(Pocket-lint) - Microsoft's flagship driving franchise, Forza Motorsport, has always had to perform a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, it's a big-budget production that boasts some of the most desirable cars ever made and most of the world's top tracks, so it's desperate to be taken seriously by the hardcore virtual-racing fraternity.
But on the other hand, it needs to sell in huge quantities, so it can't run the risk of alienating those who take a more casual approach towards driving games. Forza Motorsport 7 does a pretty good job of catering for those who don't often buy driving games, but more hardcore motorsports devotees will be left feeling that it has a lot more style than substance.
Forza 7 review: A visual feast
Forza Motorsport 7 has plenty of commendable elements. It looks fantastic, with incredibly detailed, glossy cars and great virtual reconstructions of many of the world's greatest circuits. Its roster of those virtual cars includes a large chunk of the most desirable machinery ever made. And in the modern idiom, it isn't just a driving game – it has elements which bring collecting and trading cards to the fore, which seem to be becoming increasingly obligatory in games these days.
But there's a problem for those who follow the real world of motorsports closely: the actual driving soon betrays its arcade-style roots, which becomes more glaringly obvious when you have fine (and surprisingly accessible) sim-racers like Project Cars 2 with which to compare.
Forza 7 starts promisingly enough. Once you've finished ogling the graphics, you're plunged into a brief flurry of one-off races (presumably to determine the level of your driving ability), before pursuing a single-player career in the Forza Driver's Cup.
The game explains that it values adaptability - that is, the willingness to drive a wildly diverse set of machinery, including the likes of racing trucks and ATVs - as much as skill.
The Forza Driver's Cup is pretty meaty and heavyweight, with six tiers. To progress through each one, you must amass sufficient Series Points in each tier by taking on racing series and winning races.
Forza 7 review: Mod fest
Before you get started, you're introduced to the concept of Mods. Before each race, you can equip three. These are essentially added challenges, such as racing at night, performing a set number of overtakes rated as "good" or "perfect" by the game, or finishing in first by 200m ahead of the next car.
Mods are acquired in the form of collectible cards from loot-crates which you buy with in-game currency. There are various types of loot-crates which also yield cars and ephemera, like driver overalls. Some Mods are single-use, while others give you three uses before expiring.
On top of the Series Points progression, which moves you through the Forza Driver's Cup, you also level-up as a driver (rewarded with a choice between a car, in-game-currency or a new driver outfit at each milestone) and as a car collector. Each car you buy brings a certain number of points and, as your car-collection grows, you hit new tiers which unlock increasingly rare and exotic machinery.
Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before you develop the suspicion that Forza 7's priorities are skewed too far towards the loot-crate and car-collecting elements. While each tier of the Forza Driver's Cup lets you choose from a number of race series and short invitational events, they still manage to feel like they are making you grind. It's all too easy to embark on a race series full of optimism, only to discover it's not your bag.
Forza 7 review: Car handling
That's because the handling is somewhat variable, so driving some cars feels like a chore.
Strangely, the driving view you choose influences that problem enormously. The arcade-style behind-car view, in particular, renders all cars built before the 1980s pretty much undriveable. The bonnet-cam and spoiler-cam aren't great either. Indeed, Forza 7 cries out for a roof-cam. At least there are two cockpit views, one of which moves you a few inches closer to the front window, so less of your field of view is taken up by in-car clutter (this is the view we feel necessary in order to prosper).
While the cars never feel as if they are floating above the tarmac (as they did in some previous Forza iterations), neither do they feel hugely alive and involving. Forza Motorsport 7 simply doesn't give you the driving feel and constantly changing feedback delivered by the likes of Project Cars 2.
In Forza 7 there's no sense, for example, of different circuits having different levels of grip - they all feel a bit on the slippery side. And while the cars' handling feels broadly plausible, in that rear-drive beasts are tail-happy and so on, it also lacks subtlety and nuance. Feel-wise, Forza 7 is firmly in arcade-style territory.
Some cars in the game handle more plausibly than others. Nascar beasts are great to drive and sound fabulous. But there's no way that, in real life, Formula E cars could possibly be that lacking in grip and prone to snap-oversteer. ATVs are slow and more or less uncontrollable, while racing trucks are grippy and fun. The more modern machinery, like GT cars which actually do possess some grip, seem to have much more attention lavished on their handling models.
Forza 7 review: Re-re-wind
The racing itself is determinedly arcade-style. Starts are crucial – you can usually bomb past loads of cars before braking later than anyone else into the first corner, and using any car sitting on an outside line as an additional form of braking if needs be.
Egregious mistakes can be eliminated through a rewind button, for which many people will be grateful.
But you soon discover that Forza 7 doesn't just encourage but positively demands that you use techniques which would lead to disastrous destabilisation in real-life racing, such as holding the throttle down full while applying the brake mid-corner. You're never punished for barging other cars out of the way like a maniac.
At least Forza 7 works hard to flatter whatever level of driving skill you might or might not possess. After a few hours of routinely winning every race, the game did at least suggest that we up the AI difficulty (like its predecessors and recent Forza Horizon games, it employs Drivatars, allegedly based on your mates' level of driving skill), and proceedings became more challenging.
Damage is turned to cosmetic-only by default, and there is a host of driver aids, include braking and steering assistance, ABS and stability control (the last of which left us unassailable in the wet).
You can upgrade cars in a similar manner to the Gran Turismo games, component by component, but we rarely felt inclined to do so, since once you've finished one racing series, it's time to move to a different car.
As with previous Forza games, you can't sell any of your cars.
Forza 7 review: Right on track
Track-wise, Forza 7 is pretty solid. Its selection is skewed understandably towards North America, with classic circuits like Laguna Seca, Daytona, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen, plus a host of more obscure ones.
There is a smattering of road circuits – some of which, like a Prague street-circuit, are very good indeed. And European icons like Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Monza and the Nurburgring are present and very correct.
Online, Forza 7 works in a very solid manner too. You can opt to hire (rather than buy) cars to race online, but you won't generate any XP in a hired car. As with the single-player game, first-lap pile-ups with cars four or five abreast going round tight corners seems like an inevitability, particularly since 24 cars tend to be on track at a time.
What you seek from a driving game will entirely determine whether or not you should buy Forza Motorsport 7. It's a divisive one.
If you want something that looks spectacular and lets you look good while bombing around in millions of pounds-worth of virtual machinery, but aren't worried about learning techniques that would stand you in good stead for real-life racing, then it's the game for you. If you absolutely demand the presence of loot crates, trading cards and things to collect in a game, you'll love it.
But if you take your driving with any degree of seriousness, don't be seduced by the graphics. Forza Motorsport 7 is very much an arcade-style racing game. Dedicated petrol-heads will feel it has far more style than substance.