Forza Motorsport Review
If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough
Things have been different with the current console generation. While fans once expected a racing game to headline any new console launch to show off the powerful hardware with awe-inspiring visuals, that hasn't been the case with Xbox Series X|S. Forza 5 was a bit of a rough go as an Xbox One launch game, course-corrected with Forza 6, but stumbled a bit again with Forza 7 in 2018. Instead, a few years into the lifetime of the hardware, we finally get the latest circuit racing car sim from Turn10 Studios, with a re-used name and a decently fresh look. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about this latest entry to have needed such a long development time, but what we do get is yet another highly competent racing experience with a few tweaks under the hood.
Forza Motorsport 2023 has a fairly typical career mode layout for a sim racer. Players can select from one of a few Tours, which are a collection of events that have 4-6 races each. Each Tour has a theme, and each race set has a further focus. There are event sets focused on the Mazda Miata, muscle cars, German performance sedans, and so on. Races usually take about 6-10 minutes to complete, and each set of 5 is handled as a mini-standalone tournament with points being earned from each race. You only have a handful of race sets to pick from at the start, and more get unlocked as you complete their predecessors.
The race sets have specific car requirements, so over the course of the career you will get to purchase and drive a decent variety of vehicles. However, it's not until the final Tour that you get to use any car you want (restricted only by performance class). This means that, while it's nice to dip your feet into a bunch of different driving experiences, there's no classic career option to pick a favorite car and use it almost exclusively for the whole single player mode. Ironically, that final Tour that lets you use your own car is one of the most fun - the races are short, events are fewer in number, and you keep making massive progress to your car performance with event set, making for some varied driving with the same vehicle.
What is different about this campaign is that each race comes with a mandatory practice session; you need to complete 2-3 laps before getting to the actual race, with an optional bonus objective of reaching a specific lap time which varies by selected difficulty. The game also sets out some specific track sections to target and improve on your time. These practice laps are nice because you get to become more familiar with the track (if you're new to the series or genre), and it also counts towards earning experience for your car – more on this later. There are other staggered opponents on the track during practice, which makes it feel less lonely, but can also impact your performance if they get in the way.
While these practices are useful, they do significantly drag out the campaign. If a set of 5 races can be completed in about an hour, doing the practice laps before each race pushes that time to well over an hour and a half. At least the time of day and weather often change between practice and race, adding a bit of diversity. Sometimes though, you just want to make progress in the campaign, so thankfully there is an option to skip these "mandatory" practice runs, hidden in the menus. It's especially useful because each Tour and set of races are standalone, and there is already a bit of a lack of sense of progress. Each race set within a Tour does get a quick clip introducing the car theme, and there are bits of voiceover talking about the track you are about to race on, but otherwise narration is minimal. You get a free car after beating each Tour, but that's about it – no special cutscenes or celebrations. The muted narration and lack of exciting goals are expected for a sim racer, but make the proceedings feel a little bit dull at times nonetheless.
The excitement may arrive in the form of the new approach to vehicle upgrading and the re-workings of the progression mechanics. As alluded to earlier, cars now have individual levels, and you earn experience by driving them. The game constantly awards scores on how well you perform on segments of a track, and while that sometimes gives bonus car XP, it's an underdeveloped mechanic – the vast majority of XP is gained by simply lapping. It's a system that other series have tried before, such as Project CARS, just presented slightly differently. You can be driving terribly, and still level your car at about the same rate; it would have been more motivational to get notably more XP from driving well. This is probably because the developers didn't want to fully commit to the new system and potentially limit less experienced drivers from levelling up their rides.
Your car levels matter because that's how the upgrades are earned in Forza Motorsport. The cars come with the usual wealth of part options – from new tires and transmissions to engine valves, weight reduction and sway bars – everything that should be familiar to previous Forza players, even from the Horizon franchise. But the difference now is that some of the categories are locked behind your car level – so you can't do engine swaps until max level 50, drivetrain swaps unlock at level 40, and so on. Within each category, there is the usual selection of 2-5 different options for upgrades, with increasing level of performance and/or function. As expected, you also can't tune the specific aspects of performance – i.e. transmission gearing – until you've reached a level with the car to modify its transmission, and upgrade that part high enough.
Levelling doesn't take too long. After a series of five races, the cars should reach around level 10 to 12, and that's with skipping the practice runs. If you do all practices before the races too, you can get the car to level 20 or so. The maximum level is 50, which does take some driving time, but at least the rate doesn't seem to slow down at higher levels, so it doesn't feel like a grind. As the cars can level with decent speed, the game actually presents an upgrade screen between each race, letting you swap in some new parts. During the levelling process, it's probably easier to just let the game create a balanced build; it's a chore having to go re-evaluate what new parts to use and which to drop – because you have a limited number of CP.
CP are Car Points, a currency that you earn together with each level-up of a specific vehicle. Parts cost a specific amount of CP to equip, so while your car level increases to give you plenty of options, you can't simply go into each category and buy the best performance part – you are limited by how much CP you have, and need to make decisions/sacrifices (until you get to the highest level). It's a bit like Call of Duty, when you can only upgrade guns up to a certain performance level, and to equip something new you have to drop something else in another category. All of these new car XP and CP mechanics combine to create an interesting dynamic that certainly gives you a reason to treat each car individually and spices up the progression system a bit – leaving behind the dreadful homologation of FM7.
Because upgrades and car parts are all handled by experience and CP, cash is no longer king. In fact, the only thing you can spend money on is buying new cars, which certainly meant the finances had to be rebalanced a bit. Over the course of the career, you should have enough income to maintain a healthy cash flow, and more can be gained by boosting the difficulty settings. When you go shopping, you'll find the usual large assortment of vehicles – over 500 are said to be in the game at launch, from all the major manufactures, across a variety of categories, from classics to modern day heroes. You can recoup about half the cost by selling the cars back, and returning franchise players will also get a few for free as rewards. Most of the vehicles are returning from previous games, but there are a few that are new to the series. Regardless of their legacy, there is a high level of presentation and detail on all of the cars that we've had a chance to see. You can still walk around, open all the doors, and look under the hood where you find detailed engines – something that other sim racers still lack.
This is strictly a track racer, so don't expect much variety in terms of function. Still, all cars handle suitably well with a controller, and the game does an excellent job at representing how different performance levels feel. Guiding an older Audi around the bend is a struggle at any decent speed, but jump into a BMW M Motorsport M8 GTE, and suddenly you are flying through the curves. Even when you're going through the levelling process and equipping new parts for the same car, the improvements are noticeable and fun to experience as you unlock the true potential of each vehicle. Car tunes can of course be shared with the community, as can be the visual liveries. The visual customization remains strong and offers plenty of choices, along with importing your designs from previous games. However, it must be said - in 2023, how are we still looking at small, pixelated images to preview community liveries? At this point, we should be able to scroll through them directly on the car in full view.
When you get into the race, you will find that the AI opponents are decent. Before the race, you can even adjust your starting position for more rewards if you still manage a podium finish from further back. It's a simple but engaging option that other franchises should adapt. Rolling starts are also an option. At an impressive 24 cars on the track, things can certainly get tough, and players can further tweak the AI difficulty rating, as well as the rules - from allowing rewinds and no damage, to full mechanical consequences and severe punishments for cutting corners. Higher difficulties provide bigger monetary payouts. The AI mostly hold the line and are not easy to push out of the way, but it's also nice to see that they collide into each other and make mistakes during the chaotic initial corners.
While the main rival Gran Turismo 7 still handles its sim racing and cars as a showcase, with a "look but don't touch" approach and the equivalent of keeping its toys in original plastic packaging to be showcased, Forza has always been a bit more accessible and not afraid to throw its elbows, letting the cars and players feel a bit more connected and in the real world. It's difficult to explain, but if you've played both series you will know that Forza often felt a little more human and less pretentious, and that continues to be the case. That being said though, the visual damage model is still lacking, with mostly paint scuffs, bends and bumps in the bodywork, and some cracked windshields being the most you can expect. No bits or side mirrors fly off the cars even at high speed collisions. It's somewhat expected for a licensed car game, but feels a bit anemic.
Similarly, the tracks lack a bit of life; they are wonderfully presented, but little details break the immersion. Any cones or banners you knock over will be reset on each lap, the crowds are quiet and generic – with minor animations, they stand around in the same place and do not leave – whether it's the middle of the night in a pitch black section of the track, or in the pouring rain. Helicopters also continue to circle during thunderstorms. When everything else looks great – and has been for a while – you start to notice these other details that don't seem to improve game over game.
Still, it goes without saying that the title looks great. As a first party game, you expect Forza Motorsport to be a visual showcase, and it certainly reaches those goals most of the time. The cars are all wonderfully recreated with high attention to detail, inside and out. The tracks also look very good, thanks to an updated lighting engine that makes the environments feel more lifelike and offering some fantastic moments of immersion. This is helped by the vibrant art style, from the bright colors of Maple Valley Raceway during a sunset, to the bright yet warm LED lights reflecting on the wet surface of Hakone. The color scheme and lighting are quite wonderful, and the darkness of the night at Spa are contrasted by the bright sunshine of Virginia International Raceway.
All of the fictional Forza tracks have been notably rebuilt, and the game ships with a total of about 20 tracks that includes 5 new ones. There's the usual selection of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Le Mans, Silverstone, Laguna Seca, and more. Still, some fan faves are missing for now, such as the full length Nurburgring Nordschleife – though that's promised in future free updates. The tracks come with a variety of changeable weather conditions and times of day, which all add to the immersion. You could be starting a race on a calm summer evening, but a thunderstorm may roll in and the race concludes in challenging wet darkness. The representations are also fairly impressive, with different intensities of rain creating additional visual and even audio effects, fog rolling in, and so on.
Players can choose from a few different visual modes, including Performance (4K-target at 60fps), Visual quality mode (4K at 30fps), and RT mode (introduces Ray Tracing targeting 4K and 60fps). The 60fps modes held a very steady framerate on our Xbox Series X, though at the expense of some dynamic resolution changes that are sometimes noticeable. There are occasional minor blemishes, such as lower quality reflections, and shadow details that visibly draw in and out in front and behind you as you drive. At 30fps mode, the game doesn't look significantly better to the naked eye, but the lower framerate feels strange and jittery, with some peculiar frame pacing (and we don't say that as 60fps purists). Given the limited differences, it's recommended to use one of the 60fps modes.
Elsewhere, loading times are quick, but somewhat frequent. There are plenty of accessibility options too, which is nice to see, down to not having to always hold down the accelerator. Audio design is strong, with great sounding engines and tire squeals. The crunching audio effects from collisions are a bit exaggerated, but add to their impactfulness. Menu music is light and unobtrusive, and as this is a serious sim, there is no music during races.
The UI and menu design is basic, but intuitive and functional. The top corner of the screen keeps tabs on how well you perform in each section of track and car XP bar, and it can be initially addicting to drive to your best ability, but you eventually don't bother looking anymore and it can be turned off. In multiplayer, we wish there were more text options to communicate with other drivers – and those messages needed to appear front and center, not in the corner where your car rating is, only to quickly vanish. Further, important information, like remaining tire life and fuel warnings, also appear in that corner instead of in your main view.
All of the included content can be experienced outside of career by using the Free Play mode. Here you can borrow any car you don't own (it just won't earn experience), and go on any track with any set of conditions and difficulty settings. It's always nice when games include this option. Elsewhere, there's of course the typical sim multiplayer offering. There is a nice option for private multiplayer, where you can race only with your friends, along with the expected Rivals system, to chase track lap records of your friends and competitors from across the globe.
Competitive multiplayer has a familiar structure as well. After completing three initial races to get a skill and safety rating, you're free to join multiplayer events that start at specific times every hour. The multiplayer skill and safety ratings should hopefully keep players in their appropriate matchmaking pools, but it will probably take a little while to sort out and you can expect the usual first corner chaos for a few weeks. Race events consist of practice time, a few qualifying laps when you're ready to set your best lap time and determine your grid position, and the main race itself. Players can tweak their tires from soft/medium/hard and wet options, as well as adjust their fuel amount to improve their times. In longer races, you will have to pit and make changes as needed as tires can run out of life quickly, leaving you with little grip.
Connectivity seems fine and opponents don't warp around the track, which is important for a precision sim game. It's also nice to see a good number of different race types happening – some where you bring your own car and rating, others that normalize the ratings and cars to create an even playing field. There seems to be more options than what GT7 had at launch, so you are never waiting too long before events if you're willing to try all available disciplines.
Similarly to GT7 and the recently released The Crew Motorfest, Forza Motorsport chooses to be an always-online experience – also a first in this franchise. And just like those other games, it doesn't really provide any benefits to the players. There are no features, mechanics, or perks that the experience gains by always requiring an internet connection. The only silver lining is that if you are offline, you at least get the entire Free Play mode to mess around in, which includes all cars and tracks freely accessible, which is more than can be said about the other two example games.
It doesn't really do anything revolutionary or inventive to warrant a name reboot of the franchise, but Forza Motorsport is a great sim racing game. It has a wealth of content in revamped tracks, nice looking cars, and plenty of driving to do. The changes to the economy and the new car levels and upgrade systems are not exactly original, but it's a fresh set of twists that modern racing sims often lack. The career and online multiplayer are also familiar in structure, but perfectly serviceable. If it's some clean quality track racing you're after, this franchise continues to deliver.