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Forza Motorsport tech preview: how is the game shaping up on Series X and Series S?

First impressions, graphics and performance.

forza motorsport key art
Image credit: Turn 10 Studios

I've been playing the new Forza Motorsport preview these past couple of weeks and, in the wake of our developer interview with Turn 10, I wanted to share my own impressions on the game. After all, Forza 2023 has been in development longer than any prior entry in the Motorsport series and expectations are high. The preview build only includes a limited selection of content but it's enough to give us a better idea of how it's shaping up on Xbox Series X and Series S in terms of graphics, gameplay and performance.

The current preview build includes access to three cars and five tracks, and kicks off with an introduction segment in the spirit of Forza Horizon - where you're dropped right in the middle of a race in progress across two different tracks. It's nowhere near as seamless at Horizon, mind you, as there is a distinct loading point between the two events, but it's still a great way to kick things off and really showcases what the engine is capable of.

The first race takes place on series staple Maple Valley, and this is perhaps the best-looking track we've seen thus far. The new dynamic lighting system combined with the 3D foliage makes a world of difference creating a sleek, gorgeous track environment to race through. Compared against Forza Motorsport 7, the differences become evident - Forza 7's lighting is entirely baked and, while it can look amazing, the limitations are easily visible. The car sticks out and isn't well integrated into the environment, versus the new installment where everything is more grounded.

Here's the preview in video form, with John Linneman on the mic and at the wheel. Watch on YouTube

Trackside detail has received a major boost as well with fully modeled 3D vegetation and detailed rock formations versus the flat billboard trees used in Forza 7. Combine that with improved motion blur, fog effects, sun glare and car paint simulation and it feels like a significant upgrade.

However, critiques have been levelled at the visuals based on this preview content - most notably how the dynamic weather and time of day can give proceedings a washed-out appearance, particularly at Mugello. When compared to Forza 7, there's no doubt that the new lighting model produces more realistic results, but it feels less impactful and lacks contrast. I don't believe it's an HDR issue, but I do believe they've specifically aimed for a hazy look during mid-day - which is a notoriously difficult time of day to handle in graphics rendering.

In terms of actual track detail, though, the new game is an improvement in most areas. The world geometry is expanded, there are now more objects within the scene, trees are fully 3D and lighting is enhanced. The new game also boasts 3D crowds like Gran Turismo 7 versus the completely static billboards used in Forza 7.

forza motorsport 2023 vs forza motorsport 7 comparison screenshot
The Mugello circuit can appear a little washed-out, perhaps due to the hazy look that Turn 10 is targeting for midday. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

That said, there are some odd inconsistencies - including instances where textures are clearly higher resolution in Forza 7 than in the new game. Keep in mind that this preview build already weighs in at 130GB, so I don't think we're seeing lower-res textures to save space. We'll have more to say about this with the final game but it is interesting to compare, even in this state.

I also noticed some weird visual bugs in this build - in one instance, the crowd appeared at the lowest possible LOD level, becoming nothing more than hilarious-looking triangular figures. In photo mode, they'd appear correctly, but snapping back to gameplay or replay mode, they were triangular again. I also noticed situations in which tree LODs were messed up. Hopefully these bugs will be corrected for launch.

Thankfully, most other aspects of the visuals are looking great. The addition of 3D foliage in particular is a huge deal, as they properly cast and receive shadows and lend scenes much greater depth. Those 3D crowds too hold up rather well when scrutinised - definitely the best crowd system they've developed thus far.

Here's the developer interview we conducted with figures from Turn 10, who shared plenty of insight into the game's technical underpinnings and direction. Watch on YouTube

At night, headlights cast shadows but I really like the transfer of paint color to the road surface. Turn 10 also massively improved the game's motion blur quality - not only does it lend the game extra speed, but it improves the visuals too. Plus, for the first time, you can adjust your FOV for each camera view - which again, can make the game feel even faster!

Let's talk modes and performance now. On Xbox Series X, there are three options to choose from - performance, performance RT and visuals. Performance mode is 60fps without ray tracing features enabled. It relies on dynamic resolution scaling, with most pixel counts resulting in a 4K or near-4K internal resolution, dropping to 1440p at minimum.

The game also uses TAA now, rather than the MSAA used by earlier entries, so image quality is significantly different. In-surface aliasing is cleaned up significantly and its stability is impressive, but the TAA lacks the pristine look of MSAA. The real issue here is that the TAA itself isn't as robust as I'd have liked - in the interview, Turn 10 mentioned that their TAA solution was adapted from 343's work on Halo Infinite. We were not fans of the TAA in Halo Infinite and have long requested DLSS or even FSR 2 as an option for PC users.

forza motorsport 2023 vs forza motorsport 7 comparison screenshot
forza motorsport 2023 vs forza motorsport 7 comparison screenshot
Crowds are now 3D once more, and animate during gameplay... although we spotted spectators turning into triangles on some occasions. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

The ray tracing performance mode adds two features: ray-traced reflections (on mirror-like surfaces) and ray-traced ambient occlusion. I can't stress enough how impressive it is to see two different RT effects enabled simultaneously at 60fps on a console. While it has its limitations, the result is still impressive.

RTAO primarily benefits occluded areas in a scene which receive less light - small crevices between body panels and all the areas around a track receiving less direct lighting. Typically, games would rely on a screen-space solution, which has many drawbacks, but RTAO works with the entire scene, off-screen or not, producing far cleaner and more accurate results. Dynamic reflections are more obvious - cars can now reflect themselves as well as other cars around them in a race. This is a nice visual upgrade when racing in a third-person perspective.

Of course, this comes at a cost - resolution. While this mode does support dynamic resolution scaling up to 4K, we saw an internal resolution of around 1440p most of the time, with drops below 1440p possible during cinematic scenes. Combined with the TAA, image quality does take a noticeable hit but it's still reasonably sharp, all things considered, and impressively locks to 60 fps without issue.

forza motorsport 2023 vs forza motorsport 7 comparison screenshot
forza motorsport 2023 vs forza motorsport 7 comparison screenshot
Tracks have also received overhauls, though in some cases Forza 7 exhibits higher-quality textures (grass) and a more realistic edge to the blacktop than Forza 2023. Car wheels can also exhibit extremely low-res textures at the start - another glitch that's likely to be fixed by release. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

The visuals mode seems to hit native 4K much like the regular performance mode, but features additional ray tracing features - most notably, reflections can now appear on all shiny surfaces, compared to performance RT mode which restricts reflections to cars only.

This extra visual fidelity is made possible by a hybrid approach to reflections. Dynamic objects like cars and scenery very near the player car are reflected using ray tracing, while most of the scenery around you is handled via a cubic environment map texture sampled every other frame (ie at 30fps) - which creates a bit of a mismatch versus the RT reflections that update at 60fps. Another factor is that RT reflections are limited to mirror-like surfaces rather than (more computationally expensive) rougher materials.

I don't want to get into the Gran Turismo 7 versus Forza Motorsport 2023 comparison just yet but I will briefly note that GT7 RT reflections, used in replays, do work on rough materials and scenery, making them far more expensive. This difference explains how Forza's RT can be active in gameplay at 60fps, while GT7's is limited to replays. Turn 10's approach here is clever, that's for sure.

forza motorsport 2023 modes comparison
There are three modes on Series X: performance, performance RT and visuals. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

Interestingly though, there is a bit of an additional wrinkle when it comes to RT reflections. We've established that reflection quality is restrained for performance reasons, even in 30fps replays, but the engine seems capable of much more. Looking back at early Forza Motorsport preview videos, the RT reflection quality is higher than that of the preview build - and the game looks incredible with these settings. It's not clear if this would be feasible on console, even in replays, but the engine can handle it - so perhaps we'll see this higher-fidelity RT in the PC release?

Of course, there's also Series S to mention. The smaller console has performance and visual modes, neither of which feature RT in gameplay or replays. Series S does have RT within the garage and certain other situations, but that's it. Performance mode aims for 1080p while visuals steps this up to 1440p, with DRS used in both cases.

The gap between Series S and X feels larger than usual in this case, however, and I was surprised that performance mode maxes out at 1080p. Thanks to the TAA, it looks really blurry in practice and feels like a stepdown from prior entries targeting 1080p. Again, though, we'll retest all of this on launch and see how it shapes up - but the results are certainly interesting as of this moment.

forza motorsport 2023 xbox series x vs series s comparison screenshot
There's a larger-than-usual gulf in fidelity between Series S and Series X, with drops to resolution and fewer RT effects. | Image credit: Digital Foundry

That's Forza Motorsport thus far then - there's a lot of potential here and we'll be here to cover it all. Obviously, while we've discussed the visuals here today, we didn't get into the racing side of things yet, which is what Forza is all about. I do want to discuss that in the review too but first impressions are positive. It looks great, it plays well and it runs very smoothly.

Of course, I do have other critiques as well, such as car models which are perhaps less detailed than I expected, but at the same time, things like their paint simulation are a huge step-up which does help the situation.

Look out for our final coverage of the game in October - we'll see you then.

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