Sitting on the grid in my 2017 Holden V8 Supercar, surrounded by Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Audi R8s, I have to concede I’m feeling a little underqualified. Forza Motorsport’s online multiplayer spec racing should technically place all these cars on a level field, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve brought a cricket bat to a swordfight here. Several mediocre laps later and neither myself or my Vegemite-eating VF Commodore have troubled the timesheets much, finishing mid-pack one spot below where I started – but I’m sweating, and I’m smiling. The 2023 version of Forza Motorsport is brimming with new features across the board, from its muscular new multiplayer to its much-improved handling. All except for its upgrades, that is. They’ve been downgraded. Confused? Me too.
Forza Motorsport is, by a significant margin, the best feeling game in the Motorsport franchise to date. It isn’t necessarily a total reinvention of the Forza formula, and it still has that familiar level of forgiveness baked into it when you’re at and just beyond the limits of control. This is a series that has always been about letting us have the confidence to grab a car by the scruff of its neck and step the rear end out with a boot-full of throttle without constantly over-rotating, and that’s absolutely still the case here. The improvements before we break traction, however, are marked.
If the previous game, Forza Motorsport 7, has any noticeable handling blemishes, it’d be that there’s often a lack of bite to the feeling of grip. Six years later, that’s totally gone here in this follow-up. The feeling of grip in Forza Motorsport is far more pronounced and authentic, and cars feel more realistically rooted to the road than they ever have previously. Push beyond the capacity of your tyres and grip will now taper away instead of falling off a cliff, meaning cars squirm more and skate less – which is a great improvement.
The pleasing side-effect of these terrific tyre modelling improvements goes beyond making racing feel more accurate; it also actually makes it feel easier to drive fast. ‘Easy’ is too often used as a pejorative in a gaming context but, with respect to those who can’t feel feelings until they’re being flayed alive by a FromSoft game, in racing terms I can assure you it’s not a contemptuous concept. Lapping as fast as the pros, millimetre perfect and at maximum attack? No, that’s not simple – if it was, we’d all have yachts in Monaco by now. But hustling around a track quick and hard, confident the car beneath you is going to behave as it should? That’s well within the means of a competent driver. The old sim racing mentality that “if it’s not difficult, it’s not realistic” is something that most good driving simulators have been moving away from for some time, and Forza Motorsport is no exception. It’s easier because it’s more authentic.
Gamepad handling is extremely well-refined. While it’s hardly a surprise considering good gamepad handling has always been a staple of this long-running series, I’m happy to report it remains top-notch and has survived the physics updates beneath the surface. As usual, the team at Turn 10 has struck a terrific balance between softening things like rapid weight transfer and certain steering inputs to keep the handling tameable on a tiny analogue stick, but still demanding an indisputable deftness to drive consistently fast.
On a wheel, my experience is limited to the Thrustmaster TS-XW Racer – but it definitely errs extremely heavy out of the box. Surprisingly so, in fact. The last time my actual car felt this heavy to pilot it was because my alternator failed and killed my power steering. It is, however, extremely tuneable – so I was able to eventually dial that aggressive heaviness out and enjoy what I otherwise consider the best Forza Motorsport wheel feel I’ve ever experienced. There might be a slight numbness to severe kerbs, but the responsiveness and stability is excellent.
The feeling of car weight is also great – especially on undulating and technical track sections like cresting over the rise at Laguna Seca before slamming down through the corkscrew. There are some small, welcome touches for wheel users, too. Those who play in cabin-view with the wheel visible may be happy to see the steering animation is no longer locked to just 90 degrees in either direction. The on-screen wheel now rotates up to 360 degrees, which is far more realistic. There are also car-specific force feedback and steering lock settings in the tuning menus, making it easier to keep cars feeling right without constantly re-adjusting the global settings.
Level: May Cry
There’s more good news on tuning, including a new layer of suspension settings as well as the ability to add ballast. Adding ballast obviously increases car weight and lowers its performance index overall, but it is automatically distributed throughout the car to bring it closer to a perfect 50/50 weight distribution. It’s impossible to instantly gauge the impact the addition of ballast will have on competitive car builds, but it will be interesting to watch and experiment to see whether pushing a car over the limit before handicapping it with extra weight is a viable strategy on certain tracks.
Unfortunately, that’s currently where the positive news on tuning – or perhaps more specifically, customisation – largely stops. That’s because upgrades are no longer all immediately available for any car by default, like they are in Forza Motorsport 7 or Forza Horizon 5. Instead, they’re frugally rationed out for each car as you spend seat time in them and earn experience for that specific vehicle. They’re also no longer purchased with credits, either; rather, each car will have a set amount of ‘Car Points’ that applying upgrades eats away at. The amount of Car Points you have per car will be determined by each car’s individual level, which tops out at 50. Upgrades are always made available in the same order, but it takes several hours of driving to unlock things like engine swaps (40), body kits (45), and drivetrain swaps (50).
By design, this overtly RPG-style approach is meant to encourage us to form more profound connections with a narrower assortment of cars that mean something to us personally instead of bouncing around. In practice, however, it’s just a bit bothersome. Sure, it never feels as trivial as, say, the luck-based upgrade systems under the hood of arcade racers like The Crew series or Need for Speed Payback; we’re still in control of the parts we choose to “purchase” and fit. And sure, at car level 50 with the full range of parts available, the upgrade system in Forza Motorsport is essentially the same as it’s been for generations. The problem is getting there is now an unexpected treadmill, for every individual car (including duplicates of the same car).
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I do appreciate Forza Motorsport’s “built, not bought” philosophy, but the new layer of gamification here isn’t really for me. It’s not so much the Car Point system itself – I actually think there’s a decent amount of merit in some kind of system that’s perhaps roughly analogous to time sunk. Anyone who’s ever spent time wrenching on a car will know that you can’t do everything at once, and Car Points do mean you have to slowly add and swap parts over time – just like in real-life. What I don’t really get is the concept of gating away upgrades in a strict order – especially the super straightforward ones. Why do we really need a certain car level before we can yank out the spare wheel to shave some kilos? It definitely dilutes the previous freedom we had to focus on the upgrades we predict would make the most meaningful difference to a car’s performance from the outset, and it’s all bit silly that I’m measuring fuel loads by the millilitre to slice bonus thousandths of a second off my lap times when I’m still lugging around a spare tyre in the boot.
Fortunately, you will earn car levels anywhere you use them, whether that’s career mode, free play, or multiplayer, so you’re never spinning your wheels on progression as long as you’re driving. The career mode is made up of several tiers of themed racing events that are otherwise fairly typically categorised by car class for this type of racing sim. With compulsory practice sessions ahead of each race it takes quite a while to move through each tour, so I’ve been busy for a while and will continue to be for some time. The ability to select your specific place on the grid before each event may seem like a peculiar replacement for qualifying, but it does mean that you can have the exact racing experience you want each race.
That is, if you want the old-school, Gran Turismo-style experience that’s more like an overtaking challenge than a race – where you’ll need to thread your car all the way to the front from the back of the pack in just a few laps – go for it. If you’re interested in faster AI and dogfighting all race for a single spot, that’s also possible. It’s a smart touch, and it’s a more robust single-player racing experience than the likes of GT7 as a result.
That said, I have found the event intros are a little overblown; there’s a hushed reverence to them that car manufacturers probably love, but they’re pretty stiff and starchy compared with the more casual automotive culture shows I stream or watch on YouTube these days. There are also a few car categories that don’t seem to really get much of a run in the career mode, but I would expect the career mode to grow as this Forza Motorsport platform evolves. In the meantime, free play is still here – where you can do quick races in any of the 500 available cars – but again I’d really love some simple options to better curate what the AI drives against me. There are so many specific fields to edit to narrow down your opponent’s cars, but it’s all but impossible to get the 23 specific rival cars you want. Often it just ignores my custom settings entirely. Just let us place the AI in cars we choose, like Forza Motorsport 4 did.
Dude, Where’s My Car?
Forza Motorsport’s 500-car roster is slimmer than Forza Motorsport 7 and Forza Horizon 5 – both of which feature over 700 apiece – and, yes, there are probably conversations to be had. For instance, there’s been pruning when it comes to offroaders, and hot pick-ups like the GMC Syclone and the HSV Maloo appear to have been collateral damage. Lancia is MIA despite making a welcome return to Horizon 5 just last month. You could pick at the seams for some time. However, to be quite fair, Forza Motorsport does achieve this 500-car figure without the cheeky level of double, triple, and sometimes quadruple dipping some of its rivals do when it comes to counting certain models multiple times due to different paint jobs. It really still is an enviable roster of rides, all of which bark and crackle brilliantly thanks to some serious strides with the sound. Better still, there’s no shortcut to buy them with obscene amounts of real-world money: pay attention, Gran Turismo 7.
They also look sharp and marvellous in motion. I played largely in Performance RT mode on Xbox Series X, which adds ray-traced reflections of other cars and nearby objects to the glossy surfaces of your vehicle at the cost of resolution (but not frame-rate, which never budged from 60fps). That said, I’ve probably missed out on a good portion of the visual feast here since I don’t typically play the Motorsport games in chase cam. If you favour 4K above all else, Performance mode drops ray-tracing during racing (and still runs at a resolute 60fps). A third mode packs in additional ray-tracing on other environmental objects but runs at 30fps. But hey, don’t scoff: so does Driveclub, and look how well the aesthetics of that have stood the test of time, even a decade later! It ultimately may come down to personal preference, and I don’t know whether overall Forza Motorsport quite has the measure of GT7, but damned if it doesn’t look particularly spectacular at midnight under heavy rain.
Each of Forza Motorsport’s 20 track locations features support for dynamic time-of-day and variable weather, and they definitely have been dressed with more detail than ever before, with 3D crowds and more trackside objects and fixtures. It is a slimmer selection than the 30+ locations we had in Forza Motorsport 7, although it has been confirmed further tracks will be injected in the future for free. Yas Marina is coming back next month, another unannounced track will follow in December, and the famous Nurburgring Nordschleife will reportedly be ready by spring in the northern hemisphere, 2024. Still, no Bathurst right now? That Bath-hurts.
Equally painful is the lack of two-player splitscreen, which is a mode my kids and I have traditionally had a massive soft spot for. They particularly love zany handicap races, like giving away massive head starts to ancient hatchbacks and then chasing them down in hypercars – which is precisely the kind of experimentation that sandbox racers with garages as exhaustively broad as Forza Motorsport is usually brilliant for. I presume splitscreen is simply a niche mode in 2023 and it probably comes at too high a performance cost on the Series S, but it really is a little gloomy whenever gaming seems to go backwards. Hell, Gran Turismo had splitscreen in 1997!
The trade-off here is a massively improved online multiplayer component, with scheduled racing events packaged up as full race weekends, with a practice session, a three-lap qualifying blast, and a race. There’s spec racing, where all the cars are automatically tuned identically by Turn 10 for an even playing field, and open racing where you take your own builds. I’ve been playing the Touring Car and GT spec racing series over the past week and it’s been extremely robust and reliable, especially considering the pools of players I’ve been racing have largely been developers and other press located on the other side of Earth’s largest ocean. It’s a little hard to predict just how civilised it’ll remain after launch, but the safety rating should hopefully keep dirty racers away from clean ones. I also don’t think I’ve been on the receiving end of enough bad collisions to gauge just how effective the improved penalties are in actually disciplining the right players effectively, but I’ve had mostly great, clean races so far.
Perhaps my favourite new touch from the multiplayer, though? The ability to skip to the end of a lap in the pre-race sessions (or when attacking times in the asynchronous Rivals mode). Messed up a corner? The Skip Lap option will respawn you on a flyer, just a few corners from the start line. It’s such a clever time saver.
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