modelled from scratch for Xbox One. The demo available to play at E3 offers the cream of current European hypercars: Ferrari F12, McLaren P1, Lamborghini Aventador, Pagani Huayra. These can be driven in a time trial on a Prague street track that loops through a park and threads through the Gothic archways of the city streets.
You shouldn't come to any conclusions about a racing game's handling from a two-minute lap - and in any case, Turn 10 studio head Alan Hartman told me that the new physics simulation hadn't yet been enriched with tyre data from a new partner called Calspan. Still, early impressions in an F12 indicate that it's very much a Forza game: a weighty drive, with pronounced but not unrealistic oversteer. The Prague track, however, bears a stronger family resemblance to Bizarre's Project Gotham series, sculpting city streets into a dramatic course that mixes technical turns with seat-of-the-pants kinks and bumps.
It's pretty thrilling stuff - and it's just pretty, too. Forza 5 runs at an apparently flawless 1080p60 and carries Forza 4's very solid, colour-saturated look over to the new generation. Racing games are often chosen as graphical showcases for console launches, and Forza 5 will fill the role ably for Xbox One; it boasts some atmospheric new effects, including reflections on the inside of the windscreen in the very convincing cockpit view, and glaring lens flare when you turn into low sun. A Turn 10 rep drew my attention to the paint on the car body, which has noticeable texture and imperfections. I conceded that it was very realistic paint. Ł429 well spent.
Forza 5 is also Microsoft's current standard-bearer for its plan to offload Xbox One's computing tasks to the cloud. The Drivatar system analyses your driving style and performance and turns it into an AI routine which is then distributed online to friends and randoms to race against. Hartman told me that the cloud isn't just providing storage and serving data, it's processing that data to create the Drivatar AI routines. "By actually offloading that processing from Xbox One, it frees up more of the Xbox One. So it's actually more power on the box to use," he maintained. But, he confirmed, the Drivatar routines will not be running in real time on the cloud during races; "those are on the box." This is clearly down to latency, and it casts Microsoft's claims that cloud computing can enhance Xbox One's in-game performance in a rather dubious light.
A Turn 10 rep drew my attention to the paint on the car body, which has noticeable texture and imperfections. I conceded that it was very realistic paint. Ł429 well spent.
Once again, Turn 10 is adjusting the structure of Forza's single-player game; it's been tinkering with this ever since the series started in an attempt to force some sort of shape and rhythm on the games' expansive grind. The solution, this time, is mini-campaigns based around each car.
"It still is an epic single-player game - we think about 60 hours. The biggest difference now is, every car is its own career," Hartman explained. "When you choose a car, you will have a mini career with that car, because we don't want to rip that car away from you, we don't want you to be encouraged to drop it and move away. If you pick, say, a Ford Mustang, we're going to give you events and tracks that are appropriate. That's going to be a pretty big difference in terms of how the career feels - you won't be checkerboarding around as much." Multiplayer will boast improved matchmaking and the return of the excellent Rivals system for asynchronous competition.
Over 400 people are working on Forza Motorsport 5 right now, according to Hartman: "an epic game at launch" is Turn 10's goal. That takes some doing, especially with a game as sprawling and unwieldy as a sim racer.
But sim racers are also something else: predictable. Build the cars, build the tracks, dial up the fidelity, dial in the features, do the licensing deals. Stand next to a racing driver and grin. Making these games is a rational process, and there's no more rational video game in the world than Forza. That makes it a sound, sensible choice to launch alongside Xbox One. God knows, Microsoft needs it to be.