Forza Motorsport 5 review: Cloud strife

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I slide through the Bernese alps in an immaculate Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, colored to match the mountain's bright white blanket. I've never driven this car, on this road, in my life, but I have glided home on a highway late at night, just content with the motion, the guiding curvature of the road, the world hurtling by. This is something similar, I think, but with much better scenery. And with that scenery comes a certain serenity at last.

I glance in my rear-view mirror and - oh no. No, no no no. It's him. He's found me amongst the frosty peaks of Europe.

Behind me is a simulated driver in a demon-red Ferrari, bearing the name "XrayAlfaVictor." It's the name of the internet servant, the "Drivatar," belonging to my coworker Xav. His Drivatar is here to kill me.
Gallery | 7 Photos

Forza Motorsport 5

One of the major features touted by Xbox One exclusive Forza Motorsport 5, save for its impeccable graphics, is the seamless Drivatar system. The name has been used throughout the series, but the process hasn't quite been as painless as it is now: You race, the game takes note of your habits on every corner and curve, and sends a driving doppelgänger into the cloud, where it'll automatically join other races in the world as an AI stand-in. The more you play, the more accurate your virtual representation becomes (in theory), and the better you drive, the more likely your Drivatar is to place highly and bring you back some in-game cash on a daily basis.

The problem with these cloud people, as I've come to call them, is that they're a bunch of assholes. In fact, I'm told that my Drivatar is evil incarnate as well, even though I try to drive with some modicum of politeness, taking my corners cleanly without using other cars as brake padding. Xav, who is nice in person, has gone through the Forza 5 pod and turned into a psychopath driving a wooden Ford Fiesta. Xbox, record that:

Don't get me wrong: This makes Forza Motorsport 5 much more exciting, if occasionally infuriating. The bouts of aggressive racing stand out because most of the Drivatars are well behaved, but not robotic. There's an element of unpredictability at play when your game is hooked to Xbox Live. I've seen fellow racers drive a masterful line through one of Laguna Seca's tougher turns, and I've seen others that brake much too late in Spa Francorchamps and spin into the grass. I can't say whether the cloud people are accurate representations of their real counterparts, but they certainly inject some variety and sudden turns into what might otherwise be yet another routine trip around Silverstone.

Crazy cloud people are a prickly element in Forza 5's silken presentation. The game's opening is a gentle reintroduction to the franchise, simply starting you on a sun-tapped, cobbled road in Prague, facing a McLaren P1. This exotic vehicle, like every other represented in the game, is viewable inside and out, doors open or not, in a mode called Forzavista. It's sure to please car admirers, but also gives you a moment to take in the craftwork of developer Turn 10.

The Xbox One game is locked at 60 frames per second and a 1080p resolution, conveying a level of clarity, lighting quality and polished material detail that I have not yet seen in a console racing game. Reflections wrap around finely pearlescent paint in just the right way. You can almost feel the patterned pockmarks in the steering wheel's leather.

The environments, which include Spain's twisting Catalunya track and the narrow streets of the aforementioned Prague, are warmly lit but predominantly static, as if there's no oxygen outside your car. This is partially a product of Forza 5's ultra-clean presentation (with some distracting aliasing here and there), but more due to what we see in other blockbuster games: cinematic and unrealistic images designed to blow your eyeballs through the back of your head.

A dearth of tracks is a bigger problem in Forza 5, which has lost standouts like Nurburgring and Hockenheim from the last installment. Even with the moment-to-moment variety offered by racing Drivatars, and your steady acquisitions of new cars for your garage, I felt a sincere need for additional tracks by the time my driver had exceeded level 25 (and you can go to 150!). This need for the game to be a bit less barren only increased after I had done several more tracks in the game's slim but stable online multiplayer component.

Still, there's a lot you can do once you have a handful of cars in the garage, each fit for a generous helping of racing leagues that cover everything from big muscly beasts to super cars that rattle your Xbox One controller as they blast through turns. As before in Forza, you enter class-specific racing sets to earn experience and affinity for certain manufacturers, which in turn nets you additional money on top of your earnings. There's a pleasant lack of pressure to come in first, as most races prove lucrative with any placement, and even more rewarding if you increase the level of realism and difficulty of those damned cloud people. And if you'd just like to take it easy and have the car drive itself, that's totally fine too. Progression in Forza 5 is too pleasant and assured to feel like a grind.

Forza Motorsport 5 maintains the franchise's perfectly balanced personality, though this is largely thanks to the actual personalities of BBC's Top Gear. Once again, Jeremy Clarkson and co. narrate segments of the game, providing informative, entertaining and cheeky explanations of each racing league before you get started. These guys know how to make cars entertaining for all, and Forza should exhibit no shame in stealing everything it can from them. One of the best comedic diversions in Forza 5 is a trip through the Top Gear test track, this time set to a tongue-in-cheek London simulation mode. Some say the Stig is also represented somewhere in the game ... though it's probably too nice to be his Drivatar.

I do another run through the calming Bernese alps, this time in a pitch-black Nissan GT-R. I catch a glimpse of Xav's alter ego once more, gripping my controller tight in preparation for his all-metal attack. Or is it anticipation? I gently ease off the acceleration, wait, wait, wait and give him just a tap on the side, sending him into a barrier. Now I am one with my cloud people.

This review is based on review code of Forza Motorsport 5, provided by Microsoft.

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