For decades the weakest part of the racing game experience has been the AI. Artificial intelligence in racing games poses a grand challenge for developers, because if an AI racer drives perfectly it doesn't look real - and if they mess up too often their mistakes can look scripted (or, as was the case in Need For Speed: The Run, be
So many racing games have been let down by gorgeous cars all stuck on their racing lines, like trains on a single track, leaving the player to feel like they're racing time trials -- time trials with 1000 kilogram moving obstacles littered throughout the course.
Over time players learned to use these obstacles -- you could brake late into corners because the other cars would slow you down enough, and you could hold onto an otherwise tenuous lead by exploiting the AI's unwillingness to shunt you back. On straights, brake-checking AI would cause them to slow harshly so they could avoid a collision -- something they'd avoid at almost all costs.
As a result the simulation driving game has lost some of its lustre. Players gravitate towards racers with arcadey rulesets -- like the Need for Speed series -- or those with heavy punishments for rule-breaking -- like the F1 games. Or they move online, through RFactor and iRacing, games where those racing against you are taking things very, very seriously.
Forza 5 wants to bring the single-player experience of simulation racing back, and with "Drivatar" they've done it spectacularly.
Drivatar is an awful buzzword, easily on par with Levolution, but in practical terms it means a cloud-sourced replication of a player's driving IQ. In Forza 5 you're not racing against AI so much as you are racing against the computer-generated recreations of how other people drive. Real people, like you and I.
It's more than just ghost data. You're not trying to beat the perfect race of a hollowed out car here. Drivatar breaks down the essence of how you drive and rebuilds it into a recreation of your persona on the track. If you tend to brake late into corners, it knows this. If you kick the back out around hairpin turns, drivatar knows this too. If you have Mark Webber-esque starts, it's able to replicate this in all its terrible glory, so that when other people play Forza 5 the Xbox One can grab your drivatar and have you race against them as well.
Of course, you can't take the essence of a driver without getting some unsavoury elements. Those decades people spent learning bad habits shine through in Forza 5 like a terrible sun. You get to watch your competitors take corners too late and bump into one another on hairpins. You'll see them go too wide on corners only to spin out once their wheels hit the grass. Trying to overtake AusGamers' Editor Stephen Farrelly on a straight is like trying to beat Tron on a lightcycle, and it's obvious Steve has spent his entire racing game life in cars with a heap of acceleration and not enough top speed.
All of this just makes the drivatar system that much more beautiful though. Because you start most races in the Career mode near the back, you get to watch the first corner mayhem with glee. You'll see some jerk in seventh plow into the pack early, and witness whoever was on pole streak out to an unhindered early lead. If you're bold you'll try to take advantage of the chaos and leap up half a dozen positions yourself.
Meanwhile, because you're aware that your drivatar is learning how to drive ,every time you hit the track you'll probably try to teach it to be better. In previous games like Forza 4 and Gran Turismo 5 I'd unashamedly use other cars to get around corners, like bumper bowling on wheels (especially if there was no damage penalty coming my way). In Forza 5 I actively avoid contact with others going into corners, though I'll happily give someone a shunt coming out of the apex if I think it will give me a shot at an overtake, especially on the last lap. I've heard from my contemporaries that my drivatar is a bit of an arsehole -- and I think that's utterly brilliant.
Outside of the drivatar system the game is a mixture of good and bad.
The graphics are outstanding, as anyone can immediately see. The interior of every car is painstakingly recreated, and thanks to the Kinect 2.0 you can turn on head tracking and look within using the cockpit view. The tracks received just as much love and attention, thanks to the team at Turn 10 using lasers to measure every bump and ripple before they put a course in the game. Still, it's a bit odd that you don't get to choose the time of day that you race -- there are no night time races, and weather options appear to be non-existent, something a forthcoming current-gen staple actually offers, even on the ‘close-to-home-course’..
There are only 14 tracks in the game, though many feature multiple track variants on top of reverse options. The iconic Mt Panorama Circuit is in Forza for the first time and it looks utterly gorgeous, but more importantly it delivers the sort of fidelity that makes me accept a few less tracks. You feel like you're on the razor's edge when you tear across the top of The Mountain and down through The Dipper, and if they removed tracks because they didn't deliver the sort of experience the course was supposed to convey that seems entirely reasonable.
The audio presentation is similarly impressive. Each career championship is introduced by a member of the Top Gear team, talking about a class or type of car with the irreverence which has made the show such a hit. Richard Hammond might be tasked with talking about American Muscle cars only to go off on a tangent about his particular favourite, or Jeremy Clarkson will make jokes about how James May never quite got over driving the Ariel Atom instead of actually talking about the class of vehicle at-hand. It makes the game feel like a Top Gear presentation, and their obvious passion for cars is transmitted to the player almost instantly.
Other elements, like the series' fantastic decal customisation, continue to excel. When you buy a car you're presented with popular designs for that make and model, and when someone uses a decal designed by you, you're rewarded with in-game credits. When your drivatar is used in other people's games you're rewarded with credits there, too. Constantly, actually.
The multiplayer is about what you'd expect -- you're better off racing with people you know or who agree to a set of rules beforehand. In public matches the first corner is a shitshow of players forcing others off the road, and even later on if you happen to make the mistake of being just in front of some arsehole you'll get T-Boned going into an S-Bend. There are no innate penalties for these sorts of actions except for vehicle damage -- which can be turned off by the player for a minor reduction in credits -- and this is despite almost every circuit in the game featuring a pit lane, making the whole aesthetic affair rather redundant.
Drive-through penalties should be the barest minimum of punishments for dangerous driving, but instead you just have to deal with it... or play only with people you can trust aren't dickheads (most days of the week). Happily this sort of stuff is mooted by the drivatar system, where you'll always feel like you're racing against other actual people, even when you're cognisant that you're not.
It's interesting that Turn 10 could get so very much right about Forza Motorsport 5 and still screw it up, but to a certain extent that's exactly what they did.
When Gran Turismo first launched it drew people in with something more than just going fast. Against games like Need for Speed and Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo needed a hook -- and it latched onto the "Catch 'em all" philosophy popularised just a year earlier by Pokemon.
Forza, once it took over from Sega GT, fit neatly into its role as a Gran Turismo competitor by offering a similar style of play -- gamers were given a cheap car and the impetus to collect as many others as they could.
This motivation doesn't exist in Forza 5. When you buy a car for a championship, the first thing the game does is auto-upgrade your vehicle to the highest possible level for the class the championship is in. If you're racing in A class cars and you buy a B class Lamborghini, the game will grab all the upgrades needed to lift its level to 800, the max level for an A class car.
This robs the player of what I think is the essence of the game -- making the car your own. There's something magical about taking a car and dragging it, kicking and screaming, up to a power level it has no business being at, but more than that it's fundamental to the player's understanding of their car that they know exactly how it has been upgraded.
Maybe I don't want my Lamborghini to get a flat upgrade across the board, with slightly better tires, and marginally better brakes and a mildly better engine. Maybe I'd prefer to dump every point of power level into a better engine and just see what happens next. To do this I'd need to look at the eligible cars in the championship I'm racing in and then back out and buy it from the store individually, because there's no option to not auto-upgrade a car upon purchase from the championship screen.
What this ultimately results in is a disconnect from the car itself. Instead of being a beautiful machine you bought and put together to win a championship, the car becomes just a tool you use to make more money. You use these beautiful supercars because you must use them to enter the championship, and because they're all upgraded for you at the point of sale there's no difference between them except visuals and price. Why buy a Koenigsegg Agera when the Hennessey Venom GT is two thirds the price? The Venom would be the more efficient purchase, and it would leave you with 400,000 extra Credits to play around with.
It's a real shame too, because when Forza 5 lets the player make a car themselves it's really something special. At the beginning of the game you get given a car -- a modern sport compact -- and I chose the Toyota 86. I don't have a particular personal connection with that car, but since finishing that initial championship I've upgraded it all the way to Racing class (R) and worked it into a machine that can get up to 340 kilometres an hour. Instead of doing normal championships, I take my 86 into the Class Restriction championships and race it against Indy Cars and the like -- and when it's doing 250+ km/h down the straight at Silverstone it feels like I've accomplished something special.
Forza Motorsport 5 is a technical marvel and a truly next-gen experience. Drivatar technology needs to be implemented into every game as soon as possible, and people looking for a fantastic looking driving game need look no further. Still, thanks to a pointless need to streamline the experience Turn 10 has robbed the game of some of its heart. It seems that for all their focus on recreating how a person drives, they lost sight of why.