Forza Motorsport emerges as MS' Gran Turismo challenger

New Xbox racer promises real cars and tracks, detailed vehicle tuning, Live play and trainable AI drivers.

There wasn't much in the way of genuinely new software at Microsoft's press conference in LA last night, but one game did stand out as being shiny (very shiny, in fact) and new - namely Forza Motorsport, a Microsoft Game Studios internally developed title which is shaping up to be the Xbox' answer to Gran Turismo 4.

The game gives players access to a garage of over 60 real-world licensed vehicle brands, including cars from Mazda, Nissan, Ferrari, Porsche, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz and Dodge, and then lets them customise and tune them to their hearts' content.

You'll be able to change the engines, swap around the suspension or the brakes, add superchargers or even mess around with real motorsport nerd stuff like fuel mapping, ignition timing and gear ratios. We don't even know what any of that means, so it's probably pretty exciting if the smell of engine oil does funny things to you.

For the less technically minded, you'll also be able to disfigure your car horribly with custom rims, spoilers, skirts, fenders, airdams and decals - transforming the car of your dreams into the car of some horrible little Chav's dreams, in other words. Still, it worked for Need for Speed Underground...

Just as the cars are realistic, so too are the tracks, and a wide range of different tracks from around the world have been included in the game - including famous international race tracks such as Germany's Nurburgring as well as less conventional tracks in the world's famous cities.

When it comes to actual racing, Forza Motorsport isn't just a pretty face either (although it certainly is a pretty face - just check out these freshly released screenshots), with a complex driving simulation for which Microsoft consulted extensively with automotive engineers. Damage and wear will actually have an affect on your car's performance, as well, while heat and pressure changes will alter the performane of the suspension and aerodynamics of the chassis.

As you'd expect from a Microsoft Game Studios title, Forza will be Xbox Live enabled - and it's also got another rather unique feature which sounds intriguing to us, this time lifted from beat 'em ups such as Virtua Fighter 4 and the arcade version of Soul Calibur 2. An AI system called "Drivatars" allows you to train a computer controlled drive in your own unique driving style; we're not sure what you can then do with the Drivatar, but we suspect that racing them against your friends' creations may well be part of the deal.

The game is scheduled for release in Winter 2005 - so expect to see it on shelves in the first quarter of next year.

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