Microsoft's Gran Turismo killer or a burst radiator on the autobahn's hard shoulder? We take a first look under the bonnet.
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When Microsoft first admitted its intentions with Forza Motorsport, it may as well have said, "We're going to fly to Pluto." Translated, Microsoft said publicly and in no uncertain terms that Forza is directly aiming to compete with the absolute giant of console racing games, Gran Turismo. There is no bigger target. GT is PlayStation's biggest game, the fourth version of which hits Europe in March, and with aspirations at this level, the pressure on Forza is absolutely immense. Early code turned up last week.
Microsoft Game Studios' title comes with high expectation, and even at this stage the production levels are very high. Launching into Career mode, we go off with our credits and buy a Mini Cooper S after selecting Europe from the three world areas of Europe, Asia and America as our starting point for what is sure to be a lengthy racing challenge. You get specific cars depending on the area you choose, obviously, the idea being that you buy cars from other regions from other players on Live. We haven't been able to look at any of the online stuff as yet, but every single event offline is playable online. There will be literally thousands of Live leaderboards.
For now, we get to sample the racing itself, the core of the Forza experience. It's a big thumbs up, or at least a big thumbs up potentially. The handling on our Mini is superb, with expertly modelled physics letting us take comfortable control of the game from the off, simply because it handles exactly as a real car should. When we test the faster, twitchier GTs afterwards, the result is hitting walls with regular occurrence, even with all assists on. Just as it should be at first. The Microsoft Game Studios team has already said that it wants Forza to make you a better driver through its unquenchable thirst for realism. Wind speed and track temperature are even listed, and will affect players' lap times.
Due to its realistic slant, Forza is a challenging game. Real life, as we're all aware, is unforgiving, and never more so than when you're really trying not to kill yourself in a little Mini. You need to know the tracks and the cars, and the sense of satisfaction from improving is one of the main draws of Forza's format.
The AI is tough; annoying but realistic. There's no procession here, and the cars appear to behave as though you're racing online. The experience is definitely reminiscent of Gotham on Live, with irate teenagers slamming into the back of you as you lead, drifting in your path as you chase. It's thrilling, frustrating and compulsive.
And it's not complete, from the look of it. When we start the New York course, the cars in front of us simply turn into each other for no reason, crashing mere feet from the starting line and coming to a halt on Manhattan's tarmac. We drive round the rather pathetic pile up and shoot off out of Times Square.
There's still a load of polishing to be applied to the racing game proper. The frame rate is choppy in the code we've played, and has a tendency to hang up for seconds at a time. With this eradicated, the overall effect will be incredible. The car models and the tracks themselves are pulling plenty of grunt from Xbox, so with no sticking and no drops in frames from the reflection maps, and so on, Forza will look and feel sensational. There can be little doubt of this.
That said, the tree-lined tracks are fantastic. The Japanese point-to-point race, set on the Fujimi Calco downhill course, settles into a barely contained charge through packed, hillside woodland, sparks flying and tempers most definitely high. This is less than an hour into the game, should you choose to follow this direction with your career; for a realistic racer to thrill like this so early on is a treat. Houses, mountains, pylons, sunlight flying from the bump-mapped road: the promise is high indeed. The track that follows this in the initial point-to-point category is Nurburgring East. Beautifully, anally modelled, with every stripe of paint, every bump, every misjudged camber, every heartstopping corner. Hot stuff.
You get paid in credits for completing a race victoriously. We got 3,244 for winning the first one, and levelled up to level 4. You can spend the cash on new motors, upgrades, and so on.
Cars from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, Sweden, Britain and the US are on offer to us as European drivers, the amount of vehicles in the game totalling over 200. The amount of events we can see is huge, certainly running into the hundreds. Forza is addictive from the outset: you don't start by traipsing around F1 courses in a 2CV. You're instantly driving powerful cars in full-on races and you can see there's so much more to come. You want to play it. It's exactly what you'd expect it to be in terms of structure, and that handling - and the promise of plenty of surprises en route - is more than enough to will you through to the final races.
Then we started fiddling. After browsing through the top of the range Mercedes, biting our bottom lip at the amount of credits needed for the 300SL Gullwing Coupe and staring at the brutal locks over the BMW Sports machines, we were stupid enough to dip into the customisation levels in the Garage. Good grief. It's like being lost in the caves on Pokemon Red, but thankfully without the sense of helpless abandonment. An hour later we managed to pull ourselves back, after playing with decals, colours, gear ratios, dampers: it doesn't stop. We haven't even scratched the surface. But, unlike the endless rambling through the dark with Pikachu, we want to go back and play. Like, right now. The design of these sections is slick, robust and hugely enjoyable, even at this stage.
As we've said, Forza Motorsport is a very ambitious game. Not only does it look to take on the likes of Kazunori Yamauchi and what has become PlayStation's most revered product, but it attempts to lock in the city racing of Gotham with the track obsession of GT and an online component so ludicrously detailed you can't really see an end to playing it. It's not there yet. But that engine sounds pretty sweet now we've turned the key.