Back On Track
After the unveiling of its next console, Xbox One, last month, Microsoft got things back on-message at last week's E3 in Los Angeles by focusing on the games. The company showed an impressively long list of exclusive games, including the first hint of a next-gen Halo. But taking pride of place in Xbox One's day-one launch line-up was racing game sequel Forza Motorsport 5.
Forza is (arguably) Microsoft's answer to Gran Turismo, but while SONY's series is staying on current-gen with the announcement of GT6 for PS3, Forza is spearheading the charge on the next generation. With their real-world cars and environments, simulation racing games like Forza present an ideal opportunity for console makers to show just how realistic the graphics can get on their new machines. With Forza 5, Microsoft is leaving nothing to chance - it has no less than 400 people working on the game right now.
The results are spectacular. This is a very beautiful game and the sense of riding in the cockpit of one of its glossy supercars is absolutely uncanny. Before you climb aboard, the camera glides lovingly over the astonishingly detailed car models, admiring the way the light bounces off the paint and the tiniest details of the construction of these dream machines. Once aboard, using the in-car view, you can see reflections on the inside of the windscreen, including the driver's hands on the wheel, while the way the low sun streams in when you turn towards it is both incredibly realistic and adds an extra challenge to driving.
The most amazing thing is that the Xbox One produces all this graphical glory at the maximum possible display resolution and frame rate: 1080p and 60 frames per second. You just don't get any sharper or smoother than that.
The Drive Of Your Life
The demo available to play at E3 showcased a few exotic European supercars - the Pagani Huarya, Ferrari F12, Lamborghini Aventador and the game's cover star, the impossibly rare and expensive McLaren P1. There will be hundreds more cars, we're told, all completely remodelled for Xbox One - including, for the first time in Forza, open-wheel racing cars in the form of IndyCar and classic Formula One machines.
E3 attendees were able to take these beasts for a time-trial spin around a street track in a new location for the Forza series - the beautiful and historic Czech capital, Prague. If the glimpses of Prague in the game's trailers made you think of Microsoft's other racing series, the late lamented Project Gotham Racing, you'd be right - up to a point. The style of the track is very PGR, combining technical cornering challenges with exciting rollercoaster moments, as well as jaw-dropping moments of beauty and realism.
But this is very much a Forza game. Rather than PGR's fluid, drift-happy handling, Forza 5 is a meatier drive in keeping with previous entries in the series, conveying an impressive sense of weight and grip while still letting you slide the back end out if you want to. Just don't expect it to be the fastest way around the corner in this more simulation-style racer. Developer Turn 10 is redoing the game's simulation engine for Forza 5 and is performing extensive work on tyre simulation in particular to take the game's realism to the next level.
Head In The Cloud
Combined with the profoundly impressive graphics and the amazing force-feedback triggers in the new Xbox One game pad, driving Forza 5 is incredible fun, even without any other cars on the track. But it's those cars - or rather who (or what) is driving them - that will be the game's real unique selling point.
Forza 5 promises to upload data on your driving style to Microsoft's "cloud" - the massive server network it's building to power the next generation of Xbox LIVE. The cloud will then compile this information into a "Drivatar", a virtual racer modelled on you, and distribute it to your friends and people around the world. So you won't just be racing ordinary AI opponents in Forza 5 - you'll be racing computerised versions of other players, with all their abilities and quirks. And when you're offline, your Drivatar will be out there on the net, racing others for you and earning cash and experience.
This is Forza 5's most revolutionary idea, and in its own way it's a bigger technological leap than the game's amazing graphics. At the moment, we can only take it on trust that it will work and feel different to racing the rather dull AI in previous sim racers. If it does, though, it could change racing games forever. You can't ask much more than that from a launch title for a new console. Game on!