With announcements that Blind Driving Assists would be included in the next Motorsport title (which dropped the 8 from its name to act as sort of a soft reboot), courtesy of consultancy work during development, I and many others were interested to see how all of this would play out in practice. After all, driving round a track isn't something most would get to do and the complexities of racing at high speeds make that an even more convoluted proposition.
But with the game just over a week away from launch as of the time of writing, how do all these puzzle pieces fit together and can I get round a single lap without crashing?
After a logo, the game loads before playing a rather relaxing piece of score reminiscent of another famous simulation-based title available on Xbox, namely Microsoft Flight Simulator. Whilst it might surprise you at first, the screen reader does eventually kick in, albeit in a loud and slightly distorted manner and at a slower rate of speed than some gamers without sight might like. Thankfully, after following the narrated screens through, you'll eventually be able to adjust the speed of narration and its verbosity, amongst a myriad of other elements which I won't cover here simply for the sake of brevity and because these menus themselves are accessible without assistance.
I'll clarify that throughout my time with the game, I've only seen a very small amount of non-narrated content (photo mode, elements of the car livery design tools and a telemetry overlay). This is fantastic as a result, but it also means I might not cover things as in-depth as I might with an inaccessible game as all the information needed should be available to you, the player. Should you want things clarified in updated versions of this review, please do let me know.
Why? Because in trying to get clean laps, which I understood would be the best way to progress, I could not, instead spinning off the track and getting stuck more often than not, unless I had all the assists turned up to maximum and thus denying me of any semblance of control. This was because the racing line that is, supposedly, the most efficient way to decrease lap times, is at points, right near if not slightly beyond the edge of the track, thus making it very difficult to drive cleanly unless you know the track in advance and have spent hours running it, which nobody would've done at this point.
Having the ability to customise the racing line's proximity to the edge of the track, with the caveat that it may cause you to be less efficient, could be a great way to allow people to get a feel for making clean laps and improve their driving skills, with the player being able to move the line out further and further to the default as time goes on and their confidence increases.
I also noticed a very interesting and frustrating informational difference between what the game tells you to do as opposed to what you actually have to do, in relation to one aspect of the Blind Driving Assists (BDA) features, as detailed below.
In fact, there is an oval track available, Eagle Rock Speedway in its oval layout, if you want to try free play and test things out for yourself that way. However, it must be said that during my initial time with this track, I couldn't get round any of the turns without hitting something either. Having to go out of your way to test out accessibility features, especially when the tutorial doesn't make it as easy as it could to learn on the fly, is a frustrating turn of events (if you'll pardon the pun).
Whilst trying to just get my brain wired in correctly to the game, I mostly let the assists do the work, controlling elements of the throttle and breaks whilst I watched. Having discovered the difference in what the audio was doing vs what the RG was supposed to do according to the in-game instructions, I thought I'd try my hand at steering again to see if I'd Assimilated any information subconsciously. As soon as I turned the assists back off to try and practice steering, I immediately sped off the track and was penalized for it. This unfortunate disparity between what you want to happen and what actually does makes the learning curve even steeper than it arguably should be and, for me personally, a rather frustrating roadblock, pun intended.
As a result of this, I left the assists on and decided to test their limits. It turned out that you could put your throttle down and just leave the game to essentially play itself, in meaning that for what some might consider grind-related aspects like levelling cars, you could potentially utilise this if you were that way inclined.
In the end, I ended up beating my rival's lap time by a matter of several seconds if memory serves, rather than a matter of milliseconds as might've been expected before. This certainly got me thinking that it was less of a learning curve that the game presents you with and more of a potential gulf of skill between anyone trying to drive the track with BDA on compared to the game directly steering through turns. However this was in an AI race and we don't know how the original lap was driven by the drivatar in the first place, so a large number of factors are at play here.
The sound design is also solid and impactful, though of course Forza has been the point of much discussion as to the quality of its car engine sounds for a number of years. Not being a car enthusiast, I just sat back and enjoyed the sense of speed that the various camera views provided.
Also, an interesting quirk I noticed is that when driving, your engines may sound as if they're doubled, even with the BDA race guide off entirely. This leads to the game feeling less immersive as the car does not sound as you'd expect, irrespective of view. However, this didn't seem to happen with all cars, so it may have been a bug with specific selections.
Listening more closely to it, I realised that after several races I don't think I'd heard the same line twice and, having recorded some audio description myself and heard large amounts of it over the years, I felt like something in the delivery was off too, somehow, in particular when a line used the phrase "start/finish line", with the "/" character being voiced as the word "slash".
As to why this is, I could only speculate, but with Descriptive Video Works (DVW) having set such a high bar in terms of Mortal Kombat 1 and The Last Of Us Part I, the flat delivery seen here doesn't line up with the high quality we've come to hope for from titles of this stature or even smaller projects like Stories Of Blossom or Brok The Investigator that feature versions of audio description. I'd be curious to know what happened here, but it's a shame that the end result isn't what we'd come to expect with a series as steeped in detail as Forza.
Moreover, something I haven't mentioned up to now is that there seems to be no way to read your position in the race dynamically, thus meaning that the only indication you get of your opponent's whereabouts are through overtake announcements, engine audio or impacts, during the race at least. It would be great if there were a button for this that you could assign as the game likely has all the data there to work with.
Though I still felt very much intimidated by the complexity of steering (partly because of track limits, dirty laps and the information management I was having to deal with), I decided to scale everything back. Just the throttle would be where I start, listening to the deceleration (i.e. braking) cues and acting accordingly. I was also interested to see what the game would do if I threw myself into multiplayer with assists on.
Jumping into the qualifier as part of multiplayer, I played the first half of a race with everything enabled save for braking and throttle. I then turned these into their assisted counterparts part way through the race and still managed to come 4th, so clearly I wasn't doing terribly to begin with, at least that was my thinking.
Then I decided to race a whole track with just the throttle, after taking a qualifying run around the track (qualifier laps are used to measure your position on the grid and how far up you'll start, according to the game's tutorials, with said tutorials to the best of my knowledge being unable to be viewed later if at all after their first showing).
Speeding through the qualifier, then into the race itself, I actually managed to come third, thus earning yet another achievement (which I hadn't expected). It was satisfying to know that, for those who need to play like this for whatever reason, successes can still be achieved.
However, I did have to rescue my vehicle at least twice during a much later race when the assists likely couldn't take the turns well enough, which is a real shame as up to that point they were working well. It could've been that the simulated tyres were struggling on the track, but as there is no way that I could find to accurately check those statistics as I raced, I can't say for certain.
Interestingly though, the assist system does seem to vary the lap times, thus meaning that I don't think you could get a first-place finish on assists alone in multiplayer, at least from what I've seen so far. However, as I turn things off and play more of the game, I hope that I'll one day be able to attain those dizzying heights of 3rd place out of 24, if not first with no assists being required beyond audio cues. That I feel, is a long way off at present though.
Getting 30 cars to level 50 though, as required by one of the achievements might be a very time consuming process, though given how relatively quickly levels seem to come in and how much racing you get to do in the form of practice laps and qualifiers, as well as full races and free play, it may not be as irksome as feared.
The end result was mostly disappointing, posting multiple dirty laps and segment scores of 1.0 across the board. However, I did manage to get a singular clean lap!
I still think there are a lot of adjustments I might need to make to my settings for the optimal experience, but with no easy way to contextualise any of the changes that are being made (due in part to items like the look ahead features not having a unit of measurement, just listing a scale from 1 to 100), those adjustments will certainly take longer than anticipated. That being said, I'm just glad I managed to get around the track once without penalizing myself, even if the time I posted would never beat a sighted racer... at least anyone in my friends list. At least it's a start.
However, the lack of tutorialisation of its accessibility options in context of actual gameplay which would make it easier to grasp how everything fits together and truly learn as you play, combined with its relatively grind-focused progression loop mean that I personally wouldn't recommend this to players looking to jump in and start posting great lap times immediately. This is especially true with the steep learning curve that is set in front of players which even now several days after first opening the game I am still intimidated by.
That being said, Turn10 and everyone involved have clearly put a lot of time and effort into what is present and I look forward to seeing what's in store in future patches and instalments of the series. After all, what we have here is, definitively, a racing title that gamers without sight can participate in, setting a bar to reach for and surpass for any other developer in the games industry who might be working on a vehicle-based competitive title. Accessibility is pushed forward by innovation, much like the world of racing. In this instance, it's clear to see that though there may be flaws, there's a solid experience underneath for those who are passionate about the genre in Forza Motorsport.
Though the unfamiliarity as to how everything works, settings etc is definitely intimidating, it does ease somewhat with time, though the racing line being too close to the edge of the track isn't just an issue for me, but for other players as well (who have expressed they'd like an option to alter it for greater ease of practicing).
Whilst the inability to watch replays with the BDA features enabled, as well as lack of announcements as to what lap you're on in the race or ability to retrieve information on how you're doing at any time are definitely issues worth noting, I still believe the biggest blocker to the game being the very enjoyable progression sink that it could be is the current system of having to drive individual cars to level them. Whilst this does mean that you'll have people driving for hours at a time trying to level a single car, theoretically making player retention last longer than usual, I personally question just how fun this will make the game in the short and longer term. After all, I'd like to be able to, for instance, level up a manufacturer rather than a single car at a time, with each car's progression filtering through to allow for either singular progression of the manufacturer level, or even better a multiplicative progression that could make later levels feel like less of a grind than earlier ones.
Discounting the levelling side of things for the moment, I feel like the most fun I've had in this game has been when on the track with people I know well and have gamed with for years, yelling out lap times to each other as we have no way of seeing the other player's progression around the track, laughing when we collide with each other or discussing how we're getting on with the race in general. Sometimes even driving a car that turns out to be ridiculously hard to work with can be the most hilarious moment of gameplay because none of us are expecting what happens. All that is to say, I feel that to coin a phrase, "Forza with friends" is the best way to experience this game, learning together, figuring out strategies and hitting record lap times, all because the others in your race are, without a better way to put it, pushing you to your positive, if at times slightly aggressive, racing limits.
I don't doubt that as time goes on I'll get better at the game, but I also don't doubt that the work done here will allow spectacle racers like Horizon to become accessible. As someone who doesn't consider themselves as a member of the "car community", as well as enjoying setpieces like racing a plane more than just a standard track race, I look forward to the day when a diverse range of racing games is playable without sighted assistance. Forza Motorsport is the starting line, let's keep those accessibility engines revving.
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