Forza Motorsport
For: XBox
Developed/Published by: Microsoft

Imagine our lack of surprise that Microsoft would roll out a secret “GT Killer” at it’s press conference Monday night, now imagine my surprise that the game was on the show floor fully playable. Having gotten some hand-to-steering wheel time I’m ready to report back that Microsoft’s take on the sim-racer series is kicky cool. Why?

Because game wasn’t made to just match GT4, it was made to surpass it in every way. Where Polyphony Digital says: “Car manufacturers won’t let us show damage,” Microsoft gives us fully damageable cars that, unlike Project Gotham Racing 2, are affected by constant wall bashings. (However you can’t damage a car so badly it won’t drive.) Where GT4 offers up the ability to buy slick looking cars, Forza Motorsport lets you buy and then fully customize a car.

We’re talking modifying each part of body with a different look, decals that can be placed anywhere on the car, nitrous, the ability to swap engines out, a paint mode that goes beyond simple one color schemes, and even new headlights and taillights. [And when you’ve done all this work you’ll really be able to appreciate it thanks to the insanly high res. textures the cars pack when you’re looking at them in the garage.]

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. What makes all of this unique is how customizing a car feeds into the gameplay. First, everything you add or change about your car, including body kits, affects the performance. If you duct-tape on a new spoiler to your Ford Focus you might find the added down draft negatively affects handling. However, the game features a tuning mode that matches (and in a few small ways that were beyond my technical understandings) surpasses GT4, so you’ll be able to tune your car to handle the new spoiler you’ve just attached.

Beyond this Microsoft has implemented a “rarity” system. When you begin you career in the single player mode you’re given the choice of three “home” regions: North America, Europe, and Asia. If you pick Europe you’ll find Dodge Vipers to be “rarer” and thus more expensive and harder to buy. But, if you succeed in getting one you’ll find that because it’s a rare car in Europe race sponsors will offer a larger purse when you grace their events.

When you’re racing online, with up to eight players, you’ll be able to swap one of the 200+ cars (MS could neither “confirm or deny” whether Lamborghini’s would be featured) you’ve unlocked in single player mode with another racer. Microsoft wasn’t sure if pink slip races would be included, but they did confirm that it was still on the table. They also remained tight-lipped about how Forza Motorsport will support XBox Live 3.0. However, some prying caused them to utter the words “car clubs.” The complete online feature list will be unveiled this summer.

But where will you be racing this winter? Why no less than 16 real world locations, each with several variations (this includes night, rain and even different layouts). Fans of Project Gotham Racing 2 will be happy to know that Nureimberg is in the game in its glorious entirety. Ten minuets of German auto-ban!

Finally, a cross promotion deal means you’ll see a “Forza Motorsport” racing wheel this winter courtesy of MadKatz. Sadly the wheel doesn’t look or feel nearly as solid as the new Logitech wheel shipping with GT4. However, you’ll want to get the MadKatz wheel to go along with the game’s “panoramic” game mode. What’s that you say?

Why only the ability to link-up three XBoxes, each with their own copy of the game, to three TVs for a truly surround gaming experience. Microsoft doesn’t expect the average Joe Gamer go out and buy $2,000 worth of equipment to enjoy this mode, but rather sees it becoming a cool side thing to do at LAN parties where equipment is already available. They were unsure they’d be able to get this feature to work with XBL, but thankfully it’s already up and running with system-link. [Finally, a multiplayer game more expensive than Steel Battalion to play!]

Zondaro’s Brief Hands-On Impressions

For all the hoopla about how you can damage the cars (in ways much more visibly noticeable than PGR2), said damage didn’t seem to affect car handling very much at all. However, a developer told me that they’d toned down this feature for just E3 to make the game more pick up and play friendly. [Think about how little time we have to devote to a single title.] Which it was by the handfuls. If I had to compare Forza Motorsport to any racing series I’d say (with all the driving assist options turned on) it feels more like PGR2 than the GT series. However, in no way is there any crazy powersliding.

However, it’s really hard to get a feel for a realistic racing title during the hectic madness that is E3. The customization and tuning options that Forza Motorsport features has propelled it into the top echelon of my “Must Buy” list, but I’m not quite sold on the idea of damage to the cars really impacting driving in a major way. Still, it’s nice to know that XBox racing fans won’t be left in the lurch this winter.