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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Forza Motorsport 5 review

Short cuts.

Taking something beautiful and retooling it into something beastly is one of the consistent pleasures of the Forza series. When the Ferrari 288 GTO rolled out of the Maranello gates, it was a vision of sculpted perfection: in Forza, there's an illicit kick in lowering the profile of its chassis, stripping out the luxurious leather interior then strapping a supercharger onto that already heavy-hitting twin turbo V8 to create a true monster.

Forza Motorsport 5's certainly got an underlying beauty. While it doesn't do as much as other next-gen launch titles in selling you on the power of the Xbox One, the switch up to 1080p works wonders, and those extra pixels are put to use in some exquisite detail. Surge over the crest of a hill in the new Prague street circuit and the city stretches out ahead of you with intoxicating clarity, the Vltava's many bridges criss-crossing the river all the way into the horizon.

There is detail in other locations - balloons bubble up across the Indianapolis sky, while pools of rubber chunks sit at the track extremities - as well as in the cars themselves. The craft on display - both from the carmakers being celebrated and from developer Turn 10's own artists - is exquisite, the models ripe for close inspection in the Vista mode that now extends to the entire collection of vehicles. It's even better when, after a couple of laps of action, that art is smeared with the grime and detritus of a racetrack; as they sit motionless to a stirring orchestral soundtrack after an event, Forza Motorsport 5's cars are a vision of hard-won heroism.

Bathurst is one of Forza 5's most welcome new additions, as we see in this video where I desecrate it with a feeble attempt at a race.Watch on YouTube

The heroics find their way into the handling, which introduces an added dynamism to Forza's model of old. Turn 10's appetite for pliable, easygoing oversteer is even more overstated here, the cars snapping out of step at the slightest provocation before happily being guided back with a quick and polite nudge. As a simulation of vehicle dynamics it might not be wholly convincing, and a car's individual characteristics tend to get lost in all the drama, but it's certainly exciting - the handling in Forza makes your effort at every corner feel like it's ready to be spliced into a Top Gear sizzle reel. It's now an appetite that's told with more feedback, too: from the tyres, which slip and yield with added authenticity, from the audio, which with its chirrups and squeaks communicates perfectly where the grip's being lost, and through the controller.

It's that controller and its implementation in Forza Motorsport 5 that sells the next-gen experience better than anything on Microsoft's new console right now. The individual feedback in each of the Xbox One pad's triggers is something of a revelation: go too strong entering into a corner and you'll feel the front wheels locking at your fingertips, while you can feel the rears light up upon an overenthusiastic exit. Not since Gran Turismo's first dalliance with the rumbling DualShock on the PlayStation has there been such an advance in the way we play racing games on a pad.

It sells you on the hardware just as much as it sells you on the spectacle of Turn 10's driving. At times, it's perfectly pitched: as before in the series, Forza Motorsport 5 knows how to make its cars sing, and it's one of the few driving games out there that knows the difference in note between a flat 12 and a V12. Such small details are worth so very much to the automotive fanatic.

Forzavista lets you explore cars in exacting detail. Kinect functionality's been pushed back here, though - it's only used for voice commands in Forza 5.

But there are other moments when the spectacle is overplayed. Races are washed over by a soaring soundtrack not really fitting for wrestling a Honda Civic around an airfield in Surrey, and the strengthened link that Forza Motorsport 5 has with Top Gear is laboured at points. The laddish melodrama of Clarkson and company is served up in unskippable chunks before each set of events, and like the programme, the noisy style covers up a lack of substance.

Forza Motorsport 5 suffers from a diminished amount of content. It's not the car list that's the problem. The 200-plus offering may only be over half of what Forza 4 had to offer, but what's there is so brilliantly realised that it would take some time to tire of exploring them all in Vista mode or conjuring new set-ups and liveries to share and sell on Forza's returning marketplace. It's the track list, though, that falls short. The newcomers are fantastic: Spa doesn't disappoint, while the video game revival that Bathurst's enjoying at the moment is at its strongest here. It's not as precise as iRacing's recent scan, perhaps, but other games will struggle to extract such drama from the mad ascent and descent of Mount Panorama.

But for these additions, so much has been lost from previous iterations of Forza Motorsport. Maple Valley, for so long a signature track tailored for the series' tail-out handling, is absent, as is Infineon Raceway, gone before we ever really had the chance to get acquainted. The Nordschleife Nurburgring is the victim of a savage cut, as too is Suzuka, a track that has in recent years become recognised as one of the greatest on the F1 calendar. Forza Motorsport 5's replacement, Yas Marina - perhaps the only circuit in the world tedious enough to turn a three-way championship showdown into a tiresome procession - feels like the final kick in the teeth.

Forza 5 introduces open wheel cars to the series - off the back of Rush there are Niki Lauda and James Hunt's 1976 F1 challengers, as well as a Dallara DW12 Indycar and this, the Lotus E21.

So little is spread out so thin across a career that doesn't make much of an effort to engage. Forza Motorsport 5's lattice of events is unlocked from the off, with different categories spread out across a succession of long series of 10 races each. There's no thread to follow, though, and with just 14 locations to share amongst them all, repetition sets in fast. "Here we are again at the Circuit de Catalunya," says the droll American commentator before an event (Peter Egan's no more, I'm afraid), with a small hint of apology in her voice.

All that's left is the grind, and it's not a particularly pleasant one. Unlike previous outings, cars don't unlock upon levelling up. Everything must be bought in Forza Motorsport 5, and all transactions take place in a slightly misshapen economy. A series will, on average, net the player in excess of 110,000 credits for just under an hour's effort - but with some of the premium racecars costing well over a million, it's a somewhat brutal grind. Good job, then, that there are tokens purchasable on the Xbox One's marketplace for you to attain the car you're after, or to temporarily boost the rate at which you gain XP. When you've already paid £429.99 for a new console, £44.99 for the game and maybe even £349.99 for the only steering wheel that the game supports at launch, such tricks appear a little unsavoury, and in Forza 5, mechanics greedily smuggled from free-to-play games trample over the elegant RPG elements the series once embraced so effectively.

It's not the only awkward imposition here. Online racing in Forza Motorsport 5 is fierce, combative and, thanks to the lack of an effective penalty system, a little frustrating. Now, thanks to the Drivatar system, the same is true of offline racing too.

Apologies for the excess of R18 e-tron love. I got told off at Goodwood earlier this year by an Audi technician for getting too touchy feely with this year's Le Mans winning model.Watch on YouTube

In principle, it's a smart idea - while you're playing, your behaviour is recorded, assembled and then uploaded to the cloud, from which an avatar is seeded and competes on your behalf (and from which you can earn credits when not actively playing yourself). In practice, it's a backwards step, with erratic AI contributing to offline events that feel like an ill-mannered online scuffle where racing etiquette is thrown out the window.

Why have just the one braking point when you can have two? And why not have a quick dab of the brake in the middle of a straight? The unpredictable driving of others creates too many needless scraps - it's a good thing that Forza's rewind feature is intact, though it's a shame you have to put into use so many times because of the AI. The data that's in there is pooled from a good number of players, pulled from Turn 10 and Microsoft - so you'd have thought it'd be of a reasonable quality. There's the potential for it to improve over time, but right now the Xbox One's heavily touted cloud rains down a thunderstorm of idiocy.

Ignore the nonsense, though, and it can still be electrifying. Take an Audi R18 e-tron away from the messy drone of the career and set about beating a Rivals hot lap time around Spa and it's sublime: the diesel engine roars stealthily, the sun streaming through the Ardennes' thick forest. With Forza Motorsport 5, Turn 10's created a driving experience both accessible and beautiful - but it's been stripped back to make Xbox One's launch, and augmented with a host of ugly extras that only serve Microsoft's bid to make a few dollars more.

7 / 10