Getting off-track

Before last week, if I had to make a bet on which game would be the strongest overall release during the next-gen console launch, Forza Motorsport 5 would’ve been my pick. You’ve got a first-party developer in Turn 10 Studios with a well-established pedigree and a ton of past success, plenty of time between entries (Playground Games was the primary studio behind last year’s spin-off, Forza Horizon), and excellent access to the Xbox One hardware. But, as is often the case when I gamble, I’d have been walking away from that table a poorer man.

Forza Motorsport 5 feels like the extended demo of an incomplete game. It looks great, it sounds great, the cars all handle wonderfully, and the physics are absolutely phenomenal. But after a couple of hours, I realized there weren’t nearly as many cars as previous years and barely a dozen tracks–with classics like Nürburgring and Suzuka­ notably absent–which got very old very quickly. The new features like Drivatars and an expansion of the relationship with the BBC’s Top Gear are both welcome additions, but the game just feels unfinished.

Now, I know that the tracks that are here have been completely remodeled for greater detail, along with the 200 cars in the game (compared to 500 at launch for Forza 4, mind you) so that they can all be seen in Forzavista, and 60 more cars are coming down the line via DLC, but Forza’s always been a series that provided a lot of content for gamers right out of the box. It looks great on next-gen, but quite honestly, I couldn’t care less about the damn upholstery of a Honda S2000 if it means I’m losing out on actually racing several other cars because of it. By providing such a small selection of racing locales and cars in Forza 5, it feels like Turn 10 is banking on players falling in love with a vehicle, drooling over the interiors, and tuning it up and down the class ranks while taking on the game’s various championship series.

Speaking of the championships series, Forza’s Career mode has been changed considerably, and not for the better. Instead of working your way through different racing tiers over the course of several calendar years, all the championship series in Career are unlocked from the start as long as you can afford the cars necessary to race in them. You’re given enough credits for your first car in the first series, and where you go from there is up to you.

I appreciate Turn 10 allowing us to have more choices in the way we compete, but they’ve taken away much of the value of Career mode in the process. Forza no longer offers bonus rewards for finishing a series. You don’t even get a new car anymore—since so few cars are featured in the game, they can’t afford to give them away, after all. So, by making you have to pay for all the cars—either via the game’s real-world money-exchange system or digital cash earned by racing—you’re more likely to keep playing (or paying) to flesh out your collection with different car types to take on different series, since the game itself won’t reward you for your skill. Nearly all sense of accomplishment has vanished. You don’t even need to get first place in most races, just finish in the Top 3 to get the most XP and credits.

The counterpoint to all this, I admit, is that Forza 5 offers more championship series in Career than any previous entry. Forty are available in all, including many classic car and exotic options. But with only a dozen tracks, you’re driving the same courses hundreds of times if you want to beat Career mode. This option—once one of the biggest draws of the franchise—now sees you literally driving around in an unending loop, and it’s a shell of its former self.

Despite this major issue, Forza 5 isn’t a burned-out clutch of a driving game—and a few new welcome features show why this is still a racing franchise to be reckoned with. The new Drivatar aspect is a nice way to earn credits offline, since your digital imprint can travel to your friends’ single-player modes, and it only takes three races before the game can make a general outline of how you drive. Obviously, the more you drive, the more detailed the profile can get, and the better decisions it can hopefully make. The idea of racing 15 of your friends at any given time instead of just ghosts or randomly generated computer cars does instill a little greater sense of competition.

Also, Forza 5’s expanded relationship with the BBC’s Top Gear definitely adds to the enjoyment. Not only do hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May provide humorous dialogue introducing every championship series, but the game also includes Top Gear challenge races. Not every championship series has them—and they’re unfortunately few and far between—but they’re the most entertaining objectives, hands down. Whether it’s racing against the digital cousin of the Stig or using your car to knock over giant bowling pins on the show’s famous test course, the tiny bit of diversity in Career mode comes right here.

In fact, I almost wish there were an entire mode—if not an entire racing game—devoted to Top Gear after seeing how Turn 10 seamlessly implemented the show elements into Forza 5. While the game offers a few other challenge types that don’t feature the Top Gear brand (like passing challenges or racing on a track with pedestrian traffic), much like the regular circuit races, they grow old quickly.

I look back at the Forzas that have come before, and I can’t help but wonder if the ever-growing push for interconnectivity is part of the reason why the Career mode is so sparse here. Just like in all Xbox One games, you can take screenshots and videos of your exploits and upload them to the Forza community, along with custom paint and tuning jobs. The multiplayer is a direct extension of the single-player, where you can race whatever cars you’ve earned against your friends in head-to-head competition—but if you all can’t agree on the car tier, you may have to pony up some cash to buy a new one, since maintaining a diverse garage is far harder now.

But when you finally do get on a track, Forza Motorsport 5 maintains the tradition of providing great control along with some stunningly realistic graphics. For all my complaints, this is still Forza, and the actual act of zooming down a virtual raceway is still top notch. The issue is simply this: When you slap down $60 for this game (and possibly another $50 for the DLC Season Pass), you’re not getting nearly as much out of it as you did with previous entries. Career mode has been unnecessarily dumbed down, and the lack of tracks gets boring fast, overshadowing the game’s positive additions like Drivatars and the still-stellar racing mechanics. If you’re in it for the social features, the multiplayer, and just plain driving, then this is still a solid pickup, but if the new grind of Career mode isn’t what you’re expecting, then you should steer clear.

Developer: Turn 10 Studios • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 11.22.13
Forza Motorsport 5’s Career mode is a shell of its former self, giving little reason for players to keep coming back. Couple this with a dismal launch lineup of cars and tracks, and this is a surprising step backward for the Forza franchise as it helps kick off Microsoft’s next-gen console.
The Good One of the best looking and handling next-gen games; the Top Gear cross-promotion fits seamlessly into the experience.
The Bad No sense of accomplishment in Career mode; an obvious lack of tracks and cars at launch.
The Ugly Laguna Seca’s corkscrew turn.
Forza Motorsport 5 is a Xbox One exclusive.