There's one lap to go at Laguna Seca, an angry, bucking beast of a circuit in the California desert where I've so far been shepherding a Civic to a bang-average fourth place finish. But this is Forza multiplayer: it's not over until the penalties are counted up, the 'mute all' button is pressed and the checkered flag is taken. The leader has a problem: their soft tires are shot. They've been losing a second to their runner-up every sector, and now as they head into the infamous corkscrew chicane, they're side-by-side in the braking zone.
What is it? The closest PC gaming has to Gran Turismo, now even shinier.
Release date: October 5 (early access), October 10, 2023
Expect to pay: £70 / $70, Microsoft Store (Day one on Game Pass Ultimate)
Developer: Turn 10 Studios
Reviewed on: i7 9700K, RTX 2080 TI, 16GB RAM
Link: Official site
I can see on the minimap that this does not go well for either party. They're both off track, and one of them clatters into the car in front of me as they're rejoining the asphalt. With three corners left, having been absolutely nowhere at the start of this lap, I'm about to win the race. Except I don't win the race. What happens instead is that I take those last corners so cautiously that one of the stricken corkscrew victims pulls back to within 1.2 seconds of me—and I'm carrying 1.2 seconds of penalties for corner cutting. I cross the line first, and finish second.
The lesson here is that victory is decided by fine margins. In lowercase m motorsport, and in Forza Motorsport, which for all its considerable qualities and resources, just manages to grab hold of excellence despite both tech and conceptual issues.
By which I mean this: the handling's absolutely wonderful, like we knew it would be. Vehicles genuinely are better than we've seen in driving games before, and circuits are so high in fidelity now it's almost a shame to have to take them in at speed. But Turn 10 plays too safe with those valuable assets in FM's singleplayer career mode, arranging them into a stack of the usual racing series categories to tick off in a career just like a Gran Turismo or a Grid might. Luckily online racing elevates the whole experience and gives you a reason to want a big car collection, and a lot of upgraded vehicles, and everything else the game asks you to grind for.
There's a newfound sense of weight to FM's cars. They let you know exactly how much their tires are complaining against the G-forces you're putting through the platform, with much more precise detail than 2017's Forza Motorsport 7 did. And when you reach the limits of traction, the consequences are more severe. Best case scenario, you're hacking away at the steering wheel like a ship's captain trying to countersteer the back end back under control and losing time by drifting. Worst case, you spiral into an irretrievable tank slapper and seesaw your way into a tire wall. There's some of Forza Horizon's character deep within Motorsport, but it's much more rigorous, closer to the venerable Gran Turismo in its simulation level.
The caveat is that I've had several crashes to desktop just before both online races and offline series events. Having raised these issues with the developer, PCG understands the multiplayer crashes were a known bug and subsequently patched, and my offline crashes are now also being worked on in a forthcoming update. I haven't been losing significant progress upon these crashes, but be warned that if you're strapping into the driving seat close to launch, it might be a bumpy ride until the next few updates go live.
I've been able to forgive these crashes because in singleplayer they haven't amounted to much lost progress—and because of how Forza Motorsport's cars feel. The fascination in Turn 10's new handling model is in finding the exact limit of every corner, the point just before the tires give up and the back end steps out. This is true in most racing games in principle, but very few other games give you this much information, this much feel, to find that critical traction limit.
If the fundamentals feel this good, then, does it matter if the career mode is driving by numbers through a bunch of over-familiar series (mini-championships featured cars grouped by a particular theme)? Let me tell you why it does: because the sheer variety of cars and handling behavior here deserved more.
There are so many subtleties to grasp. The wayward pull of a 1970 Dodge Coronet Super Bee and the worrying vagueness of the iconic Lamborghini Countach's steering at high speed. The way a Mazda RX8's Wankel engine lays down the power. The frightening changes in lateral direction that an LMP car's capable of. You get to know these vehicles like old friends, and in fairness you're encouraged to do so by an RPG-like car leveling mechanic which rewards XP for laps and feats such as overtakes. The more you level up a car, the more upgrades are available. It's just a shame there isn't a more creative way to show off the culture behind these vehicles in the singleplayer.
Solo racing does have a handful of worthwhile new additions though. AI drivers are the headline act, and although they've been tamed since the last beta test—wrongly so, the chaos was fantastic—they're still smarter than your average computer racer. They take many different lines into a given corner. They make mistakes. They block you, and sometimes even swipe at you. That makes battles for position that bit more three-dimensional, and sharpens your skills for online racing.
The practice race format is also just about a net positive because it encourages—nay, forces—you to learn braking points and lines before a race. This gets old when you're several series in, however, and it's contradicted by a new mechanic which lets you pick your grid position and earn a higher reward for achieving a podium finish the further back you start. Are we simulating a race weekend here by enforcing practice laps, or gamifying it by negating the need to qualify and letting you pick a grid position for gambling purposes? These feel like competing approaches, and yet somehow despite their inherent incompatibility they both feel like welcome new components to the experience. It's satisfying to hone your lines. It's also satisfying to storm the pack and secure a podium for a payout. The two live in nonsensical harmony.
But it's online where things all come together, where the handling, the car upgrade system and the race format all culminate in something special. The custom lobby creation tools are strong—on a par with Assetto Corsa and Project CARS 2 when it comes to dialing in weather, time of day, rules and regulations. And the official multiplayer series group together vehicles from different disciplines in a more formalized manner—like career mode events, only it's humans you're getting angry at. Whenever I get into a race, that race is invariably packed with drama, tactical depth and surprisingly sporting racing.
And this is why FM will sustain a community. The online racing's really robust, and it rewards things like tire management, clean driving and hours of hotlapping practice. Like an online racing game should. It's probably the same old bumper cars like FM7 was if you let your safety rating get too low, but I've generally been matched with other racers who at least try and pass you cleanly.
I wish Turn 10 had rolled the dice in a few more areas here, but nonetheless I can't help but admire the safe but finely crafted sim it's built. Forza Motorsport is missing that one great idea that moves the genre forwards, like The Crew Motorfest brought with 28-player, three-phase Grand Races. Its singleplayer is overly familiar, but with a car collection this voluminous and vehicle and track fidelity levels to make even Kaz Yamauchi nod, you can play it safe and still stand on the top step of the podium.