After about six years and a couple of entries in the Forza Horizon series, Forza Motorsport is making a comeback this year. The sim-racing franchise, focused on realism and professional tracks, will be one of Xbox’s 2023 heavy hitters, but I’d been wondering what’s actually new for this entry. As a long-time racing enthusiast dating back to the first Gran Turismo, I’ve seen how the genre has evolved and, at points, stagnated. But from what I’ve seen so far, Forza Motorsport is fine-tuning the racing sim formula in smart ways by dialing in on two major areas: its career mode’s gameplay loop and its driver AI behavior.
Following the Xbox Games Showcase during Summer Game Fest, I was able to get a hands-off demo of Forza Motorsport and see the new sim racer in action. The emphasis was on the Builder’s Cup Series, which is a career-style mode filled with racing events featuring certain conditions, restrictions, and challenges, as your typical sim-racing campaign would have. The key difference is in how progression works.
Instead of racing to rack up money to spend on upgrades, you earn credits called Car Points, which is akin to XP or skill points in an RPG. Your allotment of Car Points lets you pick and choose which upgrades you want for your car without having to commit to them since you’re not necessarily “purchasing” parts. Using certain car parts means spending Car Points to equip them, but if you switch it out to a better part or back to stock, you get the Car Points back. It’s like being able to respec your character in an RPG without consequence. You’re effectively creating a “build” for your car in the RPG sense, letting you spec out your car without buyer’s remorse.
Theoretically, you could spend Car Points on better tires and suspension for tracks with tight corners then respec your car for engine upgrades to improve top speed for races with long straightaways. I can imagine it being a way to mitigate the grind for cash–in many other racing sims, I found myself repeating the same race events I knew I could win so I could get enough money for the next upgrade I needed to win a different race event. With the system of Car Points, it seems I could just retool my upgrades on my current car to better fit the tracks.
The Car Points system may seem like a minor change, but it’s a much smarter way to think about progression in a career mode because it shifts the focus to building a car properly rather than buying your way to victory.
The other side of the Forza Motorsport equation is in the upgrade driver AI. I won’t pretend to be a computer scientist, but as it was explained to me, machine learning was used to create smarter, more realistic AI on the actual “controller” of the AI drivers. In practice, you’ll have opponents who race more like professional drivers. One example creative director Chris Esaki mentioned was that when opposing drivers mess up, it’s because they’d be “timid” and not “sloppy.” This would manifest as an AI driver backing off or slowing down as they react to you boxing them out of a corner for an overtake, rather than just slamming into you because you’re in their way. They’re effectively more aware of your positioning and what you’re trying to do in the race.
Of course, I would like to see for myself when I get hands on the game itself, but it is promising that driver behavior can potentially be replicated closer to what we actually see in real-life track racing. Esaki also assured me that this doesn’t mean AI drivers won’t be aggressive, because aggression is part of racing, but at least I’m a lot less likely to get t-boned while going hard into a corner for an overtake.
Additionally, Forza Motorsport encourages you to be a skilled driver throughout a race in what’s called Car Mastery. The game essentially grades you on each turn and corner you take, giving you XP based on how well you’re performing. Yes, it’s important to take first place, but it’s not all that matters because skillful driving is part of the system now. Along with the Car Points system that pushes you to build a good car instead of buying your way to first place, the Car Mastery system challenges you to be a good driver and rewards you in kind.