Games Review: Forza Motorsport 7 (Xbox One, 2017) changes the formula, but still finishes first

Given that it was built from the ground up to be a showcase for the Xbox One X console launching in November, it feels a bit weird to be reviewing Forza Motorsport 7 on my Day One launch edition Xbox One. Racing games have been enlisted as gorgeous tech demo for fresh hardware, don’t go in thinking the game is going to look like pants on your older hardware because it doesn’t.

It was only a few weeks ago that I was playing Forza 7 on an Xbox One X at a Luna Park press event. The game, as it performs on the Xbox One X, is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life. If you’re in two minds about getting an Xbox One X then the way Forza 7 looks on that hardware might be enough to tip the scales. But, as stated, this doesn’t mean that the version running the Xbox One and Xbox One S had to suffer. In fact, Forza 7 looks better than just about any game I’ve ever seen running on those consoles too.

The Forza series has always had a predilection for stacking little visual and aural flourishes on top of one another to give a real sense of personality to the proceedings. Forza Motorsport 7 goes all in on vibrant skyboxes with gorgeous lighting, wild weather effects and photorealistic environments pulled from multiple real world locales.

Many of these things appeared in Forza 6 to greater or lesser extents, but developer Turn 10 has used the years since to flesh them out, asking for what feels like everything the launch console has to give them life. Conditions can now vary in the middle of a race — it’s possible to go from a sunny day to a howling storm over the course of three laps, puddles appearing organically on the track as the rain falls. On desert tracks, it’s possible to round a bend and find yourself barrelling into the path of a sandstorm. Further, not only are you forced to adapt to the new conditions, so are the AI drivers around you. Hanging back in the pack, I was able to watch them screw up, over-committing to a turn without factoring in the now rain-slick track, clattering into each other like shopping carts in a stiff wind.

Hardcore racing sim fans are regarding this par with open suspicion now, and they’re not wrong to do so — this sounds dangerously arcadey on paper. Turn 10 makes it work though, treating these environmental changes as track obstacles to be managed on top of everything else you’ve got going on. It’s also a very clever way to add variety to the 30 different locations you’ll find yourself racing around again and again and again.

Forza 7 also loosens the focus of the campaign mode that Forza 6 pushed so hard for. The “Stories of Forza” campaign was a way of giving players a guided tour of motor vehicles of every era, an activity that has long been one of the Forza series’ favourite things to do. Forza 7 has you play through a series of Championships, each offering a numbers of series races themed around specific vehicles or vintages. Notching wins and moving through each Championship inches you closer to the game’s grand finale, the Forza Driver’s Cup Challenge.

As you progress, you experience the ebb and flow of Forza 7‘s in-game economy which is built around prizes and currency in equal measure. It’s a short, neat feedback loop of Race, Win, Collect New Goodies, Race which is well-suited to the way the game gates its content. If car or upgrade is too expensive, you can have a pretty good idea of how long it will take you to save up the cash to get it. You also accrue experience which, on a level up, grants you your choice of Avatar Gear, A Discount On A Car or A Big Cash Prize. The more cars you collect, the points you earn and the more cars you unlock for later purchase. It worked, I wanted them all. For those who preferred a smaller, hand-picked assortment of vehicles to be called upon in very specific situations, this move towards open hoarding may rub you the wrong way.

The thing is, it feels like the game pumps the brakes on your progress quite quickly. I felt like everything was progressing fine, despite only being able to take vehicles available to me in the first bracket. On moving up to the second, suddenly I found a whole raft of events were unavailable to me because I hadn’t unlocked any eligible cars. It’s a minor gripe in general, but it made me realise the game was deliberately slowing my roll and that was frustrating.

This sense of momentum is tied directly to the difficulty of those first few races. Specifically, they aren’t that difficult. The game kicks you off with just about every assist it has turned on, the expectation apparently being that you will slowly pare them back to taste. You’ve got the driving line on 100% of the time, you’re being assisted with steering, auto-braking, gear shifting and barely any damage taken for running into other cars or barriers. I also always felt like I was leaving my opponents in the dust the moment I hit a straight no matter what car I was driving. Taking first just wasn’t that big of an ask. And so I did what the game seemed to expect, I started pruning back the assists until I had something that worked a little better for me. I started notching losses at this point but the game also became noticibly more enjoyable the more assists I turned off. You’ll have to pry the Rewind feature out of my cold dead hands though. I need Rewind to undo those moments when I take a truly bad line on a turn and ruin my whole race one hairpin from the finish.

It’s here that the game starts taking on the form of the more dedicated racing sim fans have come to expect. The arcade trappings the game couches itself in when the assists are on are gone — you can’t just ram into the pack at high speed and come out the other side with a significant lead, you need to slow down and actually think about how you’re going to tackle each corner and don’t even get me started on the complicated process of beginning and maintaining a drift.

If you want to get an idea of how Forza 7 morphs into a simulation, turn off your assists and jump into an older car from the 60’s or earlier. They’ll be an absolute nightmare to handle and that’s exactly what I expect from a car that weighs several tons and is as aerodynamic as a brick. Jumping from car to car suddenly has weight because they all handle very differently, as they would in the real world. It pays to increase your collection beyond the material aspect because in doing so you are creating little opportunities, gaining an edge a little bit at a time.

You can also gain an edge the the series’ now famously deep customisation options, nipping and tucking each vehicle and leveraging every last shred of their potential. This is further enhanced by Mods which provide either one-time or race-to-race challenges that net you extra race rewards until depleted. Mods come out of (deep sigh) loot boxes which, as I write this, can only be purchased for (noise of surprise) in-game currency. While some exclusively drop mods, others drop cosmetic upgrades for your Drivatar and even new cars. These boxes will run you anywhere from 20,000 credits up to 300,000 — either of which could buy you a new car to add to your collection, circumventing the RNG. Turn 10 have at least made an attempt to balance the in-game currency. While the game certainly steers you towards loot boxes at every opportunity, you’re never under any obligation to actually buy them which may help reduce the size of the sour pill.

I didn’t see any of these boxes that were available for purchase with real money during the pre-launch review period and this is still true now, several days after the game landed in the hands of players. I’m sure they’ll be along in due course. You don’t implement a loot box system this convoluted without secondary revenue streams in mind.

The campaign isn’t the only facet of Forza 7, a game steeped in different modes and mechanics across single and multiplayer, from straight down the line racing events to challenges, drifting and even car bowling. Some of the game’s major features, Forzathon and Leagues haven’t actually come online just yet but once they’re up they’ll be the final pieces in what is one of the most comprehensive racing simulations ever made.

There is a new feature I’d like to talk about in a little detail here because it’s going to be one of Forza 7‘s most divisive. It’s called “homologation,” and it is a flattening out of your car’s specs in such a way that it can’t ever break the boundaries of its own class. Previous Forza titles have allowed players the ability to upgrade their cars to their hearts content, some to truly preposterous levels. There’s an absurd delight in taking a Datsun from the late-70’s and tuning it to the point where the game reclasses it as a supercar. Homologation  means you’re going to have to leave it in the garage a lot of the time because if you attempt to take it in a supercar race, you will be denied and forced to pick an actual supercar.

Longtime players may be unhappy that the game is putting a significant barrier in the path of their having fun but I can see why they’ve done it. It helps improve overall game balance, especially in the multiplayer, and keeps specific models confined to their own classes rather than being exploited for victory in tiers they don’t belong in. It’s also a great way to get people racing more seriously in the lower classes — Forza players have a habit of heading straight for S-class and never looking back, and there is value to be mined from those lower tiers.

Forza Motorsport 7 is willing to try new things, boldly introducing sweeping changes to its own long-standing formula and continuing to modulate its approach to microtransactions. Though these experiments meet with mixed results, in every other respect Forza 7 is one of the most beautifully realised and meticulously crafted racing simulations in the history of the medium. That said, with Forza Motorsport 7‘s release, my wait for Forza Horizon 4 can now finally begin in earnest.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Packed with modes, cars and content; Gorgeous visuals; Huge attention to detail
Lowlights: Changes to the formula may irritate veteran fans; Loot box system is hilariously convoluted
Developer: Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now