Roughly 18 months ago, in March 2022, Gran Turismo 7 was released on PlayStation 5. As PlayStation’s premiere 1st party sim racing series, I was pretty disappointed with the game’s overall level of accessibility support for disabled players, which fell considerably below the standards set by other 1st party PlayStation releases during the console generation. It felt like, to a certain degree, the game’s genre was used as an excuse not to make an effort to make the title accessible or approachable.
Sim racers are fiddly and technical, and so it’s not a genre that “needs” to prioritise accessibility in its design.
This past week I’ve been playing through the new Forza Motorsport (2023) for review, and I’m happy to report that, by comparison, my experience could not have been more starkly different from an accessibility perspective. Forza Motorsport seems to have looked at the technically focused Sim Racing genre long and hard, and considered how to make it approachable and accessible in a way that feels very at home with the genre’s overall design tendencies. There’s an almost overwhelming number of ways to customise your experience with the game, and that can at times be a little overwhelming, but it’s all in service of offering as many tools as possible to the player, and reducing the ways in which the racing sim genre itself is standing in the way of play.
Forza Motorsport isn’t perfect, there are some accessibility concerns I have and additions I’d love to see down the line, but it has gone a very long way toward proving that technical racing sims don’t have to be an inaccessible genre for disabled gamers, and that improved accessibility doesn’t have to mean watering down the genre’s top end complexity.
On first boot up, Forza Motorsport (2023) offers players an initial setup menu, allowing for some simple game configuration using on / off toggles. This initial menu, which features screen reader text narration as default, allows for toggling the screen reader, an optimised narration toggle to reduce the verbosity of narration (basically, how often does it read semantic elements versus simple text), a blind driving assist toggle which turns on a series of default options for blind players, a low vision toggle which turns on Audio Descriptions and increases the size and contrast for text and UI elements, subtitles which default to on, an option for text to speech and speech to text during communication with other players, and Heavy Driving Assists, which is interestingly defaulted to on and offers steering and breaking assists designed for players who are not confident with technical sim racers such as previous Forza Motorsport games.
This initial setup window may not go toe to toe with the support seen in something like God of War: Ragnarok, with its degrees of preset strength for different disability categories, but it is clean and simple, and focuses on basic yes or no questions to get a player most of the way set up quickly. It’s efficient and elegant, and a really clever example of how a few quick toggles can get a player’s accessibility experience set up unobtrusively. I appreciate that every option is explained in more detail, both here and in the wider settings menu, to provide context to the player.
In particular, the choice to have Heavy Driving Assists on as default I think does a lot of good in terms of not stigmatising gameplay assists, and presenting them as something normal that many players will need, and probably should be using, rather than something that a player should only use in a worst case scenario.
From there, before the game begins, players can go into the full settings menu, in order to further tweak settings from these preset toggles, and others not included in these quick setup presets.
In the Driving Assists menu, which in practice for me acted as a motor control accessibility menu, players can alter settings for suggested driving line support, throttle and braking assists, steering assists, traction and stability control, whether the player needs to manually shift gears, and how the game presents the legal edges of the track.
The next menu is the accessibility menu, in which players can set colourblind filters, increase UI contrast, turn off moving menu backgrounds, increase HUD contrast, and change the size of HUD and Menu text. In terms of visual options, there is no support for High Contrast mode visuals, an accessibility feature that’s still largely the domain of PlayStation 1st party releases that I’m consistently surprised hasn’t made its way into games from a wider range of developers.
Subtitles can be increased in size and background opacity, and screen narrator users can customise the voice and volume of the screen narrator. The screen narrator voice can also have its speed and pitch altered, as well as various customisation options for which information is read versus which is ignored.
I do want to take some time here to talk about Forza Motorsport’s inclusion and execution of Audio Descriptions. It is really nice to see a first party Xbox studio make the leap to supporting audio descriptions in game, and their integration into cutscenes is really impressive. Cutscenes seem to be paced with deliberate gaps in dialogue to leave space for audio descriptions to fit in, and the degree of description they provide seems decently detailed without getting overly wordy or breaking up pace.
Audio Descriptions do exist throughout the game, but their presence outside of cutscenes is a little bit more mixed. They’re not present at all moments of the game, and sometimes jump the gun a little on what they describe. As a sighted player, there were moments where the game would, before a practice, race describe a setting as players preparing to race under a clear night sky full of stars, despite it being sunset. It turned out that that description was for the appearance of the track not during the practice laps, but during the race itself, which I would reach ten minutes later. It also feels like there could have been more visual description provided of the setting for each racetrack, and what the environment surrounding it looks like in the pre-race camera pans.
Still, audio descriptions are present, and are a really nice addition to the game in the context of the series pushing to be more accessible to blind players.
This brings us onto Blind Driving Assists, a section of the accessibility settings menu not designed for me, that I’m not best positioned to review. While I will talk about the settings that are available, and my experiences with them as a sighted gamer, I would really recommend checking out reviews today from blind gamers, as I know a lot of work from consultants including Brandon Cole has gone into this aspect of the game. I know SightlessKombat has a review copy of the game, and I believe Steve Saylor does also. I’ll link to their coverage in the comments below and on social media once this review is live.
So, Forza Motorsport (2023) features a section of the accessibility settings menu called Blind Driving Assists, designed to make this technical racing sim more accessible to partially sighted and sightless blind players.
Blind Driving Assist is not a single settings option, but instead a series of different assists offered in combination. These include turning off car to car collisions, a steering guide to pan engine audio and tire audio toward the suggested racing line, turn navigation (which reads upcoming turns as instructions for direction and angle intensity), turn cues (which play short audio pings as you approach, enter, and exit a turn), AI takeover cues (to let you know when the game is stepping in to help you race), a cue for when you need to decelerate to meet the recommended speed for an upcoming turn which gets faster the more strongly you need to break, a cue which gets louder and more intense as you approach the outside edges of the track, cues for when you need to shift up or down gear, and a wrong way audio cue.
If that list sounds a bit overwhelming, that’s because it honestly is a little initially. If you turn all of those audio cues on at once, rather than one at a time, with the rest of your game audio on full volume, it’s going to be a cacophony of alarms going off at you without much context for what they mean. It’s a bit intense if taken in all as one collective set of cues, but that can be worked through.
With a good pair of headphones on, and non-accessibility audio turned down by maybe 25%, introducing a few cues at a time to take in what each means and to recognise each in the wider audio mix, there’s a really nice degree of customisation available here I was really impressed by.
These settings are not designed for me, but there’s several I have been using during my review playthrough. I struggle with checking my minimap in the middle of a hectic race, so having upcoming turns read out to me makes that information easier for me to track. The audio cue that tells me when I’ve hit the track edge is really useful for knowing exactly when I risk a penalty. The shift up and down gear cues are going to be really useful if I ever take my car off automatic.
Blind Driving Assists in Forza Motorsport are implemented in a way that is very much in line with genre expectations for technical racing sims. There are huge numbers of things to customise, and if you’re unsure what to do and you decide to whack everything to full settings you’re going to have an intimidating time. It feels like there could have been some additional work done to onboard players into these blind driving assists, perhaps a custom tutorial that teaches each audio cue in isolation. From the outside, it seems like it’s going to be able to fit into a lot of different people’s use cases, if they’re not scared off by that steep onboarding experience.
Again, I am not the right person to review these aspects of Forza Motorsport. I’m incredibly glad to see these settings present, and I find several of them useful, but they’re not for me. I’m incredibly excited about what these settings are aiming to achieve for players, and I’m pretty optimistic that this could open up technical racing sims to more blind gamers. Go check out reviews of the game by blind gamers including SightlessKombat and Steve Saylor, as I know I’m going to do the same once this review embargo lifts.
Speeding through the rest of the settings menu: Gameplay and HUD lets you customise how game information is presented to the player, Audio allows the player to change audio volumes with sliders, and lastly there’s three different menus for control remapping and customisation.
So, with the settings deep dive out of the way, I want to finally dig into my experience playing Forza Motorsport (2023) as a gamer who knows very little about technical car information, and struggles with accurate and repeatable fine motor control coordination.
I started playing with full driving assist on, and ultimately found that a very good starting point to tweak my experience from. By letting the game provide assistance on breaking, and showing me a driving line recommendation, I was more able to focus on enjoying each race.
Once you get through the game’s tutorial and select your first car, you can select difficulty, which is handled in a couple of different ways in Forza Motorsport. The first difficulty option is Drivatar Difficulty, which allows you to customise the skill level of enemy drivers, and determine how well they will race against you on any given track. The second difficulty option is Ruleset, which is about how well you are expected to drive before the game will penalise you, which works really well in conjunction with Drivatar Difficulty.
I personally enjoyed playing with Club Rules, in which damage is cosmetic only, penalties during driving are limited, and the rewind feature from Forza Horizon is available. Rewind is also present in Sports Rules mode, which adds higher penalties and simulated fuel and tire meters. Expert rules simulates full damage, turns off rewind, and turns on full penalties.
In Club Rules, I don’t have to worry about collisions with other cars causing me to break my car mid race, and going off the track accidently only penalises me if I overtake another racer while off track. With rewind functionality available, I can get around the fact that my coordination is inconsistent, allowing me to turn back time a few seconds and try again if I screw up a simple turn right at the end of a race and spin out wildly, giving it another try rather than wasting my entire race time due to one moment of poor hand movement. I’m less likely to be punished for simple mistakes that don’t impact race results, and more able to correct errors before they become major.
Rewind is almost always available, with the notable exception that during practice laps you have to get over the track start line and through the first corner before it activates.
Additionally, if you get a penalty time added during a race, such as if you accidentally go off track during an overtake, rewind can’t undo that penalty. Even if you rewind to before the inciting incident, you can’t get the penalty removed, which is something I was initially a bit disappointed by. It’s manageable, you can rewind before the penalty gets applied if you notice you’ve gone off track at a bad time, but once its applied you can’t undo your error and get back to a fresh slate without restarting the race.
Beyond that, difficulty can also be tweaked further by altering your starting position. The game will give you a preview of what position it expects you to achieve in a race, based on your practice lap times and difficulty, and allows you to choose to move yourself forward or back in the starting order to increase or decrease rewards and your chances at winning, further providing flexibility of challenge.
Lastly, in terms of assist features I personally appreciated, in between races you have the option to purchase new parts for your car, but the game also features a Quick Upgrade menu option for players like myself who get overwhelmed by car upgrade lists. Quick Upgrade tries to keep your car’s stats balanced, while purchasing you the upgrades that you can afford that will make the biggest difference to your cars stats. It’s a really approachable way to let me engage with car improvement, without needing to wade through a daunting list of wheels and transmissions.
While I think that Forza Motorsport’s driving assists and gameplay difficulty options make a huge difference to the game’s level of accessibility for me, the game isn’t without its issues.
Firstly, and this is something I was mainly just surprised by, Forza Motorsport doesn’t feature the American and British Sign Language interpreters seen in Forza Horizon 5. Maybe the game’s developer has some internal data that shows a limited number of people made use of the feature and they decided not to bring it back, but that’s speculation on my part. It was a really cool addition to Forza Horizon 5, and I really expected to see it become a series staple. It’s somewhat of a shame that it hasn’t returned here, and it would be great to see some transparency on what happened to prevent its inclusion.
Additionally, and this is a big picture thought, I really don’t like that Xbox 1st Party games are in the middle of moving to a “pay extra to play five days early” release model. It happened with Forza Horizon 5, then with Starfield in September (2023), and now Forza Motorsport in October.
I made a video about this topic a few weeks ago, which I’ll link down in the video description for those wanting more information, but the short version is that it’s disingenuous to advertise Forza Motorsport as available “Day One on GamePass”, when you either need to wait five days for the GamePass version to unlock, or pay an additional fee to access it when it’s first available.
Releasing a game five days early if you’re willing to pay extra capitalises on FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, which has a disproportionate impact on gamers with disabilities which impact impulse control. It limits GamePass’s ability to act as a place for disabled gamers to try a game on launch day if they’re uncertain about it meeting their accessibility needs, without having to make a purchase they might later need to refund.
I fundamentally feel like this “pay extra to play early” release model is incompatible with Xbox’s seeming desire to be an accessibility forward publisher. It’s starting to look like Xbox as a company is trying to make this increasingly a standard for their published exclusives, and that’s not good for accessibility in this industry.
Forza Motorsport is undoubtedly the most accessible technical racing sim available today. It stands as a testament to what can be done to make this genre playable by more people, and that this genre doesn’t have to abrasively push people away new to playing. It’s not perfect, but I’ve never had this much fun with a title like this, and that should say a lot.
The customisable difficulty options and driving assists make playing a technical racing sim with hands that can’t reliably do what I want them to manageable, and in isolation that’s wonderful to experience.