There's no getting away from the fact that Forza is a sublime achievement. However tired of driving games you might be, Forza is brimming with an infectious freshness that makes it damned near impossible to tear yourself away from. In many ways Forza is Microsoft's finest achievement on Xbox.
The key to Forza's success is its instant accessibility. It manages to be both in-depth and indulgent without ever daunting the novice. It's incredibly well thought out, from top to bottom, hiding away oceanic layers of depth with a consistent, arcade-like reward system that almost never leaves players feeling frustrated or embattled with learning curve spikes and niggling issues. It offers a huge challenge but never rams it down your throat, offering multiple solutions to the same problem - challenges that are simultaneously intuitive to second-guess, yet satisfying to resolve.
Thanks to some immensely intelligent design at its core, Forza is one of the few driving sims that's likely to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of gamers. Whether it's the quick thrill casual gamer who just wants to screech around a familiar circuit in a high powered monster or the uber hardcore nutters thirsting to tweak every nut and bolt in the pursuit of the ultimate ride, Forza ticks all the right boxes pretty much all of the time.
One of Forza's core innovations that will especially appeal to the newcomer is its use of a dynamic racing line; a quite superbly well-implemented guideline of small semi-transparent arrows that sit above the track and not only tell you where you should be aiming to drive at any given time, but provide a colour-coded suggestion as to whether you should be hitting the gas (green), easing off it (yellow), or braking (red). Usefully, it's not simply a generic 'best racing line' suggestion that applies to each track, but will actually change to suit whatever car you're in at the time as well.
Sure, as you become more proficient at each track you begin to realise that it's not always giving you the most efficient feedback (telling you to slow down on S turns, for example, when you don't really need to, or providing overly conservative braking suggestions), and it won't necessarily win you the best lap times, but it certainly offers you a means of getting into the game quickly, without having to overcome the vertical learning curve normally associated with racing around unfamiliar tracks in unfamiliar cars. In short, it's a magnificent idea. (And, yes, you can turn it off).
It's true that Forza doesn't have a fleet of cars to match the mighty Gran Turismo 4 (230 in this case, from more than 50 manufacturers), but it's almost to its credit that it doesn't play the numbers game to try and impress. It's open to debate, but sometimes less is more, and in Forza's case it doesn't simply load the player with cars they'll never drive. Thanks to an intelligent progression system you have to work for every single car you unlock, and while some cars in your ever-expanding fleet don't immediately prove their worth, it seems that they pretty much all come in handy at some point or other.
Forza isn't just another one of those racing games that's all about roaring the most powerful car around a succession of tracks to victory; it's a game that sets a whole plethora of racing conditions from race to race, requiring that you must get used to handling a wide variety of different cars whether you want to or not - and it's all the better for doing so.
While Forza does have plenty of genuinely pleasing innovations and a host of striking technical feats, it's probably the wonderful career structure that really underpins what's so good about the game, and the thing which will have you glued to your screens for weeks, nay months on end.
It all looks pretty innocuous when you're presented with the choice of home region (choosing North America, Asia or Europe affects the rarity and cost of different cars), and an initial selection of entry-level cars to choose from. In fact, there doesn't appear to be anything especially radical about the race types available to you. To begin with only Amateur and Point-to-Point races are unlocked, and it's then up to you to build up credits by racing through and winning the various challenges within.
Given that you start off on level zero, it's pretty fundamental that you level up as soon as you can; not only to unlock some of the other race series (some of which won't be selectable until you reach, say, level 5, 10, 15 and so on), but to begin to unlock other cars and to be able to have the funds to spec up your ride to give you an important advantage.
But simply reaching a certain level doesn't guarantee that you can enter a given race series, with every one governed by entry requirements, which could be the car's class, type, manufacturer, power, or pretty much anything you can think of [I doubt it goes that far. Does it, for example, discriminate based on your favourite member of Take That? -Ed]. Like I said, it's not simply about acquiring a car, speccing it up and winning races - it requires a lot more thought and dedication, and as a result really feels like you've earned your place in the race in the first place.
Going for gold
But even when you've successfully earned new cars through levelling up, winning gold medals on every race of a series, or just buying a new one outright, winning a race remains challenging. Many times you'll enter a race and realise you're hopelessly out of your depth, and return to your garage to either choose a more powerful model that also qualifies for the race, or - just as likely - spend time and money carefully speccing up your ride with a host of performance upgrades.
As usual, these take the form of engine power upgrades, appearance and aero additions, not to mention chassis and drivetrain modifications. And while some will be superfluous visual mods, many of these upgrades will send a previously innocuous D-class plodder into the realms of A and S-class superstardom. Pleasingly, while it is possible to go on and set up your car just so with a suite of set-up options, the actual modding side of it is slick and intuitive, so there's no need to get your hands too dirty.
Fully modded up, you're usually then in a much better position to really romp home against the pack, which in turn provides more credits, more cars to add to your collection, and therefore more tracks to race on. With 20 race series in Amateur alone (each comprising of three or four races per series), it takes a fair while to get through.
After you've battled your way up to level 10, Professional races unlock, which are much tighter in terms of both the standard on offer and the entry requirements. A bit later you hit the Championship series (unlockable after level 20), which up the ante further by forcing you to finish first after a series of races (as opposed to merely winning each one in isolation). And then, for the absolute elite drivers, Endurance Events unlock; each extremely long, requiring pit stops and no small amount of brutal driving skill, concentration and the utmost patience.
You can, if you fancy, train a Drivatar to do the racing for you. Similar to Gran Turismo 4's B-spec mode, but slightly more involved, it may sound like a bit of a cop out but it's actually a very good demonstration of just how well the game has been designed. A five-part series of races repeatedly reads how effectively you perform certain moves in different situations and then averages them out by the end to give a percentage score in each discipline. To be fair, I wasn't as good as I thought I was, so it didn't really get used much; plus the necessity to watch races running in real-time isn't exactly thrilling, so unless you just want to go and make a cuppa and trust your Drivatar to do the work for you, you'll probably be better off doing it yourself.
If that wasn't enough, Forza even uploads your single-player track times to Xbox Live, just as it did with Project Gotham 2 so sublimely, so you can expect to spend quite a considerable amount of time trying to usurp friends' rankings long after you've gone about the business of winning the gold medal on any given race. Not only that, but Forza also offers the welcome ability to build up your Career credits via an Online Career mode as well. Using an ELO ranking system based on a Chess rating standard, Xbox Live will match you with other human opponents of equivalent skill, giving you an alternative means of building up credits even when you've possibly hit a brick wall progression-wise offline.
Naturally, much of your enjoyment here will be lag-dependent (and inevitably some players have reported it, others not), but although I did have some curious connection issues to begin with (players regularly sitting there not bothering to accept our challenges, the connect icon not going away even after I'd cancelled and other such quirks), with the right opponents it's a mode that you could quite feasibly be playing indefinitely. Support is for up to eight players simultaneously, and given the disappointing lack of online play in GT4, Forza naturally wins all the plaudits here.
Once you've built up an online affinity with a few players you can even go ahead and set up your own Car Club. Effectively it's a shared Friends/clan system for like-minded drivers who want to go out and prove their worth on the track. Car stats are tracked as a group, so it should be a fun means of keeping the online Forza community alive for a long time to come. Alongside Halo 2 and Project Gotham Racing 2, Forza is another shining example of how to integrate online play into a console game, and another sound reason to shell out on that Xbox Live subscription.
So, with an immensely appealing career mode structure and a Microsoft's seamless online integration to draw you into Forza, it's good to note that the technical side of the game doesn't let the package down in any way. The handling, for starters, is sublime, managing to effectively simulate a wide variety of car types in a way that's both convincing and accessible. Having played everything from GTR to Midnight Club 3 recently, everyone seems to have their own opinions on what 'realism' is, and I'd have to nod sagely that Microsoft really nailed the right balance here between making Forza fun and playable while also catering to the hardcore realism that's required. A plethora of driving assists can be switched off or on as required, so there's little to stop you upping the ante once you've become very proficient, and indeed the game even rewards you with more credits if you desire to make things harder for yourself.
The need for speed
Admittedly, in terms of the sense of speed Forza conveys, the game takes a while to get out of the starting blocks (thanks, in part, to some spongy, sluggish opening cars), but as you progress in unlocking the more powerful beasts it builds and builds, with two first-person camera views offering real seat-of-the-pants tarmac-licking positioning. Locked at 30FPS, it's never going to have the same eye-bulging warp factor nine sensation of G-force that, say, Burnout 3 delivered so effortlessly, but it's pretty damned satisfying nevertheless.
If you're one of the lucky few in Europe to be able to take advantage of the game's 480 progressive scan mode then Forza has a real feast of visual treats that really push the Xbox in every conceivable way. Featuring technical wizardry right up there with the awesome (and hopelessly undersold) Rallisport Challenge 2, it tackles a wide variety of environments with universal aplomb, from Tokyo cityscapes to winding Alpine climbs to the more traditional real-life tracks (such as Silverstone), with barely any instances of pop-up discernable, never mind frame rate issues or any glitches worthy of the name. In fact, with the right HDTV widescreen set up you'll really be blown away by the epic draw distance, constant frame rate and some supremely well-modelled cars on show. On a personal level, I think it sports a slightly softer look to Gran Turismo, but on balance it gets everything absolutely spot on in that department. Lord only knows what the inevitable Xbox 360 sequel will look like.
This gloriously proficient eye candy is further enhanced by all manner of incidental effects, one of them making a long-desired entry into the world of sim-racing; that of damage modelling. First of all, don't expect Burnout levels of carnage, but do expect the kind of damage where it not only looks pretty damned convincing, but then surprises you even more when parts of your car become trackside obstacles! It's one thing seeing your front bumper hit the dirt, but another to find yourself swerving to avoid it on the next lap!
The light at the end of the tunnel
Another subtle, but very sweet effect is the way the screen quickly adjusts when you emerge from a dark tunnel into a bright area, rather like your eyes would in real life. It really is one of those games where the closer you look, the better it gets, rather than the other way around. Right down to the tire tread it's packed with a staggering degree of technical accomplishment, and for once you have to admit that this wouldn't have been possible on any other console system.
On the audio side I have some pretty mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm happy to have Microsoft make our palms sweat with genuinely harrowing surround sound effects that let you know precisely when you've got an opponent on your tail. On the other, I'm appalled by the soundtrack. The Junkie XL-penned effort is mostly awful (with the exception of one of a curiously Verve-esque menu instrumental), and had me grinding teeth over the presence of some truly grating generic rock nonsense. You know, the sort that used to blight games years ago. Fortunately you have the option to switch it off altogether or customise, so all is not lost. But even so, is it the duty of driving games to ritually assault our ears or what?
To sum it all up neatly, Forza succeeds by being one of the very few racing games that has the potential to appeal to all driving game fans. It'll unite the action drivers by being accessible and fun, the mod crowd for having a bewildering array of customisation options and after-market enhancements, and the hardcore simulation fanatics by its blistering attention to detail and enormous degree of challenge. With Microsoft's typically brilliant online implantation underpinning everything, alongside its determination to break technical boundaries Forza Motorsport is a quite staggering achievement for a first attempt and is a must have for any driving game fan - even if that means buying an Xbox in order to play it.