Some unstructured thoughts on Forza Motorsport 5

13 Apr 2014

I’ve rambled on before about Forza Motorsport 4 when it first came out and about some of the UX aspects of typing to communicate something quite physical when you’re sat in your living room. But I’ve not said much about Forza Motorsport 5, which launched with the Xbox One. I was waiting until I’d managed to group them into some coherent narrative, but I’ve failed to do so, so rather than put it off yet more, here’s some mixed thoughts, along with a few pretty pictures of cars.

I’ve mentioned in my original summary of FM4 about how I like Rivals, a mode in which you just get to see the fastest laps of your friends, and try to beat them. This is great for those of us gamers who struggled to get all your friends online at a single time – welcome to working adulthood. This is one of the nice things that server side services for games have brought to lots of games – asynchronous competition against ghosts of your friends. You can feel connected in the game even whilst your friends are busy doing other things.

In FM5 however, they take that feeling of being connected to your friends even further, thanks to what they call Drivitars. As you play, the game builds up an AI model of how you drive – how late you break into corners, how wide you typically are, how much speed you carry, etc. Everyone who plays FM5 has their AI model uploaded to The Cloud™, and then every AI driver you race in FM5 is based off a real gamer somewhere. This is great for Turn 10, as it means they get lots of varied AI for free, which will generally give a more interesting race than artificial AI, but the reason I love this feature is nothing to do with Turn 10 getting a free ride AI wise.

What I really love about the Drivitar system is that it will always prefer to fill the grid with AI models of your friends, so even though my friends span different timezones and work commitments make it hard to get everyone online, I end up racing against all the virtual copies of my friends, which makes the racing that much more involved. I know it’s not really Dave or Dan or Garry or Jonathan etc. I’m racing, but I still really do want to beat their AIs more than some random other AI. I feel that bit more engaged in the race, which makes it more fun.

It’s fair to say that most people playing Forza also don’t tend to race as clean in single player as they do in multiplayer – there’s no one to shout back at you, and you’re going to get a place up. But with Drivitar there now is someone watching you – if you play dirty in single player your Drivitar will play dirty too. Observer my good friend Garry’s Drivitar taking me out here:

And I’m sure mine is just as guilty of similar crimes. But it does make me think twice when racing in single player, as I don’t want the AI model of Michael to be seen as an asshole when it’s out representing me.

On the input side, I’m still hugely saddened that my wonderful Fanatec wheel setup I have for the Xbox 360 does not work with the Xbox One, forcing me to play with the controller until such time as Fanatec can come up with some new hardware.

The one slight redeeming feature of the Xbox One here though is that they now have force feedback on the controller triggers, which gives me an indication of when under breaking I’m loosing grip, and when under acceleration I’m losing traction. This is a small thing, but in terms of communicating to the user what the car is doing, it’s a huge difference, and really helps you connect more with the virtual car.

Which is good, as the one technical difference I’ve noticed in the physics model between FM5 vs FM4 is that the tyres are more reactive to operating temperature, so understanding when you’re over stressing the tyres on accelleration/breaking is quite important. In FM4 it was there, but seemed (to me at least) fairly consistent over all tracks. But now I know I need to be careful on that first lap out in Yas Marina, but extra careful for a few laps in the much colder Alps tracks. As a result I play a much more conservative game for the first lap than before.

Overall, although FM5 is much prettier, and thanks to Drivitars more fun to play than FM4, I still get frustrated by some of the trade offs they’ve had to make as they balance being the best of in car simulation with the need to be accessible in terms of pick up and play.

An example of this tension is in the contrast to the fact that they boast about measuring tracks down to sub-centimeter accuracy, capturing every nuance of the course, but in single player you get 2 to 3 laps per race with qualify laps time to learn the track before hand, so you essentially are typically racing each car/track combo cold. Instantly accessible wins here, and I appreciate qualifying/learning laps are really only appreciated for nerds like myself who want to learn the track properly, but it does mean I spend most my time in Forza just doing hot laps rather than races. If I could change just one thing about FM5 it’d be the option to give those of us who want to appreciate all this accuracy Turn 10 pour into the game time to appreciate it.