I proposed to my wife on the Charles Bridge in Prague back in 2001. I say this because it’s one of the first things you’ll sprint across in Forza Motorsport 5, and it’s so faithfully replicated that I was able to drive to the very spot beside a statue near the bridge’s south side, Prague Castle in the background, and shift the camera toward the buildings in the distance opposite the castle where fireworks started exploding, corny as this sounds, moments after I popped the question. When the game unexpectedly pitched this as a tutorial at the outset, I called my wife over and we had a moment. I certainly wasn’t expecting that from a racing game.
I don’t pretend to comprehend Forza 5 the way Forza-heads will. I’m a Forza neophyte. I’ve played a few of the games, but never played them, if you parlez-vous. I dabble in racers, in part to stoke the sense of wonder I felt when I started playing racing games that went beyond Mode 7, throwing in elevation instead of flat, empty tracts of low-res space. I have the same reaction sailing around today in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, recalling what it was like to experience forerunners like Nintendo’s Wave Race 64 in 1996, discovering that the game’s rolling and sometimes roiling waves weren’t just there to pretty-up the scenery.
If you’re considering an Xbox One, Forza 5 is the obvious must-have, a scalable racing sim that’ll leave you gobsmacked with its gleaming, photographic, 60-frames-per-second-at-1080p visuals before you’ve so much as finished your first race. Developer Turn 10 dropped the car and track count from Forza 4‘s crazy smorgasbord of vehicles and venues, but 200 deeply customizable cars and 14 re-conceptualized international tracks feels like plenty here, plus you’ll have a chance to play with new rides like the Ferrari LaFerrari and McLaren P1.
But I’m still just poking around the edges, investigating leagues and baby-stepping through my race career, tweaking my car’s gear ratios and suspension settings, spending time in Forza TV’s top replays (mostly to admire ones staged in the Bernese Alps). The haptic feedback in this new Xbox One gamepad is terrific, spooling up or down with tactile gradation that helps convey the severity of a crash — a vibratory bellwether of whether you’re going to see a slew of damage pop-ups, assuming you’re playing on the higher realism settings, something the PC sim-wonk in me masochistically insists on doing.
I was going to tell you that the new Drivatar tech, which boasts computer-controlled racers who manifest adaptive steering and turning and braking traits based on how you and your friends drive, seems a little gimmicky, given how hard it is to monitor those behaviors in a breakneck racing game. The first dozen races, I had no idea what anyone else was doing. It was all I could do to keep my car from careening off the tracks and eke out a low-ranking silver. As Peter Molyneux once told me, you can put all the chrome in a game you like, but getting people to appreciate that it’s there is another matter entirely.
But then I started bumping into friends’ Drivatars, and Forza 5 instantly went from “look at the pretty scenery” to something like an obsession. I’ve spent the better part of the day locked in front of the screen, trying over and over to beat this Drivatar or that one. I began noticing and cataloging unique driving behaviors, little consistencies that distinguished one Drivatar from another: One might be better at passing, another better at braking into a turn, another at accelerating out of one and so on.
When you repeat a race a dozen times (or, dare I admit, two-dozen), you can’t help but notice this stuff: minute idiosyncrasies that crop up time and again at the beginning, middle or end of your two laps. Drivatar behavior isn’t anything like as generalized or random as I worried it might be; it’s discernibly specific, repeatable (just restart a race to see this) and in that sense, crucially, predictable. Scrutinize these behaviors, whether during a race or outside one (in replay mode) and you’re suddenly formulating how to approach each Drivatar tactically, how to use other cars in a hairpin turn (or coming out of one), exploiting a Drivatar’s quirks and miscalculations.
And just like that, a feature I was worried I’d wind up dismissing as a marketing stunt has me playing a racing game with the sort of dedication I haven’t felt toward a racing game in years.