Petrolheads Playing Video Games: Our Review Of Forza Motorsport 7
Photography by Alex Sobran
Usually by the time an entertainment series reaches its seventh iteration it’s a sign things should end. When TV shows last this long they tend to cross into soap opera territory, and when it comes to movie series we get Vin Diesel and The Rock fighting attack helicopters in the middle of the city instead of driving Civics and stealing TV-VCR combos from semi trucks in the middle of the desert. The point is, a formula can only stay fresh for so long, and the ones that last past ripeness often lean on melodrama and over-amplification to stay in front of audiences.
It has its share of faults and annoyances, but Forza Motorsport 7 is an example of how to add to a series without losing track of what made it good enough to last so long in the first place. It’s certainly grown up since the first game was released in 2005 for the original Xbox, now offering over 700 cars to the roughly 200 from the initial version. That’s where we’ll start our dive into the newest addition to the Xbox’s premier racing franchise: the cars.
There are racing games out there that offer a driving experience closer to true simulation, but there are none that allow for the kind of variety of vehicles to play with like Forza—if you don’t think you have automotive attention deficit disorder, this will be the ultimate test. Can you sit with one car for hours tuning and testing and racing, or will you take my route and try to get virtual seat time in everything all at once? I was a bit anxious as I decided what my very first race would be, and it’s a testament to what’s on offer in this game when you’re driving a Mercedes-Sauber C9 up through Eau Rouge in the rain and wondering if you aren’t missing out on something better, like taking Senna’s MP4/4 out to the fictitious but gorgeous circuit in the Bernese Alps for instance.
The garage spans just about every nook and cranny of the history of the automobile, and it isn’t chock full of race-dedicated models either. You can spend one moment rubbing your Mini Cooper hot rod against a grid of Fiat 500s and VW Beetles on the technical esses of Virginia International Raceway, and the next time your tires touch tarmac you might be sitting in the cockpit of a NASCAR machine looking out at the night sky above the floodlights of Daytona. After that, why not take a 962C to the Nordschleife and try to match Bellof’s record-setting lap? Then, and still without putting on pants or leaving the couch for anything other than the fridge, you can thunder along the Charles Bridge in a Group B Lancia S4 with the Prague Castle and a swarm of Audi Sport Quattros and Ford RS200s filling your mirrors.
There are far too many cars to list the entirety of what’s available, but know that it allows for almost limitless ways to put yourself in command of historic racing legends, the cutting edge of modern prototypes and Formula cars, or you can modify and tune a plethora of street cars that span everything from Ford Cortinas to the Koeingesegg One:1. The only complaint regarding the car selection is that the majority of them have been a part of the Forza series in the past, whether as add-on content or otherwise. Then again, it feels kind of whiny to want more than what’s been amassed here—there are entire games built around single divisions in the Forza vehicle selection.
Before getting into the gameplay, it’s worth staying in the garage for a bit longer. The hallmark of the Forza series is the degree of customization you can impart on your collection of cars, and as someone who’s played since the beginning, I think this is by far the most interesting element of the games. iRacing, rFactor, Asseto Corsa and the like have Forza beat when it comes to hardcore racing simulations in action, but none of those, and nothing else in the video game world, can offer the depth of tuning and customization available in Forza. You can swap engines, drive layouts (hello, rear-wheel drive Audi RS2!), and induction types. You can add aero kits, turbochargers, roll cages, and sway bars. You can install wider tires, stickier tires, and drag racing tires. You can install cams and bore out the block or just focus on the chassis components. You can build a Camaro Z/28 with a blower sticking out of the hood and race it against a pink P1 with BBS Turbofans installed if you so wish.
Of course, certain cars can be futzed with to a greater degree than others (there is a lot more you can add to an Alfa Romeo Milano to make it faster than there is to a Porsche 919), but everything can be tuned, and that’s the real source of the time-suck. With the right parts installed, Forza allows any car to be tweaked to your heart’s content. Tire pressures, spring stiffness, rebound and bump rates, camber and caster settings, braking bias, differential locking points, ride height, etc.; all of it can be adjusted, and all of it makes a difference. To finally dial in a tune brings with it a great sense of satisfaction for the sake of it, and it makes the racing all the more enjoyable knowing that the car you’ve chosen is exactly as you want it. There’s an absolutely staggering amount of cars to start with, and then you get to build them to your preferred spec before adjusting the setup to wring the most out of the final package. And on the topic of specification, it’s time to talk about the actual racing.
In previous versions of Forza, cars came with a certain number attached to them, that would increase in line with the addition of performance upgrades. This was called the car’s PI, or “Performance Index,” and racing with other people online was grouped by this number, i.e. cars with a PI of 600 and below could race each other, as could cars of 700 and below in the next division up, and so on. This had its issues, with the predominant one taking the form of an SUV or stretch limousine sporting an unholy amount of horsepower and a driver whose only concern was ramming into everybody else. I’ll never be sure why some people choose to spend their time like this, and I gave up trying a long time ago, but I do know it makes for a shitty experience racing online when you’re duking it out with someone for the whole race up until the point where a Hummer T-bones you into last place.
In Forza Motorsport 7, the online divisions have made a marked turn away from this system. Instead of grouping racers by the PI of their chosen car, things are broken up based on pre-made collections of cars, and they can only be upgraded to a certain point before becoming ineligible. They call it homologation, and it is similar to the real thing. Only certain cars can race each other, and they can only be built to a certain spec. This can include limits on tire compound and width, weight, and power, and as to the grid, it will be populated by cars that share the same category. For instance, the Mercedes-Benz 190 EVO II will only race against cars like the Ford RS500 and Alfa Romeo 155, while an early VW GTI will race against other early hot hatches.
The system is too young to really judge its value in total, but first impressions are mostly good. It’s a little sad to say goodbye to the ability to race everything under the sun against each other (though there are still custom modes that allow you to do so with your friends), but the races I’ve done so far in the new homologation world have been much more balanced and competitive, to say nothing of the aesthetics of seeing a realistic field of competition. From a vintage enthusiast’s perspective, this system is a great way to relive the racing series we never could in real life, and it’s a smart way to capitalize on all the different series and eras represented in the car selection. In the past, online races were dominated by a select few cars that were inherently quicker than others because there were only about 10 divisions, but now with so much variety there are bound to be more diverse podiums.
So what is the driving actually like? If you’ve played the last installment in the Motorsport franchise, the gist of it is that the physics are slightly tweaked, and slightly improved as a result. The most noticeable aspect is that the cars have more weight to them now. They aren’t sluggish, and they can still be just as twitchy and nimble as before, but they feel more like cars now. It feels more like driving on the track than along with it. Another improvement over the past comes from races in the rain. When water was introduced to the series in the last game, it meant more tail-happiness and moodier skies, but it also meant that track layouts were effectively changed. The idea of standing water and puddles that need to be avoided is a good idea and one that captures reality if done correctly, but in practice this made it such that there would be massive pools on the track that would always be in the same place and never diminish or accumulate. Now they’ve done away with this hazard, and the experience of driving in the deluge is more natural and appealing as a result.
For those that haven’t played any of the Forza series before, it can probably be best described as a mix between simulation and arcade racing, depending on how you want it. There are driver assists that can be toggled for every vehicle (I say vehicle because you can drive racing semi trucks in this game), and if you’ve never picked up a controller or driven a real car before you can set off in Forza with a superimposed racing line on the course, anti-lock automatic brakes, stability control, traction control, and an automatic gearbox. If you like to make it closer to the real thing you can turn all of that off and shift with a dedicated button for the operation of the clutch, and set the damage mode such that after contact you might start pulling to the left or feeling a reduction in power depending on how hard and where you hit. It can be baby-easy and over-achiever-difficult depending on what you’re after, but however you set up the cars to behave, its an immersive experience.
The sounds compel more volume, and driving in the cockpit view with the speakers turned way up is enough to start a sweat when you’re looking out of the bug-pocked window at another car inches away from you and pointed at the same apex ahead with the sun in your eyes. Letting off the gas sends flames from the tailpipes of high-powered race and road cars (there are too many flames though, if I’m honest), gearboxes whine and stutter, the tire squeals sound realistic now, and rubbing guardrails and other cars produces vibration and drama along with scraped paint. It feels as frenetic and dramatic as I imagine the real thing to be, and it’s the only video game I’ve played that requires a glass of water after a ten-minute session.
To answer the question of where it all happens, it’s a similar story to the list of cars; there isn’t much that you haven’t seen in past Forzas, but in 7 almost all of the tracks from the past have been put into one game, and the selection as a standalone is an impressive one that includes some iconic venues alongside those purely from fantasy. With each Motorsport game, Turn 10, the developers, create a flagship course of sorts. It’s one that’s rooted in a real-life location, but featuring a racing circuit that would never feasibly exist. Over the years these have included the beloved Maple Valley circuit winding through the hills of a perpetually autumnal valley in New England, a fast run cut into the jagged and snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps, and a harrowingly narrow track around the Rio de Janeiro coastline. For 7 they’ve built a very technical and demanding course in the desert of Dubai, and though I prefer the tracks modeled after those that really exist, these are a nice way to play into the fantasies so many of us have of building racing tracks in exotic or otherwise intriguing cities and environments.
As for the real stuff, there is plenty, and they’ve done a very nice job over the years of building a course selection with enough historical and modern relevancy mixed together. For recreating the legendary races that have become part of the motorsport canon, you have places like Circuit de la Sarthe, Spa-Francorchamps, Watkins Glen, Monza, the Nordschleife, Bathurst, Brands Hatch, Daytona, Indy, Sebring, and more. There are 32 tracks in all, and the more modern side is well represented too, with locations like Yas Marina, Circuit of the Americas, and Sonoma. There are too many in total to list, but it should also be mentioned that Japan’s Suzuka Circuit is back in Forza after a long absence from the series. The weather conditions are more dynamic than in any previous version, with a race in the daytime capable of being run under the shade of clouds, in the bright high-noon sun, the golden hour before sunset, and often a combination of conditions in the course of a single race. Many tracks can also be run in the rain or at night, and the changing atmosphere is applied in full effect in some races that start off in a gray gloom and finish in a downpour punctuated by cracks of thunder and bright lightning.
In total then, the full experience is one wherein any niggling issues with the game are buried under the sheer size and scope of what it does get right. Yes, the main menu is a bit too dark, and I struggle to see the point of including a Polaris ATV in the mix, but those issues don’t hurt the game in its grand scheme. It’s chock-full of too much good stuff to care about the minor frustrations. It’s a game that provides an outlet for our automotive desires, whether it be spending hours creating a racing livery in the paint editor, endlessly tweaking suspension setups, or racing around the world and through its decades. From the perspective of the vintage car enthusiast, it has heaps of iconic race cars to live out your Niki Lauda aspirations, and oodles of classic street machines to customize and compete with. Racing is one of the more expensive hobbies we can choose, but Forza Motorsport offers the next best thing for the price of a tank of high-octane.