Hello Racing, My Old Friend
Like most of you, racing games were always a part of my staple gaming diet growing up. I recall very vividly seeing a Pole Position arcade cabinet at a young age and being blown away by the then-groundbreaking graphics. Along the way, there were the F-Zeros and Mario Karts, the Ridge Racers and the Gran Turismos, the Crazy Taxis and the Project Gothams. Then, somewhere along the line, I turned away from racing. It's not as if there weren't good racers being made; in fact, you could say games like Grid, Forza, and Burnout Paradise and others of recent years offered some of the best the genre had to offer. I've even reviewed racing games positively, acknowledging their obvious quality. But - outside of Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition - I can't really remember one that I played much at home.
At least part of it lies in just how amazing video games have become in this century. Just think of the things that we've been able to experience in franchises like Assassin's Creed, BioShock, and The Elder Scrolls; these type of epic adventures offer so much depth of gameplay and story that it's hard for a game that aims to do nothing more than simulate the experience of driving a car (something I do every day, albeit in a much slower vehicle) to compete.
Another factor are the innovations brought forth by the Grand Theft Auto series. As open worlds and games that mix a wide variety of gameplay become more prevalent, much of the driving action we got from racing games in the past was incorporated into titles that offered a wide variety of activities. In many ways, there is a new Midnight Club title - it's the driving portions of Grand Theft Auto V, which were worked on by the former Midnight Club team at Rockstar San Diego. For many of us, once we could get a driving fix in other games that did more than just racing, a dedicated (and fairly dry in execution) game like Gran Turismo held less appeal.
So, I've been a bit surprised by how much I enjoy Forza Motorsport 5. I tried it out on a whim; I can't actually remember the last sim racing game I put serious time into. If anything, I thought it would be a nice showcase for the shiny new graphics of my Xbox One (and a better choice than Ryse, at least).
The game started off smartly by putting me right into a race - before the career mode had even begun. Right off, I was really blown away by the look and feel of the game. Driving through pretty European countryside is a sleek, shining supercar gave me a nice sense of calm. I was also instantly struck by the fidelity of the Xbox One's rumble; it really conveyed a feel of the road and my vehicle in a way that hasn't been done before.
After awhile, I turned down the in-game music and threw on the new Nick Cave record I had just bought, and found myself slowly becoming hypnotised by the game. Suddenly, some of the things that had seemed like limitations of the racing genre felt like strengths. There was no story, no dialogue, and no puzzles to figure out. If I felt like turning off the sound and listening to my own music, I could do so without feeling as though I was compromising the game's atmosphere.
In the weeks since, I've found myself going back to Forza time and again, often instead of starting one of the big triple-A games from last year like Assassin's Creed IV that I feel that I should be checking out. I've come to appreciate the simplicity; it's just me and the other cars in a battle of nerves and skill. I know that others have some problems with the game. Matthew Kato, who reviewed it for Game Informer, called out some of the steps back it took in terms of the career structure in comparison to Forza 4 (I didn't play Forza 4 so I couldn't tell you). Others have decried the game's emphasis on paid DLC. Personally, that hasn't really bothered me. I approach the game in a pretty matter-of-fact way. I just race the next race, and buy the next car when I have to. I like tinkering around with some of the liveries that are suggested to me, but I'm not digging deep into any creation tools. I like the gameplay. The driving just feels right. It's at once exciting and relaxing, and I'm finding it to be a nice break from games in which I feel a greater responsibility to make progress in the story. I play a few races in Forza when I feel like it, and every time I come away impressed by the core mechanics. I'm sure it could be better, but I'm not inclined to go into "critic mode" and overanalyze it. For now, I'm content to have a great looking sports car and the digital wind in my (theoretical) hair. It's been a nice ride so far.