Originally intended to be one of the many incentives for users with powerful PC’s to upgrade from their trusty copy of Windows 7 into an unknown world of Cortana and the Microsoft App Store, Forza Motorsport Apex felt like a slap in the face to all hardcore sim racers. Many of us had been secretly wishing that the flagship Xbox racing franchise would make it’s way onto home computers, providing us with a drastic change of pace from the all-too-familiar smorgasbord simulators by letting us dive into a mammoth career mode and robust online world, but we were instead given a bare-bones teaser of a driving game that included none of the bells and whistles that Forza Motorsport has become known for over the past decade. There was talk of controller support being woefully inadequate, a handful of DLC packs quietly arriving to split the title into free and premium versions, and after Forza Horizon 3 arrived on the scene – warts and all – the majority of sim racers completely forgot Apex existed. It was the awkward bastard child quickly pushed aside once people figured out it didn’t quite belong.
Yet knowing that Forza Motorsport 7 is in the closing stages of development, most likely intended for a fall 2017 release, now’s probably the perfect time to evaluate Forza Motorsport Lite, and determine whether it’s worth getting excited for the full enchilada of Microsoft’s car collecting simulator.
And to my surprise, Apex isn’t the disaster I once assumed it to be, but a surprisingly competent budget racer that offers a bit more than its Italian indie counterpart. As a stand-alone game, there’s an impressive amount of value in the package, and as a preview for something much larger in the pipeline, I’ve gone from being apathetic towards Forza Motorsport 7, to being a bit optimistic. There’s not much Turn 10 need to fix between now and November.
Assetto Corsa fans will kick and scream at my willingness to compare Apex to the Indie racing simulator from Kunos Simulazioni, but truth be told, when it comes down to raw features, both games are on relatively equal footing, and it’s kind of hilarious when you pull both apart and realize just how similar they happen to be.
Just under 80 vehicles have been snipped from Forza Motorsport 6 and placed into Apex, though some are locked away for you to earn through completing the rudimentary campaign tour, which shouldn’t take spirited sim racers more than sixty minutes to breeze through. The cars are a pretty good mix of what the big Forza has to offer, stretching from shitty hatchbacks and mid-range sedans through supercars and hypercars to GTE and Prototype entries, but the selection remains exclusively populated by tin-tops, as the open wheel stuff is nowhere to be found. Like Assetto Corsa, there’s a very good mix of brands, as well as multiple cars in each class for variety’s sake, though Porsche is absent for obvious reasons.
Compared to the full offerings seen on the Xbox One, there’s not much of a career mode here; only a string of themed races (above) akin to Assetto Corsa’s own Special Events, though a basic medallion system allows you to feel some sense of progression as medals are awarded based on your level of difficulty, points earned per event, and the number of assists you disable. You’ll be visiting the same five locations over and over again – Rio, Brands Hatch, Spa, Sebring, and Abu Dhabi – but there are enough alternate layouts between the five environments to see something new each race, and the tracks are all relatively enjoyable in their own right, to keep things fresh. Provided you purchased the $20 premium edition of Apex, you’ll also be granted access to a solid yet non-laser scanned version of the Nordschleife, as well as the significantly less popular Grand Prix circuit. We’re spoiled with laser scanned renditions of the iconic German countryside across multiple games, but what appears in Forza isn’t a noticeable downgrade by any means, and the increase in visual fidelity makes up for it’s lack of authenticity that trained eyes will undoubtedly spot.
The real kicker here is that even if you omit the premium content – which adds fourteen cars and the Nordschleife to Apex – on paper, Turn 10 were able to give away a game for free that Kunos Simulazioni charge anywhere from $30 to $60 for. Like the console versions of Assetto Corsa, there’s not a whole lot to do in Apex aside from jump into a few themed races, partake in your own custom race against a field of AI bots, or slug it out on leaderboards, so in my opinion the existence of Apex as a free game on the Windows 10 app store justifies the overwhelming array of complaints talking about a half-finished PS4 game as seen on the Assetto Corsa Facebook page. Turn 10 felt Apex is such a barebones product they gave people the option of paying for it, whereas Kunos took largely the same experience and put a hefty price tag on it.
For those reasons alone, I have to give credit where credit is due; Apex is an insanely good deal, offering the same general package as Assetto Corsa, for exponentially less. I can’t say I felt ripped off paying $20 for it, as I’ve spent significantly more on Assetto Corsa for largely the same type of driving game. You know going into it that Apex is an elaborate tech demo, whereas overzealous fanboys try to convince you that Assetto Corsa is this underappreciated masterpiece, so on that front Apex impressed me with just how much shit you got for opening the Windows Store and clicking a download button legally.
It was a bitch to configure, and clearly designed with pad users in mind, no doubt about it. There’s no wheel rotation option, no field of view slider, no seat adjustment configuration – forcing you to deal with a cockpit view that wastes most of the screen on drawing insignificant interior details – and hefty deadzones are built into your controller configurations, so you’ll probably want to take a look at those in the appropriate options menu before you even think of turning a lap with a steering wheel. On my Logitech G29, the pause button was mapped to R2 by default, race music was set to on, and as I launched the game for the first time, it gave me a horrendous automatically generated Xbox Live Gamertag that I had to spend a couple of minutes figuring out how to change.
Force Feedback was initially far too strong, and I think I dropped the two main sliders down from 100 to 25 and 40, respectively. Menu design has placed creativity over functionality, so I found myself snooping around much more than I should have needed just to set everything up. Though Forza has always been advertised as a hardcore simulator – and this is echoed in Apex’s voiceover a few minutes into the campaign – Turn 10 assume everybody purchasing Forza is a complete idiot and have basically designed every default preset with the Call of Duty crowd in mind.
Thankfully, you only have to do it once, and upon completion of your scavenger hunt, there’s a satisfactory driving model that awaits.
It honestly drove like complete dog shit out of the box; the vehicles feeling ridiculously heavy compared to other simulators, while skidding around far too frequently unless you were willing to tip-toe into corner entry. This too, turned out to be another scavenger hunt; Forza’s default vehicle setups fill your tires to 30 PSI (or 2.1 bar) regardless of the toy you’ve taken to the track, which is utterly preposterous for race cars and slightly retarded for the numerous passenger cars on the vehicle roster. Dropping pressures to 21 PSI (or 1.5 bar) warranted an instant night-and-day change to the driving experience, meaning not only do tire pressure changes have an enormous effect on vehicle characteristics like they should (so kudos to Turn 10 on that front), but now that I could finally turn laps in something that felt like a proper simulator, it unlocked the actual potential of this engine.
I’m not going to sit here and proclaim Apex is some hidden gem among a sea of mass market simcade titles and that everybody needs to give the franchise a second chance, but it feels very similar to Assetto Corsa; as if the entire game is one third party mod, designed by the same payware team. Considering Forza Motorsport 7 will probably ship with something like 650+ cars and multiple massive campaign modes both online and off, that’s not exactly a bad thing. Though weight transfer is a bit more unforgiving if you get your lines or braking points wrong, the tire model feels almost exactly the same, and there was a strange sense of familiarity when lapping the Nordschleife in one of the quicker street legal rides.
The rumors about all cars in Forza Motorsport feeling roughly the same are one hundred percent false. The 70’s muscle cars you’re thrown in at the start of the game are big, floaty, understeering boats. A race or two later, the hatchbacks are light and nimble, though their short wheelbase allows you to get crossed up a lot easier. Supercars and hypercars feel the most refined and honestly drive very close to their counterparts in Assetto Corsa, whereas the purpose built race cars and prototypes available at the end of the campaign are stiff and vague, but allow you to power out of corners and bang through the gears like nothing.
It wasn’t an enlightening experience like the first time we all tried Assetto Corsa, but many instances throughout my playthrough of Apex I struggled to see why an abundance of hardcore sim racers had written this franchise off. With each passing class, I found myself thinking “yep, I would enjoy racing these in a lighthearted online league”, because their dynamics seemed both reasonable from a driving standpoint, and in line with what I’d come to expect from other simulators. With Forza being about more than just the driving, but also packing modes on top of modes on top of features into this all-encompassing car culture game, it’s an acceptable set of physics.
The competent driving model is complimented by what’s easily the best artificial intelligence in a modern racing simulator, meaning you can actually get some satisfaction out of offline races. While the Xbox One rendition of Forza Motorsport 6 is a complete shitfest thanks to using the drivatars of random plebs who swap Bugatti engines into stuff that shouldn’t hit 200 mph and promptly crash into every wall within the immediate vicinity, Apex appears to have been carefully crafted so as to not include these types of AI cars, as the on-track experience is miles ahead of anything else on the market today.
You can actually race and have battles with the AI cars that resemble what you’d see in a moderately composed online lobby – as they attack, defend, make mistakes, and most importantly, they’re aware of your presence. Compared to other simulators, where the AI are blissfully ignorant of your existence, and follow each other in a uniform line as if they’re on rails, Forza’s AI is a fantastic change of pace – and they’re also bloody quick. I find myself hovering between the Pro and Unbeatable settings depending on how comfortable I am with the car I’ve selected, with the latter producing phenomenal offline races that lead to epic battles among the top five drivers. If NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is the gold standard of oval racing AI, Forza’s has set the bar pretty damn high when it comes to road racing.
At the midway point of the game’s campaign, you’re treated to a one-on-one battle at the Top Gear Test Track against none other than The Stig, and it really highlights how great Apex can be when firing on all cylinders; once you come to grips with just how insanely powerful the Koenigsegg Agera is with all assists turned off, the lone AI combatant puts up a hell of a dogfight. I was genuinely impressed, though I wonder if it’s because Forza’s AI is that good, or the AI in modern racing simulators is that bad.
The icing on the cake comes with the game’s superb car-to-car contact physics, which allow you to beat, bang, and trade paint with other opponents in a manner that doesn’t threaten to break the game. Unlike isiMotor simulators, contact is not an unpredictable, awkward death sentence that shifts your car around in an extremely unnatural manner; you can fuck with the AI cars and be a bit of a cunt to them, and it all feels like something you have complete control over.
Wet weather driving is where the game falters, however, as the AI cars can shoot through massive puddles without detriment to their performance, whereas the player car will be instantly shot sideways if you do so much as breathe upon them. In an online environment I could see driving in the rain being a lot of fun, as it certainly doesn’t feel like a simple reduction in grip to simulate a wet road, but watching the AI shoot through puddles while you cautiously swerve around them is a bit demoralizing, and it’s something I hope gets fixed in time for Forza 7. Occasionally the AI do maneuver around the puddles when running in isolation, but during the opening lap when racing in a pack, it’s clear there’s some bullshit operating under the hood that allows them to rampage through hydroplane situations that would otherwise cripple the player.
There’s not much left to talk about, because there’s not much that makes up Apex. Like Assetto Corsa, you’re handed a bunch of cars, about ten unique track layouts you’d actually want to drive on, and some themed races to vaguely tie it all together if you’re not creative enough to make use of a custom event screen. The main difference is that you’re not forced to pay for Turn 10’s creation unless you really want the Nordschleife and a couple extra GT cars, where Assetto Corsa offers basically the exact same experience for a significantly higher sum. As I’ve mentioned above, that speaks volumes about Assetto Corsa; other developers don’t charge a dime for a Chris Harris simulator.
But intentionally provoking comments aside, Apex has made me optimistic about immersing myself into Forza Motorsport 7, whenever it comes out. It’s a pain in the ass to unfuck all of the dumb presets Turn 10 have built into the game by default, but once you embark on a literal scavenger hunt for every last piece of the puzzle to unlock the potential of the engine, you’re treated to a simulator that doesn’t deserve a lot of the flak it receives from the hardcore sim community. It drives more or less like Assetto Corsa, and unlike the current array of simulators, is able to offer a competent and compelling field of AI cars to race against – which is something countless developers in our genre have struggled to nail over the last decade.
Knowing this kind of satisfactory experience will be complimented with a massive car collecting meta-game, online leagues, multiple campaign modes, player profile progression, in-game livery editor, and a massive tree of upgrades, is extremely exciting. At this point, I’m more or less convinced that the general animosity from PC sim racers towards the Forza franchise is just a mass display of their insecurities; either jealous that they can’t obtain a PC powerful enough to run a Forza title, or using their time spent on obscure simulators as a “status symbol” for message board dick-waving.
Provided Turn 10 can implement both cross-platform play, as well as cockpit viewpoint adjustments into Forza Motorsport 7, this might be a racing game we’ll all have a hard time putting down. The base they’ve laid is pretty impressive, you just have to dig to discover it.