The Forza Motorsport series requires no introduction, industry juggernaut that it is. To say that it sticks to a tried-and-true formula is to do a great disservice to the developers at Turn 10 Studios who’ve poured their heart and soul into each and every iteration of the bestselling racing game series that debuted on the original Xbox. There’s always some new system or mechanic, an incredible depth of content – vehicle and track lists both – all backed up by a solid technical foundation and drool-inducing graphics. And it’s easy for players to be overwhelmed. In the case of Forza Motorsport 7, however, that seems to have happened on both sides of the equation.

Kicking Tires

The core gameplay – whipping cars around a track, amassing a formidable collection of vehicles, besting challengers from around the world – hasn’t changed. With all the feedback you get from your vehicle, be it visual, auditory, or tactile, you don’t pilot a racecar so much as engage in a conversation with them. Tracks and cars are depicted in obsessive detail (e.g. power cables on the rear of a trackside LED display). The buttery-smooth 60 frame-per-second presentation is present and accounted for. To use a car analogy, everything’s good under the hood.

So what’s new? Porsche vehicles make their triumphant return to the main roster, no longer fettered by a licensing deal from the last millennium. Other new features include dynamic weather (Forza 6 had static rain conditions) and customizable driver avatars.

At the same time, Toyota vehicles are conspicuously missing (development and licensing don’t always dovetail perfectly), new homologation rules dampen the effects of the tuning system, and the introduction of loot boxes (“prize crates”) complicates game progression.

Taken all together, Forza Motorsport 7 will appeal to new players coming from other genres – its slick presentation, granular difficulty settings, and variety of content are rarely found even in other AAA titles – but is much more difficult to qualify for long-time fans, who have seen the series through its evolution and have copies of previous efforts in their libraries.

Full Throttle

The implementation of dynamic weather is exactly as careful and methodical as you might expect from people who laser-scanned puddles on race tracks for the static weather system in Forza 6. Which is to say that it’s not offered on all tracks and there are some seemingly arbitrary restrictions in its deployment. However, it’s something magical, seeing the track transform halfway through a race – and all the racers struggling to adapt their inputs to the changing conditions – until you slam into a retaining wall because you were distracted by the clouds.

To truly appreciate the beauty on display, however, you’ll want to recruit a set of fresh eyes or pause the game every now and just take in the sights. Forza has traditionally set the graphics benchmark for 60 fps console gaming, and it’s the details that make the rolling hills and sheet metal come to life, details that are usually overlooked in a three-way battle for first place. The lighting engine performs wonders with stark lighting conditions: the rosy golden hue and sharp shadows of an early morning race, or the iridescent bodywork of the lead cars illuminated only by headlights in a night race.

The actual racing, be it with a controller or wheel, remains intuitive, engaging, and rewarding. You can dial in the exact level of challenge you’re looking for (the “Super Easy” Drivatar difficulty with all assists turned on will allow you to cruise to a podium finish by just holding down the throttle – excellent for younger players who might be disinclined to follow a proper racing line). You’re never left wondering why your car spun out at the turn: even if you miss the visual and audio cues, the vibration (or lack thereof) in the controller will let you know when you’re on the edge of your traction and when you’ve lost it completely. And you’re free to instantly rewind any mistake and try, try, try (and try) again.

If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s a testament to how spoiled gamers have been by the Turn 10 team that we take these things for granted.

Limp Mode

If it sounds like I was being unusually generous in my praise, it’s because there’s a fair bit of criticism that must be levelled. For all that is wondrous about the racing experience itself, actually getting to that part can be an arduous journey. Aside from the launch-day patch, Forza 7 has seen four separate patches that address bugs and make quality-of-life improvements. On one hand, it’s good to see rapid, responsive post-launch support, on the other, it’s meant that players have been faced with an update screen almost on a weekly basis, with downloads totalling over 2 GB.

Load times have been improved since launch, but for people on slower internet connections, starting the game from Xbox home can take close to a solid minute. Loading of individual tracks fall in the 10–30 second range, but you can use this time to adjust settings or make minor tweaks to your car (major changes will drop you into a separate screen) – or grab a drink. Two separate screens pop up post-race to chart your event progress and driver level (plus an additional screen for collector tier if you’ve unlocked a vehicle), and these rival the loading screens in terms of the time they take up between races.

The game structure itself has been modified to slow your progress, to prevent you from rushing through the content before you’ve really had a chance explore the breadth of the vehicle list. The most direct change is the introduction of Collector Tiers, which gradually opens up the full range of cars as you grow your garage. In practice, what it means is that your dream car may not become available for purchase until you’ve unlocked (and spent credits on) a raft of other machines you don’t care about.

Ditto the mod “cards”, which are limited-use boosts, some of which reward you with extra credits if you perform certain feats during a race. Notably, racing at a higher difficulty or with fewer assists no longer guarantees a bump in winnings; you’ll have to have the appropriate mod card to benefit from the tougher competition. Rather than introducing fun, bite-size challenges, these cards end up being a source of frustration, because they come with an inherent cost (you get them via loot boxes which cost credits you could otherwise put toward a vehicle) but no guaranteed return.

Regarding the new driver avatar system: don’t bother. While there are many cool outfits, only you will ever see the full suit and you can’t even rotate the model to see the back. If you want a bit of customization that you and other players can enjoy, use the robust vehicle skin system instead: full personalization, full visibility on the track, zero cost.

In the Shop

What to make of the beast that is Forza 7? The core gameplay experience remains the same and series fans will find plenty to sink their teeth into between the vast vehicle inventory, expanded track list, and new dynamic weather options. On the flip side, the same fans may find their enthusiasm dampened by the addition of loot boxes, and changes to the mod system and race homologation – which I won’t go into depth about because many, many pixels have been darkened on the subject elsewhere.

Indeed, it’ll likely be new players who benefit most from the tweaks under the hood. The “Super Easy” Drivatar difficulty coupled with assisted steering will help novices get their bearings, while the prize crates add a touch of instant gratification between races, and the mod cards will introduce concepts and challenges they might not have considered.

Despite the emphasis on speed, Forza Motorsport 7 is a game best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, inviting players to dip into the tuning menu between races or maybe pick up some new duds in a prize crate – anathema to the legions of hardcore fans who just want to race. However, where gorgeous graphics, compelling yet beginner-friendly handling dynamics, and robust online competition are concerned, there is simply no parallel.

Forza Motorsport 7 is available now on Xbox One and Windows 10.