Review: Forza Motorsport 7 raises the bar for console racers
After playing the first 40 minutes or so of Forza 7 at a recent preview event in Sydney, I was blown away. This was, by some margin, not just the best looking racing game I'd ever seen - it was the most visually impressive home console game full stop.
Of course, it was all rendered at a pin-sharp 4K resolution, with super-smooth frame rate and photo-realistic lighting effects. With very few other launch titles to speak of, Forza 7 is Microsoft's standard bearer for the launch of its Ultra HD Xbox One X next month.
The company's new business model is centred around a two-tier Xbox structure, with the One S for entry level gamers and the deluxe One X reserved for those who want maximum performance. Of course, if you have a high-end PC, you won't have to worry about this, but you'll probably have spent a couple of thousand dollars building a 4K-ready rig.
So it's to be expected that from November onwards, Xbox games will almost always look and run better on the premium model. What I wasn't prepared for is just how much of a step down the game looks on a standard One S at 1080p. Don't get me wrong, it still looks incredibly slick, but that's the least you'd expect from a Forza game.
Ever seen a movie at the cinema that knocked your socks off but didn't have quite the same oomph when you watched it again at home? Or been captivated by a band's live performance at a gig but unable to recreate the magic when you looked them up on Spotify? That's how I felt playing Forza 7 in 4K compared to the same game at 1080p.
This might sound disappointing to Xbox owners who aren't planning on picking up the new machine, but it's actually quite a savvy business move. If gamers can see a clear and obvious difference in quality between standard and premium, they're going to be more tempted to upgrade.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the decision to release Forza 7 a month before the the One X arrives (as opposed to launch day) was to let people get used to playing it in standard HD, then wait for jaws to hit the floor when playing at full throttle in 4K.
Of course, stunning graphics are only part of the Forza experience. What's really propelled the franchise to pole position on the grid of modern racing games is the tight, responsive handling, huge array of vehicles and tracks and trademark slick presentation.
That's exactly what you expect from a Forza game and the seventh game in the series doesn't disappoint. It features the ever biggest selection of cars (700+, with more to come), covering everything from family saloons and hatchbacks to supercars and high-octane trucks.
The track options are similarly vast, with 200 different configurations across 32 global locations.
Granted, a lot of these cars and courses are direct ports from previous Forza games, but it's no exaggeration to say they look and feel better than ever.
This is mainly down to the radically improved weather and lighting effects that make every track and car different depending on the time of day and climatic conditions. Whereas previous Forza games featured static weather where wet tracks would always be wet and rain would fall at exactly the same rate, Forza 7's climate is wild and unpredictable.
The single-player career mode has also been super-sized. Split across six cups, you can choose your path through the game so if you prefer driving classic muscle cars to modern sports racers, you'll always have the option and are never forced to slog through a series you're not a fan of.
Progression is tied to an XP system, which you level up by winning races and collecting cars. New vehicles are purchased with an in-game currency which you can also earn by completing events, but they're also unlockable by purchasing prize boxes, and this is where things get a little problematic.
Prize boxes can be bought with in-game coins, but also with cold, hard cash. You don't know what you're going to get from them (legendary cars, racing gear, mod cards which earn bonus XP, etc) until you open them, which, let's face it, is basically gambling. Not a good look when a large part of your fanbase are literally children.
Of course, you're not forced to buy prize boxes and you can grind through the game without them. But the option is always there, and if you're running low on in-game credits, it can feel very tempting to cough up a few bucks to make things easier.
I was also surprised to see that the option to earn bonus XP by removing some of the in-game assists such as visible racing line, stability and automatic gears has been completely removed in Forza 7. You might as well play with everything on as there's zero incentive not to.
Forza has always been big on customisation, and the different configurations of paint jobs and vehicle tuning options is practically infinite. You can design your own liveries and upload them for other players to use or download them from the cloud. Ditto for tune-ups, tinker away with different parts and engines or simply see what's working for others and save yourself the hassle.
Online multiplayer is as slickly integrated as always, featuring a range of events split across different classes of vehicles. It's a great way to earn XP and coins by putting the cars you've unlocked to the test against the best drivers from around the world.
I've had a lot of fun playing Forza 7 online, but let's just say it's not for the faint-hearted. To say drivers are aggressive would be an understatement, and almost every race features multiple crashes, spin-outs and some seriously dirty racing.
If you're up against a full grid of 23 other cars; expect to see absolute carnage at the first corner, as players jockey for position and racing line. If you can avoid the inevitable pile-up then you might stand a chance of making the podium, but if you find yourself wiped out on the first lap it's very difficult to recover from.
Even if you make it to the front of the pack, everyone behind you is looking to take you out - usually by ramming straight into the back of you as you approach a tight bend, sending you smashing into a barrier as they nip in behind you.
This can lead to some intense and exciting moments, but a fair amount of frustration too. If you're a racing purist who prefers winning by perfecting cornering and smooth overtaking, it might not be for you. Of course, you have the option of setting up a private lobby with a group of like-minded clean racers, but the public servers are free-for-all right now.
Despite the gripes and grumbles, there's no getting away from the fact that this is the biggest and best Forza Motorsport game to date. It's so vast, with such a ridiculous level of depth and detail that you could put hundreds of hours into it and still keep coming back for more.
The most exciting part is that for Xbox gamers, Forza 7 will shift up a gear when the Xbox One X releases on November 7. Once you download and install the whopping 100gb 4K update, you'll be able to put the pedal to the metal and really see what this baby can do.
Forza Motorsport 7
Developers: Turn 10
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Formats: Xbox One/Windows 10