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Forza is dead to me

  • Games

Introduction

I like racing games. The very first game I ever played was a racing game, and that is in fact one of my earliest memories in general, all the way back when I was only three years old, playing Need for Speed III on my aunt’s computer. That experience was formative for me, I’ve always loved racing games and cars in general since then, and have never stopped playing with and learning about them. I have a history with Need for Speed in particular for that matter.

When Forza Motorsport 3 was coming out, I saw a lot of TV commercials for it and just had to have it. It took a while, but I got an Xbox 360 that included that game in the box, and it genuinely changed my life. Not because the game was so amazing or anything like that, but because that was my first real experience with multiplayer gaming and the social internet. I met a lot of people through that game, and we shared a ton of great times together… so naturally, when the next Forza game came out, I bought that too so I could keep playing with them and meeting more new friends. It was another formative part of my life.

That’s how I got into Forza. I’ve owned and played (almost) every game since then, and probably put thousands of hours into them cumulatively. I’ve grown and changed a lot as a person since then as well, and while I absolutely retain my love and passion for cars and racing, both virtual and real, I think very differently about games today. For one thing, I value the single player experience a lot more now than I did then.

I still want to love racing games, but as time has marched on, racing games have seemingly all been going downhill, and Forza was particularly losing its luster for me. After playing Forza Horizon 4, I was done. The series was over for me, there was nothing left. I skipped Forza Horizon 5, might skip the next Motorsport game as well, and may never look back.

Why did that happen? I want to take another look at the latest Forza games I played, then take a closer look at the earlier games in the series and see if I can find my answer to that question.

Forza Horizon 4

Before anything else, I want to point out that I believe Forza Horizon 4 is one of the best racing games of its time, no doubt about it.

I just think that’s sad.

I got this game on release, and after the initial shine quickly wore off, playing this game made me feel like I was engaging in chores rather than playing with toys, and I’m pretty sure the latter is the intended feeling. There is no real progression in this game, only a bunch of disconnected numbers that mean nothing but are always going up. If you have the money, you can have anything you want, right from the start, and you make money so fast that it feels pointless to even have money as a game mechanic at all. Races don’t get harder or different at all throughout the game. Instead of unlocking or changing anything as you play, the extent of progression is completion for the sake of completion. Increase the numbers, buy more cars forever, buy houses that don’t do anything, it’s all just checking off boxes all over the map.

That isn’t inherently a bad thing though. The appeal of the game is the collecting. It’s meant to be the ultimate driving sandbox, where you can do anything you want at any time on your terms. So like I said, it’s like playing with toys.

Of course, the fun is meant to come from the multiplayer, because the entire game is built around that. Everything is more fun with friends, right? If the multiplayer experience in this game was good, maybe, but it’s not. It’s threadbare, clunky, slow paced, unstable, and generally unpleasant to do actual races and events with your friends. Free roam in the open world is still pretty fun in a third-party voice chat though. Me and my friends ended up making our own fun by challenging each other to buy and tune cars with certain specific and odd requirements, then driving them around together doing challenges. The fact that we could do that at all is pretty nice, but it still leaves out a lot of the game, and the game is still an empty sandbox at the end of the day.

That’s just not really the kind of game for me… but the driving experience itself is still really good, so it shouldn’t be too hard to live with that, right?

Unfortunately, the problem is more than just the lack of progression… it’s that this game makes no attempt to hold your interest. There is nothing in this game to grab your attention beyond the shiny graphics. It relies entirely on you to make your own fun, rather than actually delivering a positive experience to you itself. It is a literal empty sandbox, the game only gives you some tools to play in it, and sand only does so much.

I fell off this game hard after realizing that. After that, the only time I ever played was when all the homies were also playing, but at that point the game was just a way to socialize more than anything else. About equivalent to hanging out on a park bench.

Now let’s add insult to injury…

Forza Horizon 4 also has some of the worst sound design in the entire franchise, considering age. Sure, the oldest games didn’t sound this good, but that’s because they couldn’t, and in their times they sounded great. This game, meanwhile, took many giant leaps backwards when it was entirely capable of being the best… so far backwards that most of the Forza titles on the Xbox 360 sounded significantly better.

I also believe that the location chosen for this game was quite possibly the worst decision they could have made. It is such a boring map… I can only remember a single location that stood out – that one road down a hill with the huge bridge in full view – and everything else all blends together into a bland mass of generic greenery and gray. The roads are also not fun to drive on, leading most people to gravitate to the same 10% of them all the time online. That includes me, I had more fun grinding one particular tiny drift zone for hours on end than I did almost anywhere else on the map.

Finally, and this is the biggest sin to me… the game has less than zero personality. There are characters that talk to you, but nobody can remember their names or what they say, and everyone can agree that they wish the characters would just stop talking. If you disagree, shut up. The presentation overall is so blatantly sterilized and painfully corporate, it feels like playing an advertisement. Especially with the 100% meaningless and pointless character customization and emotes that you get from a slot machine that also happens to throw so much money and so many cars at you that it’s impossible to get any sense of reward from the game at all. It’s not like this game even needs a personality, I genuinely believe that having nothing at all would have been more pleasant than this, because the presentation of this game is offensively forgettable as it stands. The extent of style on display is the use of the color pink.

Compared to all that, the brain-dead AI that sticks to the racing line like glue until they decide to brake check and/or ram you, has seemingly impossible mass making them stop you like a brick wall if you make contact, is always too slow to be challenging except for the one that’s miles ahead of the rest, and always picks the same few cars per category plus one or two completely nonsensical ones like a giant tractor, and let’s not forget the very long loading times… well that’s a lot easier to ignore in comparison.

Less easy to ignore is the additional multiplayer strangeness on top of the already clunky experience, where traffic and even whether or not player vehicles are ghosted in races can occasionally be client side only… so you might drive right through another player that randomly swerved in front of you in a race, thinking it was fine, only for them to have been rammed off the road without you noticing, which could have been avoided entirely if you could see the oncoming traffic they were trying to dodge. Which is a huge pain. Almost as much of a pain as the hordes of players that really do ram others on purpose, which the developers have done absolutely nothing to deal with – or at least, nothing that works – in over a decade.

And that… that is what was one of the best racing games of its time. That’s how low the bar has fallen. And from everything I’ve heard and seen, Horizon 5 has not only addressed none of these things (except for some of the engine sounds,) but has taken further steps backwards in multiple areas. At this point, even if I’m wrong about that, it remains crystal clear that the game is not for me anymore.

Forza Motorsport 7

Now, the Motorsport series is seemingly unknown to almost everyone these days, and I get why. Sim racing – and if you try to debate me on whether or not Forza is a sim racer, I will turn this car around and there will be no McDonalds for you – was never and will likely never be more than a niche hobby. Forza Motorsport (and Gran Turismo!) games sell really well, sure, but such an impressively small portion of those people actually stick with these games as more than a novelty. The Horizon series completely overshadowed it by taking advantage of that, focusing on that aspect of novelty and appealing so much more to general audiences. Even when both showed similar sales numbers, Horizon was always far more popular overall. Sales don’t equal popularity. Motorsport was always my favorite of the two though, so Forza Motorsport 7 should be better than Horizon 4, right?

Well… yes, actually. It is. It’s more challenging, more rewarding, more satisfying to play, has much better sound design, a better sense of speed, and I swear it looks prettier too. Sitting down for a quick race in your favorite car on your favorite track can be pretty solid in this game.

Unfortunately, your favorite track probably isn’t here and your favorite car must be homologated. Shame.

Yeah, the track selection in this game is mediocre at best, and in a closed course racing game, track selection is one of the most important aspects. The car selection is decent enough, but it somehow manages to feel bland and samey despite having more cars than any previous Forza game, and having any kind of meaningful competition all but requires you to tune each car to spec, making the driving experience feel remarkably unremarkable and indistinct, no matter what you’re driving. Horizon 4 actually has the same issue, but it’s taken to a much further extreme there. No wonder “diversity” was the buzzword of choice when marketing Horizon 5.

This game also has the same AI problems as Horizon 4, with brain-dead drivers, nonsensical car choices, one single front runner that’s way faster than everyone else, and way too much aggression… and all of these problems are even worse on closed courses than they are on open roads, because once you get ahead, that’s it, you’ll probably never see a car in front of you again unless the race is 20+ laps long… which I just don’t want to do.

There’s no compelling reason to race for so long in this game… but the default race length is still too short. I don’t understand why the difference between a standard length and a long length race is three to four times as long. I want a middle ground between 4-5 minutes and 15-20 minutes per race, but that isn’t an option here.

And don’t turn the damage onto simulation, it’s pointless. You can hit walls and other cars all you want and take no damage. Taking even 1% of damage to any part of your car requires a VERY hard impact, one that could probably cause terminal damage realistically, otherwise you just bounce off unharmed. Incredibly frustrating, especially with tire wear happening as ridiculously fast as it does… I feel like they did this because they knew the AI drivers would be crashing a lot due to how aggressive they are, but what’s the point of the option if it’s cut so far down? So much for “simulation.”

On top of all that, this game tried what I said would be better for Horizon 4. Instead of having a painfully sterile and corporate presentation, it went with nothing at all. There is no presentation, no semblance of personality. But this game isn’t an empty multiplayer sandbox, it’s a track-only sim racing game, games like this need personality to survive! I honestly would have taken the offensively forgettable presentation of Horizon 4 in this game, it’s better than nothing here! They got it backwards!

They could have done literally anything else for the music too. The entire soundtrack to this game consists of two dudes fiddling around with an electric guitar and a budget drum kit. It’s agonizingly boring, low energy, and gets painfully repetitive after only ten minutes, and yet it’s all you hear, all the time, even while racing. This is the opposite of good driving music, let alone good racing music. It wouldn’t even fit at a southern white conservative baby boomer’s backyard family reunion barbecue. Turning off the music and playing the game even without music of your own makes it a much better experience.

There is absolutely nothing to compel you to play more of this game apart from your own desire to drive cars on tracks… so why would you choose this over anything else? It’s not realistic enough to be a hardcore simulator, not accessible enough for general audiences, and not rewarding enough to hold anyone’s interest (without considering addictive personalities) beyond occasional dumb fun with friends online, and even that is pretty limited. Even if you’re playing on console, it’s far from your only choice, you could instead be playing Project Cars 2, GRID, F1 2020, Assetto Corsa, and that’s all before considering backwards compatibility.

And of course I can’t talk about this game without mentioning that it used to be worse. On release, the game had lootboxes… and no matter how you feel about those things and their presence, microtransactions or not, nobody can argue that it’s pretty gross to lock away OVER ONE HUNDRED CARS behind a random chance money sink in a game like this. Wheelspins were bad enough on their own in other Forza games, and we got both in this. Some people bounced off the game because of that, and very few came back after the lootboxes were removed, making an already very small and ever shrinking playerbase even smaller.

Even though I like Motorsport more than Horizon, and even though I think this game is better than Horizon 4… playing it just makes me sad.

The Big Problem

Clearly, there’s something wrong here. I’m just sad.

Ever since the Forza Horizon series started, an existing problem was made painfully clear. Due to the way Forza games are designed, they all eventually become more of a task than a game. A chore. A bland checklist to complete simply for the sake of completing the checklist. Nothing is there to make you feel differently about that or keep you motivated.

What keeps you coming back to these games isn’t the game itself, but rather the friends you play it with, or the drip feed of “new” content, which is an especially small yet frequent drip today. When the Rivals system was added early in the series, it was cool and seemed like it would add a lot to the experience, but it too fell victim to the curse of blandness over time.

As time went on and the series continued to lean harder and harder into the extrinsic Number Go Up type of gameplay loop with no real intrinsic motivation, not unlike gacha games, especially thanks to the horrendous inclusion of wheelspins that gratuitously inflate your wallet and car count, what little personality used to exist continued to erode. The games began to feel like they were limited time services made to be consumed and discarded rather than to be enjoyed as games, not unlike the typical annual ball sport shovelware.

Games as a service is truly a plague, one whose accursed blight reaches its slimy tendrils so deeply throughout the triple-A industry that even games without microtransactions like the earliest and latest Forza games are designed in the same lifeless way, all in the name of “player engagement” statistics rather than to truly engage the player with a satisfying and rewarding experience. Though, it’s not like they aren’t sucking money out of people anyway, the fear of missing out pushes a lot of people to preorder the $100 package before launch every time, or to buy every DLC pack released after launch individually, no matter the genre of game. And the industry has the gall to try and raise the base price to $70 anyway because it’s never enough.

The fact that the Forza Horizon series, despite its numerous massive problems and total lack of personality or compelling progression is still held up as the benchmark for what makes a good racing game by so many people today makes me incredibly sad. Forza as it is today should not be the benchmark. If anything, it should be a case study in what not to do for many aspects, because the only things they truly do well anymore are the handling model, and the tuning menu – NOT the upgrades menu, it’s too limited and generalized. I can’t even say the paint system is all that great anymore, because it’s been almost entirely unchanged since the Xbox 360 days, and there was still something to be desired even then. Plus, nowadays it seems like some people get banned for having paint jobs that a moderator simply doesn’t like very much that day.

Sure, the games look beautiful, but that isn’t special, pretty much every game looks beautiful these days. It’s also true that these are pretty much the only games with large open maps to drive on freely with some semblance of realism, but that isn’t a good thing, there need to be others. What little changes to the Forza formula that did come were mostly efforts to simplify and dumb down to lower the skill floor and ceiling, which made the cars more and more difficult to tell apart when driving them. Before Horizon, this series had so much more satisfaction to offer through its gameplay and design, more personality, and more variety of experiences.

At least, that’s what my memory leads me to believe.

But, I have an Xbox 360 again. I have all the old Forza games again, including the ones I never played. Are they really so much better like I believe they are? I’ve done this with other franchises already, so it’s time to confront my memories and beliefs once more and see how they hold up to reality.

Forza Motorsport

The very first thing I noticed when I started poking around in this game was just how many things from the latest games trace all the way back to here. Drivatars are still here, on the original Xbox, and somehow they’re actually MORE feature rich than in any future game, since you can manually train them and have more than one, letting you hire the right one for the right races or pit them against each other. Fujimi Kaido, factually the best track in all of racing games ever (citation needed), started here as well, which surprised me. Maple Valley too, another favorite of mine. As for real circuits, Tsukuba Circuit my beloved is also here. A circuit with immense cultural value as the birthplace of time attack racing as we know it that devastatingly disappeared from the series later on.

Even the vinyl editor is here, which is pretty impressive even in its primitive state. The whole upgrade system and the ability to tune your car in depth is basically the same here as it is in the latest titles too, except it has something the rest of the series doesn’t… three different styles of Forza rear wing! And if you don’t like any of them, tons of other wing choices also have adjustable downforce here! Crazy! If you’ve played any of the Forza games, you know exactly how crazy that is, and I cannot fathom why they changed this. There’s even a Forza rear bumper of all things, adding a functional rear diffuser to any car.

Immediately, this is pretty damning stuff against the later entries of the series. Imagine developing another game for a series nearly three entire generations later – much closer to 20 years old than 10 at this point – and still remaining almost completely stagnant.

The first thing I noticed when I started driving, however, was just how much of an Xbox game this is. And I’m not just talking about the frame rate of 30, which I personally believe isn’t enough for a racing game even when it’s perfectly stable with zero drops… which this game is not.

Cars are heavy and unresponsive, except when they occasionally get super twitchy, while also being vague and providing next to no feedback. The racing line is fixed, not dynamic, and its displayed braking zones are too deep into the corners to be helpful. The brakes themselves are useless, being so ineffective at slowing the car down that sometimes it can feel like they aren’t even working. Collisions with walls are soft and inconsequential, but collisions with other cars are catastrophic.

Balancing also doesn’t exist, it’s actually more difficult to find yourself in a competitive race than it is to start at the front of the pack and immediately leave everyone in the dust, never to be heard from again… even on hard mode, even with the token single opponent that’s way faster than all the others, and even with unmodified cars. I do like that you have the ability to have an unbalanced race by choosing a faster car, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to have a balanced one.

And the sound… why is it like this? Why can I hear every other car on the track more clearly than my own car, even when I’m ten car lengths ahead of the pack? Why is my own engine sound – of which being clearly audible at all times is vitally important for playing with a manual transmission – the quietest sound in the entire mix, even when I max out its volume slider and turn everything else down? Why, oh why, do none of the sounds have any impact or energy to them whatsoever? Everything is so weak that the whining sound of an upgraded transmission is usually the loudest thing in the mix.

Combine the extremely weak, quiet, and unbalanced sound design with a very grating soundtrack and you have a recipe for disaster. At least I know why Forza Motorsport 7 has the music it has now, though… it was just trying to copy this game, and somehow managed to have even less energy. At least the music in this game is substantive enough to annoy me with its repetitiveness, rather than quietly numb my brain. Though, that’s not to say this game has any more personality, because it doesn’t.

But hey, on a hilarious positive note, at least the RX-7 sounds more like an RX-7 in this game than it does in Horizon 4! Just don’t swap in a 20B… it may be the best engine ever created, but it sure doesn’t sound that way in this game.

The real bright side is that I had fun playing this game. In spite of its many flaws, there was enough of a sense of progression to hold my attention and keep me playing. I especially like how the different race series’ give you new cars for winning, and those cars are always just what you need for another series. The very short race length went a long way as well, making those small rewards come in fast enough to prevent you from focusing too much on the shortcomings of the game.

Some of my problems with the driving in this game can be improved with the options it gives you too. For instance, some of my problems with the handling are mostly solved by adding downforce, and braking is actually easier with the racing line turned off because of the large distance signs before each corner… when they’re present. I also really appreciate the fact that this game punishes you for driving dirty by cutting significantly into your reward money for repair costs, and by adding time to your race rather than physically slowing your car down. I’ve also got to admit, the game looks pretty good for its time.

Still not enough for me to want to play it again though. A few hours was enough to experience pretty much everything, and to make it painfully clear that a sense of progression really is make-or-break for a game like this, given that even this incredibly barebones offering was still more compelling than recent titles, completely in spite of the numerous serious flaws surrounding it.

Also, the box says some magazine called it better than Gran Turismo 4. I wonder about that…

Forza Motorsport 2

This is more like it. Almost all of my problems with Forza Motorsport 1 are addressed here, to the point that it feels like that game was just the beta version of this one.

The annoying music is gone, replaced with a licensed soundtrack that’s pretty appealing, and you only hear the music in menus now. Taking it away in the races and replacing it with crowd noise and ambient sounds actually adds to the atmosphere of the game compared to the previous one, and also helps prevent the music from getting stale.

Sound design is also so vastly improved, it can’t be understated how much of a difference it makes. EVERYTHING now has impact and presence (except for a few particularly quiet car engines), opponents’ engines no longer completely drown out your own, and there’s a lot more detailed and useful audible feedback from your car, leading to better driving. While the engine sounds are still rather rudimentary, they at least aren’t horribly distorted, ill-fitting, or just plain incorrect at times, so I will still call this far better than Horizon 4.

Combined with the much better controller rumble, the frame rate reaching the requisite 60, and the driving physics overall being made much finer and more responsive, the driving experience in this game is great. The understeer while under braking is really extreme though, sometimes to the point of punishing you for trail braking, but you could adjust to that with time.

The track selection is wonderful as well, every track is a unique joy to drive now… except the New York one, that one sucked in the last game and it still sucks here, I wish it never came back. There’s also a couple fictional small time tracks in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of different layouts each that were very fun, and having the entire first category of races take place on them was really charming… I don’t understand why these tracks weren’t kept around for longer.

The paint shop is now fully featured too, almost identical to every future game, the only change yet to come being the color selection. The interface overall is also improved in both style and clarity… but it’s got its own set of new problems. There’s a delay on a lot of boxes, especially when installing upgrade parts, where you hit A to select and hit A again to confirm, but it doesn’t confirm because you pressed too fast, even if you gave it a whole half second. Way too many things are also still stuck behind slow fades and long loading screens. Very annoying. At least the shortcut menu you get after every race helps work around that.

Balancing is still a huge issue though, especially early on. AI are more aggressive and able to knock you off the track way easier than you can do them, and even on hard difficulty it’s not very hard to take first place, even when everyone is driving identical cars, and even considering the token single opponent that’s way faster than all the others.

It gets even more broken when you start upgrading. I beat the 250hp series with only 200hp, and in the 150hp series, upgrading from 130hp to 137hp was enough to go from struggling to dominating. Of course, there’s also still nothing stopping you from choosing faster cars and completely stomping the competition every time without breaking a sweat… I really wish it wasn’t so difficult to be challenged.

It doesn’t help that the AI brake very early, sometimes even when they don’t need to brake at all, shift gears early, and genuinely never use full throttle, which I confirmed by being able to accelerate past AI drivers on a long straight in a completely identical car, and by watching hired drivers being unable to match my top speed in any straight.

WIth that in mind, this may be minor but I appreciate the focus on lap times, as shown by your best lap being the more prominent time in the pause menu over total race time. At least that gives you some incentive to always be going faster, even when you’re miles ahead.

Unfortunately, that can only carry me so far. This game does have some progression to it, because some cars have a level requirement before you can buy them, and every racing series has a minimum level to enter. In the beginning, levels come really fast… too fast in fact. You end up opening several entire new categories before you even get close to finishing the first one, and every level nets you a new car on top of the cars you get for each series win.

Then once you hit level 20, it’s like hitting a brick wall. By this point, you have a ton of cars and a ton of money, and you’ve probably raced in almost every class aside from the R classes… so naturally, that’s what you want to do next, R class racing, right? Better grind up to level 35 then! Any sense of freshness is gone now and all you’re doing anymore is grinding for nothing, since you’re already rolling in cars and money. If you do stick it out and grind up to the level necessary for the highest classes, any chance the game had to feel satisfying will have burned away in the grind. The only solace left is in the car rewards for series wins, if the prizes happen to be something you want.

At least a bunch of those prizes are interesting I guess. I love that there are so many tuner cars in this game – as in, special cars built by real life tuning shops like RE-Amemiya and Top Secret – it’s so cool to be able to drive cars like that in a game and I wish they still appeared today. It’s very clear, though, that collecting all the cars in the game is meant to be one of the primary driving forces behind the experience, especially with the rarity stat still being here, and for me personally, that just isn’t fun… even though it’s still handled better here than in the later games.

When the career mode ran out of fun, at least the arcade mode was there to give me my R class racing fix before I quit. It was nice while it lasted. I could see myself picking this game up again in the future, maybe I’ll complete it sometime before the next century… but probably not.

Forza Motorsport 3

The previous two games I had never played before setting out to investigate and write this, but we’ve now reached my entry point. Instead of simply looking at the features in the game and thinking about them, my own memories are part of the equation now. How do they hold up?

Turns out… very well, actually. Both the game and my memory! Nice to know that my memory can actually be trusted sometimes.

I am immediately hit with a sense of identity from this game. It knows what it wants to be, and it presents itself strongly as such. This is a perfect example of how to give a game an appealing personality with subtlety, even when the theme is somewhat sterile and professional. Unlike today’s Forza games, this one feels like there was some love and care put into it, and thankfully doesn’t feel at all like a dried out corporate husk of manufactured mass appeal.

There’s hardly even anything here… and I think that’s one of the good things. The narrator tells you what’s up occasionally, there’s a solid selection of music heard both in menus and in races, and the menus themselves are extremely simple yet satisfying to use. You’re set on your path through a seasonal racing calendar that encourages you to keep changing cars instead of freely choosing your events (though that’s still an option) and that’s it. That’s all this game needs to bring itself to life. No style, all substance.

The next thing that hit me was just how stark of an improvement the menu experience is in this game compared to the previous one. No more slow fades, no more odd delayed or dropped inputs, everything is lightning fast. The loading times from menus to races don’t seem much better, if they are at all, but the immense amount of time saved and frustration avoided inside the menus more than makes up for that. Horizon 4 and Motorsport 7 can’t even come close to the quality of the interface in Motorsport 3.

Seriously, the improvement of these menus cannot be understated. It’s so important. In Motorsport 2, it could take minutes of time to work through the menus thanks to the slow fades, awkward button delays, and long loading screens. In Motorsport 3, all three of those things are gone, and things are so responsive that you can even move through and select menu options before they appear on screen. At one point, I finished a race and knew I wanted to install a few engine upgrades before the next race. After only one loading screen to get back into the menus from the race, it took me exactly 13 seconds to back out of season play, open the upgrade menu, install three parts, back out of the upgrade menu, return to season play, and start the next race. I didn’t even see all of the button prompts and it still worked. The interface stays firmly out of your way.

The last few big things that hit me right away were of course the graphics, the sound, and the driving. Graphics? Gorgeous, some of the best on the Xbox 360, surprising that the game still manages a rock solid 60 fps with these graphics. Sound? Fantastic, very satisfying, clear, and distinct, leagues better than Horizon 4. Driving? Very fun, very satisfying, very tight and responsive… but the cars have almost too much grip. When they’re gripping, they grip hard, to the point that sometimes it feels like they’re on rails, made especially apparent by the effect of understeer while under braking – something that was too extreme in the previous game – being almost unnoticeable most of the time. The unique aspects of different cars can sometimes be a little harder to pick up on because of all that grip, despite in other times being more pronounced compared to the last game.

Honestly though, I don’t very much mind any of that, the overall driving experience is too fun for me to be bothered. Unlike the previous two games, I’m actually having fun just by driving the cars and not paying attention to lap times or taking first place. The good music that I mentioned earlier also helps a lot with that, and the solid pacing for both race length and series frequency helps even more.

That’s a fantastic and much needed improvement because, of course, the AI is still very bad except for the one or two cars miles ahead of everyone else, making the actual racing quite boring. However, at least the different AI drivers seem to have some unique personalities to them! Some drivers tend to take corners differently than others, some are more aggressive than others, and a fair few of them actually deviate from the racing line more than once a decade. They still struggle to react appropriately to your presence, but hey, it’s still way more interesting than the latest games.

Hard difficulty still isn’t hard enough either. I can still accelerate faster in a straight line than the fastest AI driver in a completely identical, unmodified car, and they still brake early, sometimes when they don’t need to brake at all. They’re so incapable of using the throttle that I screamed right past a Vauxhall Monaro, a car with 400 horsepower, in a Vauxhall VX220 with 200 horsepower. Half the power, but more than half the weight, and the Monaro also has a tire width advantage over the VX220. It just doesn’t add up. And if you can think up a way to justify that, then please also explain to me how I also completely blew the doors off of another identical VX220 in the same race.

Despite that, I still think the balancing is overall slightly better in this game than the previous, and that’s for one reason and one reason only. There are more restrictions at play now, preventing you from making racing hilariously unfair by bringing an S class car to a D class race. That’s it, that’s the improvement. It’s slightly more likely now for the one or two overpowered cars to be relatively competitive against you without having to handicap yourself as much.

Unfortunately, those restrictions also work against you later on when you get to R class races, because the game treats all cars in the same performance class as equal even though they are very much not equal. Many R3 class cars simply cannot compete with some of the others. Since the game doesn’t gift you any R3 class cars before these events come along, you’re on the hook to buy the right one, and if you don’t know that beforehand, you might end up spending all of your credits on an R3 class car that can’t win a race, and then you’re stuck with it. I tried bringing a Holden V8 Supercar to the R class events thinking I’d be able to out-drive the opponents, but even with upgrades, the Holden can’t compete at all with the Ferrari F430GT.

The track selection is expanded as well, and every new track is wonderful, especially the fictional ones, and especially Camino Viejo. What a fun track that is! The fast and narrow roads, the constant elevation changes, the simple but tight layout, all combined with the beautiful scenery make this track an absolute joy to drive, every single time. But Ladera, Iberian, Amalfi, and Rally di Positano are all very high on the list as well, all extremely fun and great looking tracks. I didn’t have very strong memories of these tracks, probably because when this game was new I was stupid and only wanted to drive on ultra wide roads, but these tracks are so good… I might like most of them even more than Fujimi Kaido. Makes me wish the roads on Fujimi Kaido were a lot narrower, that would truly make it the best track ever like I thought it was.

In other news, the paint shop got the color sliders we all know to replace the old swatch hexagon, and from here it never changed ever again in the whole franchise. Upgrades and tuning also never really changed from here on. If anything it became a bit more limited in a way as time went on, because a lot of engine swap options went away and the later games stopped telling you what the engines actually are, you just have to know what they are based on displacement and cylinder configuration.

For instance, you can swap a 13B-REW or 20B-REW into pretty much every Mazda in the game here – which is awesome and I’ll never stop being sad that the three rotor later disappeared from the franchise – and even though it doesn’t specifically say those engine codes (I just know them,) it at least tells you that the engines came from Mazda, and are two-rotor and three-rotor respectively. That… is a bad example of my main point though. Other engines usually tell you what specific car they came from instead of just the displacement. It’s a lot easier to know exactly what engine you’re choosing when it tells you that it’s a V8 from a C6 Corvette instead of just telling you that it displaces six liters. There are even several engine swap options that come from cars that aren’t in the game (like the 20B) or don’t come in a car at all (like the 540 Hemi) which is cool. No future Forza game has had as many engine swap options as this game.

I suppose we did get rally suspension in a Horizon 1 DLC and drift suspension in Horizon 4, but even as a drifter, I don’t think that’s such a huge deal when it’s the only offering to update the formula across more than a decade. Oh, Horizon 5 has transmissions with more or less gears and different differentials that are questionably optimized for certain things now? Hooray, how truly innovative and diverse, I love having illusory options that don’t actually add anything of value.

This game also sadly introduced the concept of the unicorn car. In its day, it wasn’t an entirely bad idea… in fact, it was kind of cool, it made the cars feel really special, especially since they appear in normal races from time to time but aren’t available (or even visible) in the shop. The only way to obtain a unicorn car was to receive it as a gift from the developers. At least there were only three of them so you weren’t really missing out if you couldn’t make it to one of the multiplayer lobbies with a dev online, or you lacked either Xbox Live or an internet connection altogether. Unfortunately for me, my favorite car in the world, the RX-7 Spirit R, is one of those three, and it is now impossible to get one… there aren’t even any save editors I can find that make it possible for this game. If you know of a way, let me know.

Yes, I genuinely would like to find a way to get the unicorn cars, and that’s because I want to keep playing this game. It’s genuinely great. It’s fun, and that’s not nostalgia talking, because the game well and truly holds up to this day. When Xbox 360 emulation gets better and allows us to play with a higher render resolution, maybe even increase texture resolutions with mods if we’re lucky, it will be a joyous day since the resolution is the only thing here really showing its age aside from the literal age of the cars you drive.

I think Forza Motorsport 3 might just be a timeless game.

All I could really ask for to make this game meaningfully better would be a higher difficulty level for the AI and online features that don’t require paying for Xbox Live. Of course the game isn’t going to get any updates and the servers aren’t coming back, but I think both of those things could still be in its future if emulator developers and modders have the dedication. It’s not a perfect game, but it will never age another day, and that’s an amazing feat to look back on.

Forza Motorsport 4

And now, friends, we have reached Peak Forza. The pinnacle of the franchise. Truly the ultimate racing game on the Xbox 360… supposedly. Unlike the previous game, this one did not hold up to the standard my memory had set.

First, the good things.

The driving is a lot more interesting now. I’ve heard some people describe the driving in this game as floaty, but I disagree, I think it’s more realistic and brings more variety to the driving experience by making the cars feel more distinct. It is heavier and slightly less responsive, but that isn’t always a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t a bad thing here. It doesn’t have as much raw fun factor as the previous games anymore, replacing that with a higher degree of challenge and a more rewarding feeling of control, along with a much more unique and distinct driving experience for each car than any Forza game before or since. Though I will say that personally I think the cars are a little lacking in the grip department, pretty much the opposite of Motorsport 3 and its slightly too much grip.

The car count of the base game is pretty much the same as the previous game with all its DLC, which is nice since you can’t get the DLC for this game anymore and there was never a physical release that included it all. A lot of cars were added in that missing DLC, but very few of them are particularly interesting in my opinion, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything important. It must be said though that a significant portion of the selection in this game (and the last one!) is devoted to the mundane, ordinary, slow, and odd cars, and thanks to the cars all being so distinct and unique to drive, those cars are equally if not more fun than the usual lineup of sports cars and the like, and as a result, are treated with respect, unlike in later Horizon games where the slow and odd cars are reduced to rolling jokes. Every single car in the game also has a great interior model too, along with a generally improved interior camera.

Not only do I not have Xbox Live Gold, the servers are completely gone so I couldn’t play the multiplayer again to refresh my memory even if I did have a membership. Regardless, I remember that there was a lot more put into it this time around. Tons of modes, tons of options, great times were had by all. I have fond memories of setting up our own little pro drift events inside of races, like a combination of D1GP and Formula Drift, picking the best two or three corners and clipping points to drift around and posting up next to them so we could judge the competitors performances, and then someone gets upset at losing so they just finish the race laps and force the session to end thanks to the race end timer. Drifting for points was more fun in this game (and the previous!) too because you only got points on some of the track instead of all of it, so you couldn’t rack up points just by giving it the ol’ manji maneuver and sliding all over the straights, which led to more risky entry maneuvers and satisfying competition online. The custom game options in this game might have been the best in the whole series, and I will never understand why any future game had less. Public lobbies were also varied, numerous, and wonderfully handled by allowing anybody to create their own public lobbies. Rivals was also introduced in this game and it was pretty cool, I remember spending a lot of time in it, unlike the newest games where it’s boring and I actively avoid it.

Since I’m talking about the multiplayer, I also have to mention that the non-racing online features of this game were miles ahead of any Forza game since. The club feature was amazing in this game, because it was more than just a clan tag, all the members of the club could share their cars with their tunes and liveries in a shared club garage that was also accessible in single player, there was a member ranking hierarchy, separate club leaderboards, and I think club-based matchmaking as well. You could also gift cars to your friends. The whole car, just send it to them, now it’s theirs. What a concept. It was fun to have one car that spends some time with all your friends and beyond, then comes back to you, and you see the huge number of owners and higher mileage on the car stats.

And my favorite part… storefronts. Instead of just uploading your tunes and designs into an endless void where they will never be seen by anybody, everybody had their own storefront page where they could display their tunes, designs, vinyl groups, photos, and even replays in an organized manner, so if you met a player with a cool or fast car in a lobby, their storefront was one button away so you could see what they had to offer. You could even set prices for these things so instead of getting tiny credit rewards for downloads, people could just buy from you and you get that amount. Free was also an option, of course, and you didn’t get any credits for free downloads, no matter how many downloads you got. There were also limited slots for each storefront, which I actually liked a lot because it forced you to only share your best work. This and car gifting were also in the previous game. There was also this totally insane and revolutionary feature called car groups… which allowed you to select cars in your garage… and put them in groups! That’s right, you can organize your garage in this game! Must have been real expensive to program that since it was never seen again.

Finally, the visuals are incredible. They were already incredible in the previous game, but Motorsport 4 further refines them to the point that the fact it maintains a perfect 60 frames per second 100% of the time is beyond impressive, it’s a marvel. I genuinely don’t understand how they did it. And they pulled this off on the 360 and did it with more cars on track at once than before, all the while so many games today on significantly more capable hardware somehow still struggle to hit 60 at all. Insanity. Forzavista was also introduced here – at the time called Autovista – and it peaked here. It’s pure car porn. There was a magic to it, a sense of wonder to explore the smallest details of these cars, especially with Jeremy Clarkson’s fun narration, and every single Forza game before or since has failed to deliver anything similar to that feeling.

Anyway, like the last game, display and texture resolutions are still the only major things holding this game back in the visuals department. Amazingly, I think this game is actually prettier in some ways than Motorsport 7 despite being six years older, particularly in the lighting and color departments. 7 was so dark and gloomy compared to this game, and seemed less colorful in general. While the lighting systems of this game most assuredly lack the detail and accuracy of later games due to obvious technical limitations, I still find it more pleasing to the eye, and that’s more important to me.

And now for the bad.

The pacing is actually worse in this game than the previous. The seasonal career has been replaced with world tour mode, which pushes you to change cars a lot more often, and it flies by very quickly. In just one session of about two hours, I found myself finished with three entire divisions, and I had already driven nine different cars from F class to B class, and my garage was cresting 20 cars, only one of which I paid for. Level your manufacturer affinity to 4 and all performance parts for every car from that manufacturer become free, and that combined with the fact that playing world tour mode gives you a 25% credit bonus before race and difficulty bonuses, credits are made so worthless that the only reason for them to exist is for some cars to cost over a million to keep you away from them for a little while. It all just feels too fast, I don’t have a chance to get accustomed to anything. Meanwhile, there are still so many different events in the game that you can tackle individually that it would probably take more than 250 hours to finish them all. Far more than enough content to restructure the world tour to keep me in the same types of cars for longer without making it feel monotonous. Sure, a fast pace makes it easier to keep playing, but this implementation of it also takes away from overall satisfaction. The seasons in Motorsport 3 started to drag on a bit more in the later game though, so it seems the ideal pace is a middle ground between that and this.

Another thing taking away from the satisfaction is the difficulty being significantly lowered. In a cruel twist of fate, the one token car miles ahead of the pack is still in the game, but now rather than an opponent – unless good ol’ M. Rossi is in the race – it’s you! Every race is nothing. Except when the game throws unfair matchups at you, like the time I was in a 200 horsepower car against others with more than double that, not a single race will leave you in any position other than first before the first lap is over. And bafflingly, there isn’t even a difficulty option anymore! The AI just drives at the level it likes. I don’t get it. Aggression is also increased, I’ve been rammed by the AI while turning countless times. Why is this so hard to get right? With fresh perspective, Motorsport 3 now seems to have done AI the best out of all the Forza games, it’s ridiculous. I’d love to say that at least the AI in this game is more consistent and a generally better experience than later games, but I can’t say that because I never had the chance to find out, they were never in front of me for long enough to see. Even in multiclass events with me in a D class car and some opponents in S class cars, they still never managed to catch up to me after several laps. I can’t overstate this, even in my second session when I was playing while falling asleep with my vision going funny, I had very little trouble shooting to the front every time.

The interface is also a massive downgrade. It’s not quite as bad as the interface in Motorsport 2, but it’s closer to the quality of 2 than 3, and that hurts me deep in the soul. The buttons are back to not always responding to your inputs, the menus often lag as you navigate them, especially if you move too quickly, there is a lot of loading on part selections which makes choosing wheels particularly painful, things look choppy overall to the point that some parts of the interface look like they’re animated on fours… they could have just copied the Motorsport 3 interface entirely and recolored it black, and it would have been perfect, but they didn’t. Oh, and one final side note, I don’t like the music. Some of it is just plain not nice, but most of it just isn’t my thing, and I don’t think any of it is a particularly good fit for racing, especially with its harsh mixing. The menu music is fine though. The attempt at a dynamic soundtrack also does not go unnoticed, and I appreciate the attempt, but you have to try harder than simply occasionally turning down the volume and the bass when the car slows down.

And now for the worst.

How? How did this happen? Motorsport 3 had excellent sound design, some of the best in the genre at the time I think… all they had to do was keep it. Instead, they re-did all the sounds, and it’s more than just a downgrade. It’s incompetent. Every single engine is recorded so badly that they are all audibly clipping at all times. It’s not the volume or the mix either, because no matter what you do with your volume or the in-game audio settings, it’s just as bad. The clipping is in the source recordings. I don’t understand how any sound engineer, even the least experienced, could deem this acceptable for any reason even in the worst of times.

Sure, some V8s sound almost fine, but that’s because they’re V8s so they have a lot more bass and a much lower general pitch than other engines, it’s hard to ruin them. And yet the SLR McLaren – a V8 engine and one of the very best sounding cars in the game – is still grossly distorted. The Lexus LFA and Ferrari 458 are two more of the very best sounding cars in the game, and while they seem to have some of the least distortion problems, they still clip. Meanwhile, most four cylinder engines are painful not only from the insanely loud recordings, but also because they sound like they removed the mufflers before recording, and some of them are actually severely distorted on top of the clipping! A stock Miata sounds like a crappy cell phone video of one with no mufflers on a dyno in an enclosed space while accelerating, and while decelerating it sounds like the ugly noises I hear when my distortion effect plugins malfunction and blast my eardrums out while working on music. And rotaries… my beloved rotaries… It’s like they turned up the gain and then stuck the microphones directly inside of the tailpipes to get their recordings… and, well, it looks like they pretty much did that. Then on top of that, somehow a TVR Sagaris is not just distorted, it sounds like it’s coming through an old radio. It’s insanity.

The harsh mixing of the music I mentioned earlier is also painful, because most of the new in-race music has a naturally strong emphasis on high frequencies on top of being mixed in the game to emphasize the highs even more. The same high frequencies that are already occupied by insanely loud, distorted, high pitched, clipping engine sounds, mind you. Even if I loved the music and none of it was so naturally full of harsh high frequencies, I would still be complaining about this, because it physically hurts as it sits in the mix.

And yet… even with all that said… it’s still better than Horizon 4. Even through these horrible, magnificently awful recordings, I can still tell what kind of car I’m listening to, they still all have a unique and appropriate character to them. The game gives me serious, genuine ear fatigue, I definitely notice my tinnitus acting up more than usual after playing for a little while, and I can’t listen to music for a while afterwards because it becomes difficult and frustrating due my ears no longer being able to perceive the finer details of a song effectively until they recover from the aural assault of this game, and I still call it better than Horizon 4.

Sound is such a huge aspect of racing games that gets tragically undersold and ignored by a lot of people, but as a musician and a car nut, it’s my second favorite part behind the driving itself, so bad audio can really suck a lot of fun out of a game for me… and it certainly did here. After only one session, I turned the music off and lowered the game volume so I could put on podcasts in the background just to give my ears a break, and of course that took some of my attention away and made the game feel less engaging as a result. Doing that also made me painfully aware of another couple of sound design flops in this game, being the wind noise and the impacts. Wind noise is extremely abundant, and it’s got a lot of bass, so rather than enhancing the sensation of speed as you go faster and it gets louder, it feels more like a pillow is being squeezed harder and harder around your head. Impacts all sound like bass boosted royalty free sound effects with titles like Royalty_Free_Industrial_Cinematic_Impact_Crush_Metal_Spring_Screeching_Metal_Crash.mp3, no matter how slow you’re going or how lightly you touch anything.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention this, but Forza Motorsport 4 is the game responsible for introducing microtransactions to the series. A “feature” that would stick around all the way up until Motorsport 7, which replaced microtransactions with lootboxes, a “feature” that resulted in enough backlash that the developers later removed them from the game and had to assure the public that neither lootboxes nor microtransactions would be appearing in Horizon 4 when it came out. Even though this game is old enough that it’s not even possible to purchase microtransactions at all anymore, the in-game currency is still there and won’t let you forget it. I don’t care how normalized microtransactions seem to anyone today, because not only do I still believe they have no place in any game with any kind of price tag attached, they were absolutely not normalized at the time of this game’s release and were met with deserved backlash. Microsoft and the rest of the industry simply pushed microtransactions hard enough for enough people to give up complaining and accept it. This is a stain on the franchise, and the games industry as a whole.

I called Motorsport 3 timeless. Well, this game is most certainly not timeless. It is very much of its time… for a lot of reasons, but I’m going to single out the in-race music for how insanely 2010 it is. It’s not a bad game at all though, it’s quite good, and being noticeably from its time isn’t a bad thing either, but the sound issue, the lack of any kind of challenge in the racing, and the fact that this game feels more like a content patch with a physics update than a brand new game, makes it hard for me to want to come back to it when I have Motorsport 3… which I think, frankly, is a better game. I imagine some Forza fans would be shocked to hear that. Aside from the good points I already talked about, the one remaining thing going for this game over the previous for me is that there is a save editor that will give me the RX-7 Spirit R that I so desire.

This game could have been the peak of the franchise, it had a lot going for it and it was set up for success, but it stalled at the finish line.

Forza Horizon

And here we have a fine example of the bare minimum. The first Horizon game made a ton of sacrifices to create something new, and I’m not sure it was all worth it in the end considering where the series ended up.

If memory serves, Horizon 2 was actually the best game in the series because it fixed all the problems this game has, several of which are glaring and baffling. I also remember it as having consistently the best roads to drive on with the most favorable ratios of generally good and bad, and road and dirt, plus most of the best engine sounds in the entire franchise, and even the best visual style, because the game actually had a style since the developers hadn’t yet decided that fancy schmancy 12K photorealistic ray traced volumetric gamer fart graphics were the best choice. I’d love to put those memories to the test, but I don’t have the necessary console to play that game again. However, Horizon 1 does have one thing that no other Horizon game – not even Horizon 2 – has.

Motivation.

You have opponents. They are characters with names and faces, and in every race, you get a bonus for finishing ahead of one of them. Each character serves as a sort of boss for each wristband, which is your primary measure of progression throughout the single player campaign. There are only seven of them, and that’s all it needs, because each one has something tangible about it, they’re all very clear steps forward as you earn them and work your way up the ladder, challenging each character to a one-on-one race for their car after each wristband, with the ultimate goal of reaching and beating Darius Flynt, the most popular driver of the Horizon festival, who was introduced to you in the very first seconds of starting the game as you race him to the festival while driving the car featured on the box art.

Are they great characters? Is there a great story? No, not even close, but they exist. They are the bare minimum. The fact that later Horizon games couldn’t even manage to deliver this little is a big part of why I have such a problem with them, because not only are there no longer any characters that have any kind of function, even the wristband progression is gone, replaced with an infinitely increasing player level with shiny colors and big numbers that doesn’t earn you anything or get you anywhere. I am not a fan of this game, but this bare minimum was still enough for me to have a lot more fun than Horizon 4 offered me, and it kept me coming back.

Racing games have never been known for having good stories, but I don’t believe that’s because they aren’t capable of delivering one, I believe it’s because developers and publishers decide that they don’t need silly things like fun in their video games anymore. Older Need for Speed games had stories, and while they definitely weren’t great stories or even decently written, they were fun and provided a significant chunk of the motivation to keep playing the game. Does the Forza Horizon series need to do the same thing? No, definitely not, and this game is the proof of that I think, because there really isn’t a story here, just a handful of names and faces, and it’s enough to supply a similar effect. I’m not playing just to win all the races anymore, now I’m playing to beat these specific people. People that talk to you and about you, people that the game regularly shows you, people that the game constantly challenges you to beat.

They may be paper thin as characters, but they exist, they serve their functions, and perhaps most impressively, I can even remember several of their names. As I write this, I’ve been away from the game for some time, so here are the names I know from memory only: Alice Hart, Darius Flynt, Dak, Duke, Ramona, Ali, Zaki, Holly, Marko. Do I care about these characters at all, or remember anything about them? No, but the fact that I can remember any of their names at all when I have great difficulty remembering the names of real people that I do care about should say a lot about the importance of a game’s presentation to deliver a satisfying progression. I can’t remember even one name from any other Forza game except for M. Rossi, and of course no Forza game since this one even has named opponents at all anymore, because Drivatars are a good idea that make the game fun for sure, definitely.

Anyway, moving on…

I could talk about the good parts of this game. But I’m not going to. If you’ve ever seen a single video or review of any of the Horizon games, you already know what’s good about them. They’re all the same in that regard, so there’s almost nothing I can say that you haven’t heard before, and if you haven’t heard the good before, I don’t care. The only good thing I’ll say is that I think it’s great that you can make solid progress even with only podium finishes. First place not being the only option is always a good thing.

Instead, I will list some of the glaring and baffling problems I mentioned earlier.

Glaring problem: The game runs at 30 frames per second. Is it consistent? Is it smooth? Yes, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that 30 is simply not enough for a racing game, and I can feel it. The game feels slower, heavier, and less responsive, and I am 100% confident that the frame rate is part of that problem. One of the things they employed to smooth out the slow frame rate is motion blur, and not only does it not look good, it messes with my eyes, and it’s downright uncomfortable when changing directions quickly, making drifting a real pain.

Baffling problem: The entire tuning menu is gone. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot fathom why they made this decision. It’s been present in every single Forza game before and since, it’s only missing from this one. This wouldn’t be that big of a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the default tuning settings for upgraded parts ranges from mediocre to undrivable. If the tuning menu was here and the game ran at 60 frames per second, the other issues wouldn’t be so bad because they could be worked around, but…

Glaring problem: Understeer for days. Every single car understeers HARD. I get that Horizon was aiming to be a more accessible game for general audiences, and understeer is easier to deal with than oversteer, but this is just excessive. Even then, I could have forgiven this if there was any kind of middle ground between understeer and oversteer, but there isn’t, you get one or the other 90% of the time. I regularly find myself coming into a corner at a speed that I know should be right, then end up plowing out into the wall anyway, or breaking the rear end loose with only a blip of the throttle.

Baffling problem: Unresponsive controls. I don’t understand how this could happen, considering that Motorsport 3 and 4 had responsiveness nailed down and that Playground Games was made of people from both Bizarre Creations and Codemasters. That is a light sim developer dream team, and somehow this is what they managed to come up with. Inputs feel slow and delayed, especially steering inputs on heavier cars, to the point that I don’t even feel like I’m in full control of the car at times. This combined with the understeer problem honestly make the driving experience of this game closer to Motorsport 1 than Motorsport 4 to me, and that is seriously damning.

And now for the thing that hurts me the most… the sound design again. It was so close! So many of the cars in this game sound incredible, better than any other Forza game from this generation in fact, and some of them even have dedicated idle sounds which is just such a nice detail! But when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Some cars are just as bad if not worse than the sounds in Motorsport 4, and upgrading the exhaust can make some cars go from great sounding to painful sounding. The volume of different engines is also super inconsistent, with some cars being far too loud and others being far too quiet, even in situations where that would make no sense, like a stock Miata being ear piercing and a Ferrari F355 Challenge being so quiet it’s genuinely hard to hear it.

And to add insult to injury, every single element of sound design in this game other than engine sounds is just sublime, even the mixing of the music. The music itself is hit or miss for me, and by that I mean there are only two songs I really like and just a few more I feel fit the game well, but in a game like this, that’s very much just personal taste so I’m not going to speak on it further.

Also I encountered many bugs during my time with this game, and it even caused my console to crash once, but who cares about that stuff, am I right? Broken games are normal nowadays anyway, this was just an early follower of that trend, how could I complain?

Overall, the game is fine. Just fine. Not good, not great, definitely not amazing, and I can’t help but be a little saddened by it knowing what it led to… but it’s fine. Good enough that I almost finished it before making this post, and I plan on going back to finish it off, but I don’t think I’ll ever play it again after that.

“BuT aT lEaSt iT’s BeTtEr WiTh FriEnDs!!!!11”

No, shut up. You know what else is better with friends? Doing dishes. Vacuuming. Eating food you don’t like very much. Sitting in a waiting room. Everything is better with friends, except maybe things that specifically require solitude like meditation or whatever.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it makes any sense to give a game bonus points because I love my friends. Maybe I’m simply not enlightened enough, but I’m pretty sure the fact that I love my friends isn’t part of the game.

“It’s better with friends” isn’t a compliment, it’s a neutral and unrelated statement. “At least it’s better with friends” meanwhile can only be described as an insult, or at best, an acknowledgement that the game is unsatisfying.

Any game that has the functionality to play alone must be designed to be as fun as possible that way. Multiplayer functionality cannot be the backbone of your game unless it is genuinely the entire game, and if that’s case, you better offer players a method to continue playing after your servers shut down. All of these Forza games are no longer playable online – Maybe, I’m not 100% sure, it might be possible to do some racing with a gold account if race lobbies are peer-to-peer, but I don’t have a gold account anyway – so I could only explore the single player components for obvious reasons.

I think these games held up decently in that regard, but have been going downhill since Motorsport 3. Still, if I could revisit all of these games and (for the most part) have a good time, compared to later games that left me bored and yearning for something better to play whenever my friends weren’t there to bring me fun and happiness, something is fundamentally wrong. These games offered less and less for their single player experiences as time went on, with Horizon 1 only offering the bare minimum, and even that is still a more complete and satisfying offering than what came later.

I believe that in the future, when the servers for Horizon 4 go down, we will see people revisiting that game and they will see it for what it truly is. A hollow, meaningless, mind-numbing experience with no intrinsic reward whatsoever. A game that drops you in an empty sandbox, then leaves you there alone for the entire day and doesn’t understand why you stopped having fun after 15 minutes. A bland, disposable toy with an expiration date.

But at least it was better with friends.

Conclusion

Overall I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Finding out that I think Motorsport 3 is a better game than 4 was surprising, but finding out that every single one of these games was better than the games that came later was something I already knew. At least now I can say that based on fresh experience rather than old memories.

With that new perspective, I can now say in retrospect that there are two major steps forward that more recent Forza games have made since the old days. One is that there are more specific group restrictions on races beyond simple PI restrictions, and the other is that there are a whole lot more difficulty options for the AI. Unfortunately though, both of these good things are undermined, because even the more specific groups are still too wide and leave a lot of potential for unfair matchups, and the AI difficulty doesn’t matter nearly as much since all the cars drive in exactly the same way no matter what because of the extra brain-dead Drivatar system, and in the Horizon games, also rely on heavy rubber-banding and impossible amounts of traction and power on maps that favor power nearly all of the time.

A good game of this genre needs competent AI that reacts to the player’s presence and makes unique decisions on track instead of just sticking to the set racing line like glue, and races need even more specific restrictions, like horsepower, weight, tire compound, drive type, model year ranges, and engine/drivetrain swap restrictions. Not every race needs all or even any of those, but they need to be present in the game, because while it’s nice to have group restrictions like hot hatches or cult classics, that means nothing when the only other restriction is PI, so you can still dominate every race with a couple cars that are capable of a lot more horsepower within that limitation.

Forza in particular struggles even more in later games because everything you do in the tuning menu is not taken into account by the game’s PI calculations, leading to some seriously unfair “meta” cars. What’s the point of having several hundred cars to choose from if only 30-40 of them are competitive at a high level? Having so much freedom to choose is great on paper but Forza games have consistently failed to execute the concept well. I fully believe that in a game like this, restrictions make the game more fun, not less, because it gives the game meaningful variety instead of an illusion. At least custom lobbies in multiplayer allow (or at least used to allow) the players to set restrictions like those, but they practically don’t exist in offline play.

Perfect balance doesn’t exist, I’m not asking for that, but these games have close to none whatsoever, the PI systems and performance stats of Forza games are all shams that mean nothing. Of course, a lot of that could be ignored if only there was more variety in the race types, but who could even imagine race types other than circuit and sprint? Pure insanity, what a silly concept.

With a reboot for the Motorsport series on the horizon, and with all of that complaining I just did in mind, I don’t exactly have high hopes. I would love to see it turn out well, but with everything after Motorsport 3 taking bigger and bigger steps backwards, I can’t allow myself to be hopeful. Especially after seeing what happened with Gran Turismo 7, because I was very excited for that game and look at how that one turned out. It doesn’t even have a career mode, it has a 20+ hour long tutorial that you must complete to unlock the game’s content, and even core systems. The bar is officially so low that it has become part of the floor, and I still don’t trust Forza to be capable of overcoming it anymore.

The light racing sim with a focus on variety, progression, and customizability is a dying breed and I can see no light at the end of the tunnel. The closest thing we get now is an admittedly cool mod for Assetto Corsa. Gran Turismo is dead. Forza is dead. These are the franchises that took over the market and killed off just about every other franchise trying to do something similar, and it’s been a duopoly for so long that nobody remains to fill the hole. As much as I enjoyed looking back at these older games, reinforcing that fact is depressing.

I fear that a return to form for the genre only exists in my dreams now.

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