Forza Motorsport 5 should be a triumph. It's the latest installment in a well-liked, well-made simulation racing series, and the driving itself is as good as it's ever been. Actually, the Xbox One's rumbling trigger technology helps to make the driving even better by giving you more feedback about things like traction and helping you determine if you're over-accelerating or not. But everything surrounding that great driving experience chips away at that ideal driving scenario until you're left with a disappointing shame.
The Forza series has evolved over the years to get better and better at appealing to dopes like me, who want a certain level of assistance with the simulation aspects of driving, while still offering things that better resemble the reality of driving fast cars for people who don't. Forza 5 duplicates most of the options found in the previous games, including those various assist options that let you get assisted braking (which is no fun), traction control (which I probably wouldn't play the game without), or cosmetic damage. Typically, if I'm going to spend a lot of time with a Forza game, I start at the highest levels of assistance and graduate up to more difficult situations as I go. This element of the game is intact and works as advertised. The act of driving a car in Forza 5 feels roughly how it felt in Forza 4 and 3. You are, however, given more information about how your car is handling through the Xbox One's triggers, which can rumble independently from the rest of the controller. It's a nice addition.
In the game's career mode you'll face off against AI-controlled drivers, as before. You can set the difficulty rating of these opponents, but this time around they're based on the other Forza players on your friends list. The game collects data as you and your friends drive to build an AI profile, which the game clumsily calls a "drivatar." Thus, your AI profile is eventually supposed to mimic the way you take corners, how aggressive you are on the track, and so on. In practice, this has led to a game in which a large number of the racers on the track are immediately trying to run me off the road. Or maybe they're just leaving the track on their own, weaving around like a bunch of drunks. Even the "car guys" on my friends list--people I certainly would expect to maintain a certain level of decorum in any sort of racing game--bang around the track with some amount of recklessness. If the goal was to make the single-player career feel more lifelike, then it's mission accomplished, for sure. But instead of making it look or feel like a real-life race would, it makes it feel like a public lobby multiplayer race, where half the field, a bunch of goons with nothing to lose, bangs into the first turn at full speed and hopes for the best. I can't imagine that's what the developer was going for. Either way, this style of AI casts a dark shadow over the entire career mode. Once you know what to expect, it's manageable, and it certainly makes the game more challenging than it has been in the past, but I felt like I was being forced to drive aggressively and do way more rubbin' and way less racin' to succeed.
As you might expect, the online side of the game is built to let you compete against actual humans instead of their shambling, crash-happy ghosts. But this section of the game is cordoned off into what feels like a billion different segments. So if you want to race A-class cars, there's a separate player matching hopper than there is for C-class cars. This is all fine and good, since people will almost certainly want to race specific cars that are suited to their own tastes, but it also meant that I had a hard time finding more than two or three other humans to race against. The developers have responded to this with a "beginner" playlist that lives on the first page you see when you hit the multiplayer menu, and one time I was able to get in a race with five or six others. The lack of a "I don't care what you put me in, just let me drive against people" button is pretty frustrating. You can, of course, round up some friends and get into a private match, but at that point you're dealing with the Xbox One's train wreck of a party interface, so there's no winning here.
While we're piling on, let's talk about post-release payment opportunities, which are poured across all of Forza Motorsport 5 like a thin layer of slime. It's certainly all optional, and you're welcome to race the career as intended and unlock all of the vehicles the "old" way. But when every pre-race screen contains not one but two reminders that you could accelerate your earnings by purchasing a time-limited double XP boost, it begins to feel like a free-to-play phone game. On top of that, you can sign up for "VIP membership" for an additional $20, and in addition to giving you access to an additional set of cars, it also gives you the equivalent of a free-to-play game's "coin doubler." Whenever you earn enough experience points to gain a level, you earn a bounty of credits, which are used to buy new cars and upgrade existing ones. If you're a VIP, that number of credits is doubled. Plain and simple. Like previous Forza games, FM5 even has a secondary currency, called tokens, much like a free-to-play game might. You can use these tokens to buy that double XP boost and cars. The token prices for cars are tied to the credit prices, which ends up making some individual vehicles insanely expensive. The developer has been out there after launch to state that it's reevaluating the overall economy in an attempt to head off some of the early criticism, but more than anything else, all of this just feels nasty. It's a full-priced, $60 game that has another limited edition option that went on sale for $80. Remember, it's all optional, and this certainly isn't the only game to ever offer a variety of shortcuts in the form of post-release payments. But the way the game is constantly reminding you of these additional payment schemes just feels dirty, and it cheapens the experience. Previous games in the series gave you cars as rewards for gaining a level. Forza 5 gives you credits that you can double by paying an additional fee.
At least it looks great. The car models have been ratcheted up a few notches from Xbox 360 to Xbox One, and the game runs at a terrific frame rate--though for some reason completing an online race drops the frame rate by about half as soon as you cross the finish line, when the game takes over and drives the track for you while you wait for other racers to complete the event. The Autovista mode lets you walk around the cars in a showroom and view the interiors, but you can't get under the hood, which is unfortunate. Photo mode and the ability to paint, customize, and tune cars is also largely intact, though the system for distributing paint jobs has changed a bit. Overall it delivers a solid sense of speed and usually looks fantastic.
It looks great and it drives well. Given the Forza pedigree and the aplomb with which it nails those two things, this should be a fantastic game, the best Forza yet. Most of the pieces are there. But everything is out of place or hidden behind disappointing layers, whether that's the unfortunate AI or the multiplayer hoppers. With all of that in mind, Forza Motorsport 5 becomes a game that is outstanding in specific, limited situations, but overall, it's kind of a drag.