Image courtesy of Xbox Wire Media Library; news.xbox.com/media/?sm=forza+horizon
For all of the harrowing events of 2016, the automotive world’s slow but sure extension into mainstream popular culture is one aspect of the year I will look back fondly on. Like many millions of people, I was horrified when the BBC announced Jeremy Clarkson’s firing from Top Gear because it essentially meant that the beacon of hope for car lovers in the entertainment world was in jeopardy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: thank God for Amazon, because The Grand Tour will be everything Top Gear was with more money and the boys are finally back on our screens.
The very site you’re reading this article on shows that investors are confident in the automotive world’s expansion. Jeremy, Richard and James, along with Drivetribe’s CEO Ernesto Schmitt, have brought about a dedicated place for the internet’s massive automotive community to gather. That’s really important; an enthusiast community needs a dedicated place to meet up in today’s digital world.
Even though the former Top Gear and current Grand Tour teams command a legion of worldwide fans in the millions (both on social media and in viewership numbers), one of the most important and oft-overlooked growth areas of the automotive community is a category usually taken far less seriously: video games, and specifically Microsoft’s Xbox brand.
One of the foremost childhood memories I have is the Christmas Morning on which I received an Xbox – the original Xbox – from the big jolly man himself. Upon realizing that it really was happening and that the gaming console was already hooked up to the television, my maybe-7-year-old-self exclaimed “Wow, this guy is unbelievable!”
While I may have aged since that Christmas, my enthusiasm for all things automotive has only intensified. Like any adolescent boy, I used to really love video games. The library of titles I had for my Xbox 360 was diverse and ever expanding, but the overwhelming genre was always open world racing games. The Test Drive Unlimited series absolutely rocked my world, providing the first true open-world lifestyle car game. Players were able to choose their own avatar and build their reputation in a digital Hawaii, earning obnoxious sums of money in races that could be used to purchase cars, houses, clothes and, in the second iteration of the series, even yachts. The game wasn’t big on the reality aspect when it came to the actual physics of driving, but it provided years of replay value; for anyone who is even vaguely familiar with gaming, that’s almost unheard of. Around 2012 however, the big name on Xbox in racing, Forza Motorsport, announced a long-speculated open world series called Forza Horizon.
The Horizon series brought the realistic driving, unbeatable graphics and stronger corporate relations of Microsoft to the open world, free-roaming nature of Test Drive Unlimited. It was truly something to marvel at, and the original Forza Horizon pushed the lexicon of the Xbox 360’s power to a place I didn’t think it could go. Not to be outdone by anyone but themselves, the teams at Microsoft, Turn 10 Studios and Playground Games made sure that Forza Horizon 2, the series’ first title on Microsoft’s current flagship Xbox One console, left players’ mouths agape. The beauty of this game on a quality high definition television truly has to be seen to be believed. I genuinely felt as if I was sitting in a six-figure price-tagged Range Rover Supercharged wafting along a coastal Italian road. The bar was once again raised.
Fast forward to the present day, and the Forza team is hot off the launch of Forza Horizon 3. For this iteration, they took the Horizon festival and not only planted it in an utterly stunning rendition of Australia, but gave creative control of how the game plays out to the individual user. Also born out of the Horizon 2 era and even more present in the Horizon 3 era is the Forza Hub, Forza’s dedicated community for players to share their best in-game photos, receive rewards for certain achievements and so on. The game has received almost universal acclaim from pretty much everyone, and I read in multiple different places that reviewers feel Horizon 3 might very well be the best all-around racing game ever, period. You won’t hear me disagree.
Horizon 3 isn’t perfect. I don’t like driving on the wrong side of the road even though the game takes place in a right-hand-drive country, so I’ll make like a whiny millennial and complain about it anyway. There’s also a few bizarre glitches, such as Ford’s 2017 F-150 Raptor sounding like a 1940’s muscle car despite the fact that it utilizes the Blue Oval’s utterly brilliant twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 from the company’s 2017 GT supercar. There are also infinite amounts of “Drivatars” (the series’ name for AI vehicles that populate the virtual world and drive around with you that are actually aggregate representations of other players’ real statistics) that seem to love driving head-on right into you. A handful of vehicles’ interior lights don’t turn on save for the gauges when the environment moves into nighttime.
And, you know what? None of that matters. The overall effect of the game for car enthusiasts is that of pure joy, and even non-car enthusiasts consistently enjoy it whenever they stop by my house and see me playing. Plenty of friends who don’t even know what kind of car they themselves drive love having a go in a McLaren P1 on a blast through the rainforest.
That to me is the best thing that the Forza games and brand have done for the automotive community. It has taken so much passion and paired it down into a useable, beautiful, enjoyable form of consumption that anyone would enjoy. Anyone. And that’s what’s important; it’s extraordinarily difficult for car enthusiasts to express why we love cars so much. The Forza series is a virtual escape from all things real to that world of passion we all love dearly, yet can’t really explain out loud. The men and women who work tirelessly in automotive research and testing do it because the finished product is an example of science and art in concert, just like the Forza games are. The effort on the part of Forza’s designers and programmers is nothing short of witchcraft, and the general public would likely be shocked to know that they spend about as much time engineering the game to work properly as automotive engineers, designers and marketers do on the real vehicles.
I’m lucky enough to have the privilege of working at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research, and I walk around grinning like an idiot whenever I’m there even though I couldn’t begin to understand the actual research taking place – it’s that amazing. With the success of the Forza series, the wild popularity of shows like Top Gear and The Grand Tour and the launch of enthusiast hubs like Drivetribe, I hope that the community beyond car enthusiasts begin to really see cars for what they are: anything but an appliance. Cars, the video games that feature them, the enormously talented individuals who research, engineer, market and sell them, and the journalists that tell their story all make up a beautiful world. Dive deeper and I promise you won’t be anything but delighted.
The Forza series is widely available for purchase; my recommendation is to purchase Forza Horizon 3 Ultimate Edition from Microsoft’s Xbox Store for $99; it includes all future car packs, VIP status and so on. Worth every penny.
To learn more about what really goes into the world’s most advanced vehicles and video games like Forza, be sure to watch APEX: Story of the Hypercar on Netflix.