I don’t take the decision to spoil this review from the top lightly, but I’m sorry, I have to just cut right to the chase: if you have even a passing interest in cars and you own or are planning on buying an Xbox One, you should have Forza Motorsport 6. There is no debate beyond that. It’s that good.
But let’s back up for a second. It feels like Forza Motorsport 5 just came out yesterday, right? And really, late 2013 is yesterday in the grand scale of a AAA video game franchise, but it had left considerable room for improvement. So much room, actually, that Forza 5 felt more like a demo designed to showcase the Xbox One’s graphical prowess than a fully fleshed title in its own right: there was no weather, no time of day, menu items labeled “coming soon,” and strange holes in the track selection (Nürburgring above all else, which was later added with an update). And as good as it looked, there were strange issues with aliasing — jagged edges — that disrupted the appearance of cars, particularly during slow pans. On balance, Forza 5 actually felt less complete than Xbox 360’s magnificent Forza 4.
Unlike archrival Gran Turismo, Turn 10 has the luxury of a tick-tock release schedule with Forza: in between launches of the flagship Forza Motorsport, it hands off development of the open-world companion franchise Forza Horizon to Playground Games. So while Forza Horizon 2 kept us distracted for a year, Turn 10 had the chance to right Forza 5’s wrongs. And boy, did it ever.
Let’s start with the look and feel of driving. I can’t say conclusively this is the best-looking driving game on any console — I’ve heard good things about PS4’s Driveclub — but I am comfortable asserting that it’s the most comprehensively good-looking one, because it’s such a huge game. The jaggies that marred Forza 5’s cars are mostly gone, and tracks appear to have been reworked for environmental realism: you’ll experience clouds of dust floating across the tarmac at Laguna Seca, flocks of birds in the distance, and rain effects that will trigger your instinct to reach for an umbrella. As far as I can tell, every drivable car can be opened in Forzavista — Forza’s car-porn mode that lets you walk around each vehicle, get inside, work knobs and buttons, and take photos — and there are 460 of them at launch. (In all likelihood, there will be many more to come with DLC.) I’ve been driving a silver 1973 BMW 2002 Turbo for much of my campaigning during the review, and the lifelike detail keeps impressing me every time I see it drive by before or after a race.
And I can’t entirely put my finger on it, but driving generally feels more dynamic and engaged than it did in Forza 5. Cars feel more "alive," and I get the impression that Turn 10 put some effort into improving the Drivatar AI — the feature that turns your Xbox Live friends into realistic-acting driver bots — because there were definitely moments that felt like I was battling human opponents when I wasn’t. (Happily, the game will let you turn off "aggressive" Drivatar behavior if you don’t ascribe to the philosophy that rubbing is racing.) Forza 6 also adds destructible tire barriers, a real-life feature of many tracks that has a substantial impact on the game. Instead of simply bouncing comically off walls as you normally would in a racing sim, the tires absorb energy and slow you down, which can take you out of contention even if you have car damage turned off.
Speaking of track design, Forza 6 has a wonderful selection of 26 locations, many of which have multiple configurations and can be run both forward and reverse. (Microsoft notes this is more tracks than any previous Forza title.) Fortunately, Nürburgring made the cut this time, but there are still a few notable tracks from previous Forza installments that are missing: Mugello, Suzuka, and Twin Ring Motegi, to name a few. The fact that Forza 5 added the ‘Ring through an update gives me hope that we’ll see additional tracks as DLC, but we’ll see.
Perhaps no single feature of Forza 6 is more hotly anticipated than the addition of nighttime driving and weather — egregious omissions from 5 — and they’re good. (There is nothing more terrifying than running the ‘Ring at night with nothing but your inadequate headlights to guide you.) The rain effects are phenomenal, particularly the standing water, which simulates realistic hydroplaning at speed and has a dramatic effect on how you drive. None of this is perfect, though: the standing water always seems to be in the same places (in fairness, tracks probably tend to do that owing to the bumps and depressions in the asphalt), and not all tracks can be selected for nighttime or rain. In fact, you don’t even select time of day and weather independently of a track — you choose Nürburgring day, Nürburgring night, or Nürburgring rain, for instance. The best way to have implemented this would’ve been to select a track, then select a time of day, then select the weather.
Most of your time in the game, at least at first, will probably be spent in the Career mode, which is a staple of any racing simulator: it’s where you learn the ropes and win some cash and your first few cars. Different games (and even different generations of the same game) have taken wildly different philosophies in how Career mode should work, and Forza 6 is no exception. I generally think it’s fine, but it errs a bit too far on the hand-holding side — you have to win three series (series, not races) in a basic, low-cost car before you can graduate to a better car, then you move up to Grand Touring cars, and so on, for a total of five "volumes." The game collectively calls these volumes "Stories of Motorsport," and it’s the primary form of career advancement. Occasionally, without warning, you’ll unlock a "Showcase" event which is like a one-off special race with special goals in a car you don’t own; examples include passing challenges using various vehicles, and racing against Top Gear’s Stig.
The problem with Career mode here is that there’s very little flexibility in how you attack it
The problem with Career mode here is that there’s very little flexibility in how you attack it. You have to advance in the exact order the game prescribes, instead of being able to jump around depending on what kind of series you’re in the mood for. And as you race new series, Forza 6 will try to force new, pre-upgraded cars down your throat — I’m sure some gamers feel differently, but for me, upgrading my own car is an integral part of the experience, and I don’t want the game to do it for me. The final insult is that there’s no point tracking and no real fanfare after you win a series; you just race your races, come in whatever place, and move on. I want a trophy, dammit. Make me feel good about being the point leader.
One feature that Forza 6 has brought on from its Forza Horizon sibling is the concept of "spins," which is basically a Press Your Luck-style game you play after every level-up. Most prizes are credits or cars, and I found that it was really easy to do very well with these spins — I had multiple million-credit cars in my garage before I reached Level 10, including an Audi R18 (1,500,000 credits) and a Pagani Huayra (1,000,000 credits). I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I think I would prefer it to be a bit harder to obtain some of the game’s best cars.
Another new feature — and perhaps my favorite thing about Forza 6 — is "Mods," which are basically trading cards that can be attached to your car before a race to unlock better attributes: lower weight, for instance, or better grip, or improved payout. Some can be used forever, some are single-use, and some have special abilities that are only unlocked on certain tracks. There are also "dare" Mods, which challenge you to do something (like take a worse starting position) for bonus XP or credits. You can win or use credits to buy Mod booster packs, each of which has five cards of varying rarity; you can pay more for boosters with a higher likelihood of containing rare cards. Before each race, you can attach up to three Mods to the car, and any cards you don’t want can be sold (rarer cards are worth more, of course). I haven’t seen anything quite like it in a racing sim, and it adds a new, fun dimension to the game.
But there’s no player-to-player eBay-style marketplace for either Mods or cars, which I think is a mistake. MMORPGs have proven time and time again that in-game economies are real, and Forza has an opportunity here for players to win epic rare cars, designs, and Mods that they could then trade or sell to other players. The stakes feel lower because everyone has an opportunity to own the same things that everyone else does, and as I discovered from the Audi R18 that I almost immediately won, they can own it very quickly and with little challenge.
Still, these are minor quibbles in the scheme of a truly magnificent game. It is beautiful, extremely deep, and has enough modes and features to keep you entertained forever. (I haven’t even mentioned the multiplayer modes, including Forza 5’s "Rivals" and full-fledged leagues that are matched to your skill level.) If you liked Forza 5, you will love 6. Heck, even if you disliked 5 there’s a good chance you’ll like 6, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s the new standard-bearer for graphics realism on the Xbox One. As I said from the top: just buy it.
Forza Motorsport 6 launches on September 15th for Xbox One