Last year I declared that Forza Horizon 2 was the best racer I’d played in a decade. I also declared that I liked Forza Horizon 2 more than I liked Forza Motorsport. A tough pill to swallow, unless you are Playground Games, but Turn 10 is back with the next installment in their ultimate driving experience, meaning it’s time to see if the pendulum has swung back in the other direction once again.

The Forza Horizon series focuses around a fictional event called the Horizon Festival, but Forza Motorsports 6 throws all that out the window in pursuit of a more pure racing experience. That isn’t to say that they’ve thrown out everything else though…Forza Motorsports 6 is a new kind of racer.

Absolutely beautiful

Absolutely beautiful

Back in the saddle
Jumping into the driver’s seat of a 2017 Ford GT, Forza Motorsport 6 puts you behind the wheel immediately — as it should be. This first race in Rio De Janeiro holds your hand, engaging all of the assists and removing the constraint of the clock. It gives new players the chance to discover race lines, the deceleration mechanics, and the general handling of the vehicles, and re-introduces veteran players back into the mix.

Speaking of veterancy, as a long-time racer, just after the initial race I was awarded over a half-dozen vehicles including a 2012 Nissan GT-R Black Edition, a 2015 Jaguar F-Type R Coupe, and a 2013 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor Shelby. I was also given the opportunity to set my assist options immediately, including the race lines, braking assist, stability and traction controls, and even the rewind feature, for those who want to maximize the race experience. Turning these options off individually, or using the prepackaged easy, medium, hard, professional, and veteran selections, offered additional credits as a race bonus. In practice, I found brake assist to be more conservative than I tend to be and turned it off immediately.

Horizon is rooted in a free-roaming fictional world, but Forza 6 features the best race tracks on the entire planet. Lime Rock Park, Yas Marina Circuit, Sebring International Raceway, Hockenheimring, Brands Hatch — even the vicious Nürburgring are represented, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are 26 tracks at launch, and a better-than-average chance to see more post-launch.

Every detail is meticulously rendered.

Every detail is meticulously rendered.

If you ain’t first, you’re last
Forza 6 is split into ‘volumes’ spanning five types of racing. A three-race qualifying series unlocks the first volume, Super Street. Each volume has three heats consisting of three to five races, unlocking Sport Icons, Grand Touring, Professional Racing, and the Ultimate Motorsport categories. Unlike the freedom of Horizon, these volumes are locked in this specific order, meaning you’ll drive those, as Turn 10 calls them, “Affordable Heroes” until you can unlock the magnificent concept and supercars at the other end of the spectrum.

To use the initial example, Super Street is broken into three sections — the Challenger Series (four races), the Club Circuit Series (five races), and the U.S. Tour (six races). The challenge set forth for all of them remains the same, and is easily my biggest complaint with Forza 6 — you can only finish in first, second, or third place. Unlike many other racers, if you aren’t winning every race, you are losing and retrying. There is no cumulative point values like in Horizon’s challenges. This means you can’t simply make up the difference if you really botch a specific locale. When I got to the Nürburgring, I ended up running that track more times than I could count until I managed to squeak through with a hard-earned third place. It sucked the fun right out of the game and frustrated me heavily. Thanks to the linear nature of the single-player experience, there was little I could do but continue to bang my head against the wall.

Screenshots, even beautiful ones, don't do the rain justice.

Screenshots, even beautiful ones, don’t do the rain justice.

Welcome Back Drivatars
One of the most elegant things about the Drivatar system is that it’s ready whenever you are. Two in the morning, or eight o’clock at night — your friends, or more accurately their behaviors, are ready to go at any time. In this case, I’m racing purely against the recorded behaviors of my friends as the game hasn’t been released at the time of testing. Just the same, I saw my old rivals Hetz, motodd, Engine Nine, HappyDog, Harkonis, TehGellar, Razgondk, and others that I’ve been playing against for years. Best of all, to my wife the casual observer, they were indiscernible from the original — she thought I was playing multiplayer with a dozen of my friends. People (including me) made fun of the Drivatar idea when it was first revealed, but time has proven Turn 10 very, very right.

There are a few new features on deck for Forza 6, including the introduction of “Prize spins” from Forza Horizon 2. These spins are set up more like the old game Press Your Luck, with a grid of nine boxes and a selector that randomly bounces around until you win a prize. You earn these spins from leveling up your racer, gaining experience with each run. You’ll also gain experience towards your manufacturer ‘affinity’ level. This provides bonus credits as a reward for your brand loyalty.

Yes, this is a screenshot and not a photo.

Yes, this is a screenshot and not a photo.

Simulation at its finest
I want to pause for a moment and state that Forza Motorsports 6 is NOT Forza Horizon 2. It’s fairly obvious, but it has implications on how you drive. If you are the type that feels as comfortable driving through the grass as you do sticking to the road, you might find yourself using the rewind function quite a bit. At its heart, Forza Motorsports 6 is a driving simulator. This means you won’t be slamming into your opponents nearly as often as you might have in Horizons, nor will you ‘smooth the corners’ as much. That isn’t to say there isn’t a little room for paint transfer, but be mindful of how often you do that if you’ve got realistic damage turned on.

To that end, I have to mention that Forza’s rain is no joke. First and foremost, it’s absolutely gorgeous — by far the most realistic rain I’ve ever seen in a racer. It leaves streaks on concrete pylons, it beads on glass and painted surfaces, and the reflections in pooled water is incredible. With the way it sticks to the camera, you can practically feel the sting of each drop. Smooth and even acceleration, braking gradually, and being careful on how hard you downshift are paramount to navigating this beautiful downpour. Even though mods can help you stick to the ground, or tweaks to your tire inflation can help with a slick surface, it’s skill that rules the day here. Jamming on the brakes at the last second will send you careening into the grass. The same goes with simply holding left or right on the stick — you’ll find yourself sliding straight while the rest of the pack slowly navigates that hairpin turn you just missed. And if you think wet track pavement is bad, wait till you find yourself sliding sideways through mud. That said, let me tell you about standing water.

I can’t think of a game that has dealt with rain with the degree of realism as Forza Motorsports 6. As water accumulates on the track you’ll find puddles of standing water. These puddles are far more dangerous than anything else on the track, stealing every ounce of grip and control from your tires in a split second. Hydroplaning is a real concern, and turning your tires once you’ve lost traction is entirely futile. The puddles are modeled with porosity physics utilizing true coefficient of friction (Fr = μN where Fr is the resistance force of friction, μ is the coefficient of friction for the two surfaces, and N is the normal or perpendicular force pushing the two objects together, for all you physics dorks like me) rather than simply adding some sort of behavioral trigger to the vehicle. It’s here that you really learn what kind of driver you are. It’s also where you’ll likely make the connection between the sound in Forza Motorsport 6 and your driving experience.

A beautiful Audi TTS

A beautiful Audi TTS

The furious sounds of speed
Sounds in racers are fairly predictable. The throaty growl of the engine as it roars to life, the whine as it reaches top speeds, and that iconic rush we all make to describe when somebody sped right past us. Those are expected, and present, but it’s not what impressed me about Forza Motorsport 6. Much of racing is your gut instinct, but there is just as much that’s hooked directly to your ears. Knowing when your engine is telling you to shift, that you are pushing too hard, or when somebody is on your tail is a part of being an effective racer, but your tires will tell you more than almost anything else. On dry pavement you’ll hear your tires squeal, but when you can distinctly hear them break loose it changes things. My tires in Forza would tell me that I’ve cornered as hard as I can without losing traction. In the rain, they tell me when I’ve lost grip on the road and any corrections would hydroplane the vehicle until that grip was restored. In mud they communicate that that there was no purchase to be had, and I was about to become very friendly with a nearby barricade if I didn’t use the rewind feature. It extends beyond rain, though; heat, cold, rain, snow — all of it has an effect on your racing agility and grip, and all of it carries with it a different sound.

When I reached the challenge mode, I was greeted by an unexpected sound — the voice of Top Gear’s Hammond and May. While Jeremy Clarkson is noticeably absent, the veteran voices provide vehicle overviews and their usual comedic stylings — a welcome addition to series. Other professional racers like IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden also make an appearance to help introduce the race challenges.

The sense of speed is incredible

The sense of speed is incredible

The Laundry List
Forza Motorsport 6 has a list of new features that showcases the power of the Xbox One in every way. I’ve cherry picked a few that I noted during my review and have listed them here in no particular order. There are over 460 cars, each modeled down to the individual stitches in the interior. It runs flawlessly at 1080p and 60fps, blurring the lines to the point where it’s very easy to confuse Forza 6 for the real thing. Split-screen local multiplayer makes a return here, alongside online racing with your friends. The Token system, on the other hand, has been removed, as has the auction house. On the other hand, the new vehicle sorting system for your garage provides manufacturers from left to right, and individual vehicles from top to bottom, making it very easy to find the right wheels as your stable expands. I could literally list pages of subtle and major improvements, but suffice it to say that Turn 10 has touched every single portion of this game to create Forza Motorsport 6.

To be blunt, the install times on the launch titles for the Xbox One were an embarrassment. Forza demonstrates just how far we’ve come as, with less than 50% of the game installed, I was able to launch immediately. I was impressed that as I selected features that weren’t necessarily ready to go, the game would prioritize their download and install them inside of a few seconds. I could back out and go play something else while I waited, but there was no need with such a robust and quick system. With a download size of 45 gigs, I was happy to see this new system.

With a game this gorgeous, you absolutely need a photo mode, and Forza 6 delivers. Supporting a plethora of pre-set filters and modes, Forza also allows you to adjust shutter speed, focus, aperture, exposure, contrast, color heat, brightness, and even a dash of water against the lense to create the perfect shot to share with your friends.

In addition to all of this new, there is one big new feature that help even the score on tougher races — Mods. These aren’t mods in the typical race vernacular, but manifest as collectable cards that you can apply for added bonuses or challenge. These mods are split into three categories – Dare, Crew, and Boost. Dare cards grant additional credits to your pocket if you can meet the challenge presented. They might ask you to draft a certain amount of times, or at the higher level do much harder things like drive entirely from the chase cam or in first person mode. Crew mods provide a persistent advantage such as additional top speed, or more grip on specific tracks. Boost Mods are a consumable single-use advantage that can give you bonus XP, credits, or an attribute boost. There are only three slots, one for each type, so you’ll have to be picky on which one you equip and when.

Makes you yearn for VR, doesn't it?

Makes you yearn for VR, doesn’t it?

Showcases
As you work through the 70+ hours of career mode, you’ll unlock Showcase events. These let you tackle historic rivalries or drive iconic cars. These are broken up into Bondurant Autocross, Factory-Spec Racing, Passing Challenges, High-Speed Chase, Endurance Racing, “Moments in Motorsport”, Race Driver Experience, and even the chance to take on Top Gear’s Stig, or at least his digital counterpart. These are all further subdivided into things like prototype cars, Formula E, Global Touring Cars, V8 Supercars, and Modern GT, as examples.

These Showcases are, in every sense of the word, absolutely mindblowing. Racing along in your impreza doesn’t compare with redlining at 230 miles per hour in a Formula 1 car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The sheer velocity instantly raises your heart rate — it’s exhilarating, especially if you have realistic damage modeling enabled. One strike on those toothpick tie-rod arms that hold the front end together can end more than your race! They break up the otherwise linear single player experience and represent the culmination of all of your racing skills. There are 80 of them, so you aren’t going to run out of things to do anytime soon.

The closest I'll ever get to an Aventador

The closest I’ll ever get to an Aventador

A little bit of an oil leak
There are some moments where you have to wonder if the game is being honest. When you’ve begun to lap other drivers but still can’t catch the first place driver because he seems to be able to corner better, run faster, and out-drive you in every way it feels a little fishy. When that same Drivatar seems to stretch that to more than half a lap ahead of you, it becomes difficult to believe that the game isn’t outright cheating. There is a chance, of course, that my skills are rusty or I just outright suck, but after decades of racing games and first place finishes, I doubt it.

As I mentioned, the career mode is linear. Adding on top of that, the game also has the track conditions locked. Tracks can’t be transitioned to another time or track condition. You’ll always tackle Track A during the day and during dry conditions, whereas you’ll always race Track B at night and in a torrential downpour of rain. It’d be nice to be able to unlock that a bit and run your favorite tracks in whatever conditions you’d like.