Competition is good for gamers. Competition is really good for fans of racing simulation games.
When Forza Motorsport 3 came out, it left every competitor in the dust with its polished control, a massive automobile collection, deep customization options and new levels of accessibility. I called it the "new king of racers" in my review, and I meant it. Up until last week, some two years later, I still played Forza 3 just about every week.
The competition, Polyphony Digital, had been working for years on their next racer, Gran Turismo 5. When it finally came out I said it was worth the wait. It was apparent that they had been working to gain back the ground lost to Turn 10 and may have lacked some of the polish of Forza 3, but GT5 ended up being a massive racing world that car geeks could get lost in and never come out. It's like they spent all six years packing in content; I'm still nowhere near feeling like I'm finished with the game.
Turn 10 had their work cut out for them with Forza Motorsport 4. If they wanted to keep up with the competition, it had to be bigger, look better and offer a lot more. But what else could they pack in? How could they make a better racer?
They figured it out. They've done it again -- Forza Motorsport 4 comes out on top.
Forza Motorsport 4 (Xbox 360)
What made Forza 3 great is all still here, but Turn 10 has made some big changes under the hood for Forza 4. Their automotive wonderland has a new look, a new graphics engine, a new interface, new cars, new AI, locales, and functionality. Everything you'd expect from a sequel. And that would have been enough, but they didn't stop there. They kept going until no one would question that Forza 4 is the best racing sim out there.
If you want to be impressed right out of the box, boot up Forza 4's Autovista mode and be prepared to see this-can't-be-a-game quality visuals applied to some of the world's rarest and flashiest cars. This is showroom style car porn taken to the next level. If you're the kind of person that would go to a high-end automotive dealer to sniff cars and paw around in their interiors, you'll love this mode. Turn 10 has taken a collection of cars you'll likely never see in real life and rendered them to a level of detail that is so high that this mode looks like car commercial footage. The visuals in this mode go beyond anything you've ever see in a console game. In Autovista you're able to walk around and interact with all the doors, hoods, gears and switches of these supercars. Hot zones let you play with things like gull wing doors, or check out how startup would sound from inside the car. Each car has at least one hot zone that you can select to hear Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson rant on it, which takes the whole experience over the top. I actually squealed aloud when I was able to virtually sit in the interior of one of my dream cars, the Lexus LF-A.
Autovista supports Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor. With it you can move around the cars to look at them, move closer and even reach for the door handle to open it. Inside you can actually take the cars for a test drive -- no controller needed.
Speaking of Top Gear, aside from the Autovista car tours, there's other smart ways the BBC property has been integrated into the game. Of course, the "Top Gear Test Track" is included in the game's list of tracks. They've also created race events that are a bit more lighthearted and entertaining than their GT5 counterparts. I am addicted to mowing over car-sized bowling pins in a quest for the highest score and lowest time. I also suspect that playing car soccer online will be a popular event.
The career mode has been greatly improved. In Forza Motorsport 3, tour events were pre-determined, laid out on a calendar that players made a linear progression though. It was like being dragged along and then being told where to show up -- not very elegant. That has been ditched for Forza 4's World Tour mode. In it you'll zip across the globe, represented by a Google Maps-style overhead view, moving from one world-famous raceway to another as you progress through the ranks and cups. It's a bit more glamorous, and definitely less generic.
In this World Tour mode you're able to choose what vehicle you'd like to progress in. Turn 10 has loosened up the reins a bit, and now you're no longer locked into a specific car class or race type. At each track you're presented with a choice of three race types. You'll pick one, pick an appropriate car from your garage, and race in the way you want to. If you don't have an appropriate car for the race type, the game will ask if you'd like one of your current cars to be upgraded, with the upgrade fee already calculated. This all makes for a more relaxed, less uptight career mode. For example, after one particularly lengthy play test session, I liked that I was able to take a break from high-speed, controller-squeezing S-class races by picking an event that used E-class hatchbacks. Even with this slower car and event type, I was still able to continue to progress through the career path.
World Tour mode is massive, but it's not all just standard racing; there's a bit of fun to mix things up. I really enjoyed the Top Gear pin bowling stages, where you zip around Top Gear's test course knocking down as many pins as you can as fast as you can. There's also multi-class races and head-to-head races to change up the pace. One of my favorite types is the new car passing race, where you'll try to pass as many cars as you can as you head toward the finish line.
When you leveled up in Forza 3's career mode you were gifted a car. In Forza 4 you are given a chance to choose from several cars. This lets you customize your entire garage, and helps you avoid getting stuck with cars you'll never drive. I now have a fleet of mostly blue colored Japanese and European cars from my favorite makers, which means that every race type I'm presented with ends up being a pleasure. Presenting players with a car choice seems like a small change at first, but it ends up making a big difference in your level of enjoyment as you progress through the career mode.
The online offerings in Forza 3 were already expansive, but they've added even more this time around to keep you tied to the leaderboards. The new Rivals Mode has the game tracking your every move and logging your best track times. This information, pulled from your game as well as your friends' data, is worked into a mode where events are automatically generated, and can be played anytime, even when your friends are offline. Simply pick an event and challenge based on data from another rival, race, win and get a reward. If the rival is a friend, they'll receive a message telling them you've topped their time.
Car Clubs is another new addition to the online feature set. You'll be able to share cars from your garage with fellow club members, letting them take one of your rides from a spin. Clubs have their own leaderboard ranks, and you'll have to work with other members in your club to stay at the top .
I was able to test out the game's online functionality on a few occasions. Forza 4 supports 16-player multiplayer, and I was able to play in totally full rooms with no sign of slowdown at all. I raced in online Multi-Class circuit races, where both super-fast A class cars and entry-level E class cars shared the same track. Online play was flawless. Getting lapped always sucks, even if you know that the passers are in much faster vehicles!
Forza's many online Playground modes are a blast, and they return with Forza 4. In the It game, the "it" racer will want to drive as fast as possible to stay "it" for as long as possible. If another car hits you, they become "it" instead. The racer with the longest "it" time wins. As you can imagine, crashing into other cars is a popular strategy. Tag (Virus) is the opposite. Cars that start out with the virus have to try to come in contact to pass it to other cars. All affected will have to work together to pass the virus on. I played this mode with about 10 others on the twisty, dangerous Fujimi Kaido, Japan track. As a carrier it was a struggle for myself and the other virus-carrying group to make it up the steep hills, but on the way down we happily plowed every opponent. I also tried the Cat and Mouse mode with a test group. In this mode, one member from each team plays as the mouse, and it's their duty to make it across the finish line as fast as possible. Enemy cats are there to hinder his progress, while teammate cats are there to protect. Some of the most epic collisions I've ever seen were witnessed during this session.
One of the areas where the Forza franchise has always excelled over its competitors is accessibility. This continues with Forza 4. There's no shortage of options and settings to customize, letting everyone from absolute beginners to seasoned racing veterans enjoy the game. You could turn on all driving and braking assists, shut off damage modeling, and turn the AI down, and an 8-year-old would have a good time. On the other end is full damage modeling, very agressive AI, no assists, and manual shift with clutch -- absolutely unforgiving. There's room here for everyone to find a sweet spot.
The racer AI is noticeably better in Forza 4. Racers are appropriately agressive, but not perfect; one of my only gripes in Forza 3 was that AI cars made too few mistakes, and rarely strayed from racing lines. In Forza 4 you'll see cars spin out, go off the track, and do stupid things, and what's great is that none of it seems fake or generated. I found that AI cars "play" at the level I played at, and in areas where I could possibly go into a turn to fast, AI cars might wipe out there. That said, in a heated race, as you're nearing the finish line on the last lap, get ready for a new level of aggression that will piss you off just as much as it would if you were racing real opponents. Sometimes being "nudged" too often in a heated race bugged me, but I later realized that I've thought the same in online races against real opponents. How's that for realistic? Hats off to Turn 10 for what has to be the most realistic AI in a racing title ever.
Forza franchise games have always looked great, but Turn 10 has pushed ahead of the pack to make Forza 4 the best looking racer available. Everything from the cars to the track locales has a polish that moves way beyond the high bar set by Polyphony Digital with Gran Turismo 5. Every track is a looker: The Bernese Alps in the distance on the Switzerland track look like HD movie footage. Every car model is perfect, down to the very last detail. Unlike some other racing games, you'll get high end, super-polished visuals with every car mode. Every car is a treat for the eyes.
The game's new lighting engine puts very realistic light on every surface. You can't help but be impressed when you see how different types of surfaces take in light differently, an effect that is a far cry better than the generic new car shine we're used to seeing in racing games. The fine detail holds up even up close, and Forza 4 has no issue with you putting your virtual nose up to the metal. In Autovista mode you can actually see how overhead fluorescent lighting realistically glimmers on each car's paint job, and shifts just as realistically as you move around it. Even on the track you'll still catch sparkling eye candy, like a glimpses of afternoon sunlight sliding over your Ferrari's contours. Every inch of this game is beautiful, and it all runs at a silky 60 frames per second.
Beyond all the new features, upgrades, flashy graphics, and online modes, what really makes Forza 4 great is the immaculate control. The car handling is what made me love Forza 3, and somehow it's even more refined this time around. No other racer gives you such a real sense of weight, and that feel is perfectly matched with the control to manage it. This game's control is so polished that you'll find yourself leaning into slides, curling your toes when you're counting on your brakes, and hunkering down when you hit high speeds. Turn 10 has found that perfect balance that manages to fully satisfy those looking for a realistic racing simulation, but also keeps things fun.
There's very little to complain about with Forza 4, but I did have beef with some smaller issues. While the audio work for the cars is better (and louder!) than ever, the music seems mismatched and uninspired. It only took a few hours of play to become annoyed by how the trashy, breakbeat heavy music clashed with the engine noise and really wore down on my ears. Even worse is the hypnotic synthesizer bobbling that accompanies every loading screen. After about 10 times you'll never want to hear it again. While we're on loading times, they're never great in this game. Thankfully there's track information screens between races to entertain you while you wait.
Forza Motorsport 4 is automobile love in a box. At its heart is simulation racing, but there's also car lusting with full interactivity, a robust online community backend, new racing modes galore, off-the-wall bonus games, Top Gear fandom and so much more. Everyone from the most seasoned racing gearhead to kid that just wants to drive fast will find something to get into. For as long as this review is, there's still plenty of features that deserve mention. There's car art/painting, silly things like car soccer, and a deep tuning backend, to mention a few. I'm sure it would take months to fully explore every mode and feature offered.
Turn 10 already had a fantastic racer with Forza 3, but they somehow managed to add more even features and polish to this sequel, and the end result is a game that seems to have covered every base perfectly. They've also managed to add something else that you'll never see as a bulletpoint on a box: personality. Forza 4 is so much more lively, and it shows so much more character than its predecessor. The game practically shines with signature touches that show that the developers truly loved making it. I'm sure that's probably why I love playing it so much. I'm sure you will, too.
And again, Forza Motorsport 4 is the king of racers.
THE VERDICT - Forza Motorsport 4
Reviewed by Dale North