After enjoying the thrills of arcade racers like the Forza Horizon series for years, I've found myself a fairly recent convert to the cult of sim racing – thanks in large part to the excellent on-track action of last year's Gran Turismo 7. GT and Forza Motorsport are arguably the greatest rivals in racing games, the four-wheeled icons of the console war, but as a firm believer in a multi-console lifestyle I was thrilled to expand my sim racing obsession with Xbox's own take on the genre. And, after some time with what Microsoft tells me is a "near-final" version of this year's Forza Motorsport, I don't think that obsession is going to fade any time soon.
The Forza Motorsport demo I was provided offered access to the first 90 minutes of the game, basically consisting of a three race cup series. Entering a series requires you to either choose a car from your garage or buy it from the shop, and you'll be driving that machine for the duration of that event's races. But you're not stuck with your vehicle's starting performance. As you level up your car – more on that in a minute – you'll be able to upgrade its parts for better performance, even in the middle of a race series.
Oh lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?
One of the key distinctions in this iteration of Forza is that you don't straight-up buy your car upgrades. Cars themselves are purchased with a traditional cash system, but each vehicle has a pool of car points that increases as you level up. You spend car points on upgrades, but they're not a finite resource. Instead, the CP system basically turns upgrades into an RPG-style perk tree that lets you freely respec any time you want.
Leveling your car, then, is governed by on-track action. Each track is divided into a number of segments, and you're rated on how skillfully you manage to complete that segment. If you take a particularly good line through a given corner, for example, you might get rated at an 8.6 and get a bonus 25XP for your trouble. You'll also get XP for things like overtakes or completing a practice lap within a certain target time.
I'm intrigued by this progression system for the versatility it offers, and ideally it'll be a good way to ensure that your favorite cars are always ready for a wide array of races and performance targets. But unfortunately, 90 minutes isn't nearly enough time to see how well this system works in practice, and there's also the possibility that these individual car levels will turn each new vehicle acquisition into the start of a tedious grind. Leveling feels fast at the start, at least – I got a car to level 14 after about 20 laps spread across practice and race sessions, and it seems most meaningful upgrades unlock by level 25. More boutique customizations, like full-on car conversions, appear to top out at level 50, at least based on the starting cars.
Given how much the progression system has changed in Forza Motorsport, there's much less to say about the driving itself – which is ultimately a good thing. The control feels exquisite, and nailing a tricky corner at top speed is as thrilling as it's ever been in a sim racer. The AI is pretty convincing, too, as it presents a challenge without feeling like it's obviously rubber-banding or glued to a particular racing line. AI cars spin out here and there in what feel like believable incidents, and you need to practice some pretty good overtake strategy to avoid getting caught up in those incidents yourself.
As you'd expect from any modern sim racer, the new Forza has a wide array of difficulty and assist options letting you change everything from how proficient your opponents are to how robust the racing line display is. Going with higher difficulty opponents and lower assists will give you boosts to race payouts, but beyond that there's no real penalty for customizing the experience however you want. The game even ditches a traditional race qualification system to let you choose your starting position. The closer you start to the back of the pack, the bigger the payout you get for a podium finish.
I've still got some questions about how satisfying Forza Motorsport's progression systems will be over the long haul, but this taste has me thrilled at the possibility of playing more. It won't be long before we all get to dive in deep, either, as the game is set to launch on October 10.
Looks like our list of the best racing games is about to have some more competition.