For over a decade there was one franchise that could lay claim to the crown of simulation racing on home consoles, that series was Sony’s Gran Turismo. The king gallantly fended off all challengers with relative ease until Microsoft published the Turn 10 developed Forza Motorsport on the original XBOX in 2005. While Forza Motorsport was not a kingslayer it was a solid foundation that Turn 10 continued to refine in subsequent releases. Then in 2009, Forza Motorsport 3 did the impossible, it became the new king of racing.
There is no arguing that the Forza series benefited from the lack of a core release in the Gran Turismo release since 2005 but the fact still remains, Forza Motorsport 3 was the best simulation racing title available. This fact did not change when Sony released Gran Turismo 5 last year. A year later, Forza Motorsport 4 is here, ready to take the crown away from its older sibling.
Forza 4 wastes no time getting you behind the wheel, kicking off with a race around the track in one of the game’s many Ferraris. By starting players off in a supercar the game gives you a true sense of what Forza 4 is all about. It highlights the great sense of speed, the new physics modeling and a lot of the graphical improvements made over the last game. But it also highlights the biggest issue with Forza 4 and that is that racing against computer controlled opponents is both frustrating and predictable.
One of the biggest issues video game racing developers have is that programming individual models to dynamically react to moment to moment situations is quite challenging. Forza 3 and Gran Turismo 5 both did a serviceable job of it but ultimately they still left quite a bit to be desired. Forza 4 also leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Single player racing in Forza 4 is equivalent to racing against a field of slot cars. Each computer controlled car has a very specific line that it follows and while there is some seemingly random variances, like a car spinning out on a wide turn, these are few and far between. This all forces the racing to feel a bit like a time trial with the added obstacle of high-speed brick walls to avoid. Considering everything else in the game is top notch, this lack of evolution in computer AI is a glaring one.
Forza 3’s career mode was one of the most in depth experiences ever in a game but if it had a failing it was that there were a good many races that were just filler, with no impact on the actual racing season. Forza 4 refines this system by getting rid of that fluff. Every race contributes to the progression of the player’s career. Further improving the previous career mode, and subsequently making it more diverse, Forza 4 throws a series of novelty events at players. These special events, like slalom driving and car bowling, keep things interesting over the course of the long ten season career. While the ten seasons career may seem quite the daunting undertaking, Forza 4 does a fantastic job of rewarding its players at just the right time.
As in previous Forza games, players gain experience for completing events. This experience is distributed evenly between the players overall driver level and affinity for certain car manufacturers. Leveling up the driver ability grants you access to a suite of prize cars while leveling up your manufacturer affinity grants you bonus credits and discounts on performance parts on that particular manufacturer’s cars. Between the prize cars and the performance parts discounts most of the prize money collected can be spent on building up one’s garage as they see fit.
Gran Turismo 5 may sport over 800 cars but only a quarter of them are modeled with the care that they deserve. Forza 4 features nearly 300 cars less than its big rival but each and every car is looks and feels amazing, both inside and out. It would have been quite easy for Turn 10 to turn its back on the lower end or older modeled cars but all the cars in Forza 4 are top notch and each sports a detailed cockpit view, which in my opinion is the best way to play these games. That is not to say that Turn 10 does not believe that some cars should get special treatment though because Autovista mode proves that they do.
A virtual show room of some of the most amazing automobiles to ever hit the road, Autovista mode is a car lover’s dream come true. Each car in the mode is painstakingly modeled and put on display in all its glory. Best of all players can explore nearly every nook and cranny of the line-up of super cars. Each car also comes with the opinionated commentary of Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, and his insights into the vehicles are often quite amusing and always highly enlightening. However, while car nuts are going to drool all over it, for most players Autovista mode is, at best, just a lovingly made bonus feature.
Far more broad based but just as lovingly crafted is the all new community hub. The Forza series has always had a strong focus on community and with the risk of sounding highly hyperbolic, Forza 4 takes it to a whole new level. Turn 10 does an excellent job of integrating community features into the core gameplay and also encouraging people to become participating members in it.
That said community can be a scary word for some. Some people just do not want to interact with others in a one on one setting. Turn 10 realizes this and offers a variety of solutions to allow participation without interaction. Everything from the new rivals mode, where you can try to outdo other racers in certain events by competing against their ghost times, to the implementation of a clan system, called Car Club, is done with the express purpose of being accessible to everyone.
Customization is a large part of car culture and Forza offers the tools to allow people to customize nearly every aspect of their cars. I may not be able to design an awesome looking detail or tune a car worth a damn but I can still get something out of those modes by purchasing creations from other players using the in game economy, which gives me cool stuff and the creator a nice credit bonus and a little more prestige in the community.
The most interactive of all the community features though is the online racing and here is where Forza 4 really shows its true potential. The racing, with up to 15 other players, is silky smooth and simulates real racing better than anything I have ever experienced. Yes, sometimes races devolve into bumper car matches but for the most part the racing experience has been unparalleled by any other online racing mode I have taken part in. Additionally, any rewards or experience you receive for online races is directly applied to your overall profile, meaning you can win stuff in multiplayer to race with in single player.
With Forza 4, Turn 10 has designed one of the most highly accessible racing simulations ever created. They give the player the options to customize the experience directly to their own wants and needs. Microsoft believes in accessibility as well and Forza 4 is emblazoned with the slogan, “Better with Kinect”. Sadly this is just advertising speak because Forza 4 is not anywhere near a better game when using Kinect.
There are three primary activities in Forza 4 that can be performed when using Kinect. Being as driving an actual car requires movement with one’s hands, driving with Kinect makes sense on a fundamental level. Using Kinect to race simplifies the game drastically though, putting both acceleration and braking in the hands of the game’s artificial intelligence and forcing the player to focus on the act of steering the car. Players are required to hold their arms out in front of them as if they were clutching a steering wheel and surprisingly it actually works quite well and is more than a little fun if tiring.
While a fun little diversion here and there, driving with Kinect is not the ideal way to play the game and Turn 10 knew this full well including a head tracking option for Kinect owners who plan on playing the game as a racing simulation. In theory, head tracking is a wonderful idea, after all when someone is driving they move their head around to check their surroundings, sadly in practice it does not work that way. The problem with head tracking stems from the fact that driving a real car has one inside a three dimensional object whereas driving a car, in a game, on a television has one staring at a flat image directly in front of them.
The purpose of head tracking is to heighten the immersion of driving in the game but I never felt less immersed than when I was using it. While using head tracking I found myself losing focus on the game. When I shifted my head to the right or left to check my mirror I was not looking out the side of my Lancer X but rather staring at either my wall or into my backyard. Additionally, the head tracking seemed highly sketchy in its detection of my head which had me trying to reposition myself so the Kinect could refocus on my head further damaging my focus on the race at hand.
The other big piece of the Kinect functionality is the inclusion of it in Autovista mode. This of course is the mode that was shown off to show what Kinect was capable of before its release last year. And once again the game is not better off because of the inclusion of Kinect functionality. While the interface in Autovista mode is clearly designed to utilize Kinect, it actually navigates better using a controller. At best Kinect is a novelty to be toyed with on occasion here but being as Autovista is a novelty to begin with it just seems like a frivolous bullet point on the back of the box.
Forza Motorsport 4 has a lot of features that could be bullet points on the back of the box but thankfully most of them are not frivolous. It may have its issues and it may not be the generational leap forward that many expected, it is still the best racing game on the market today. From the simplicity of the menus to the elegance of the presentation to the robust community features, Forza 4 is a top notch product that every racing and/or car fan should have in their collection.
Pros: Visually stunning, driving is phenomenal, a robust suite of features that puts many games to shame, and customization galore.
Cons: Computer controlled racers are no little more than slot cars
4* out of 5