Two years ago, Forza Motorsport 3 became one of the best console racing simulators. The basic racing mechanics, coupled with the plethora of modes, made it a racing game with plenty of staying power for car aficionados. Last year, Forza Motorsport 3 was still considered a great racing simulator because of the monthly downloadable content offerings, ensuring that the game experience remained fresh. Forza Motorsport 4 has a high standard to meet, so it's a good thing that it lives up to those expectations — and then some.
Before you begin, if you want the full core game experience, make sure you are running with a hard drive that has about 2.8GB of free space to spare. Like Forza 3, installing the second disc gets you a plethora of cars from various time periods and manufacturers, though if you lack the free space, you can grab certain packs to install anytime you want. They aren't necessary for game completion, and there are no tracks to install this time. It's good for completionists to know that there's already a selection of 500+ cars before the inevitable DLC.
You start off with a tutorial of sorts. You'll be taken to the Burmese Alps track for a one-lap race to teach you the basics of controls and driving. By default, you'll be driving inside of a Ferrari 458 Italia with easy difficulty activated and no HUD present. No matter how well or how poorly you do here, you'll be given the chance to own a class F vehicle when you complete the lap. After picking out your vehicle, paint job and home space, you'll be ready to begin your Career mode.
In Career mode, you now have 10 seasons of racing to go through instead of six and 286 different events instead of 220, most of which have to be completed outside of the actual career. Progression through each season occurs on a globe-hopping map instead of a racing calendar, and your selection of races is a bit more open this time around. Each stop on the tour gives you a choice of three different events, which can change depending on your current car class. The event types also vary. You still have traditional races, where you compete against the same class of cars, but now you have the option of doing multi-class car races; drift competitions; autocross, which is more like a car slalom; and car-passing competitions. You'll also participate in some of the sillier events, like car bowling and car soccer, to add some variety to your career path.
The mode still tacks on a light RPG element with experience points, but it's been improved. Driver leveling is still there, but instead of being forced to take one car once you gain a level, you have a selection of cars in certain categories so you have better control of how your garage grows over time. Car leveling has been replaced with manufacturer affinity, where the more you drive cars made by one manufacturer, the more cash you'll get from it in addition to discounts on the parts. In addition, you'll earn badges and titles for your driver card by obtaining certain achievements and performing certain feats, such as performing a certain number of clean passes or hitting 88 mph in a 1982 DeLorean.
The Forza faithful also get some love. Depending on the level obtained in Forza Motorsport 3, players will get bonus cash and extra cars at the outset of Forza 4. Furthermore, obtaining certain cars from certain DLC packs also puts those cars in your garage immediately; it gives you a big advantage in some early races and a much wider selection of races.
All of the racing freedom is nice, but there are two things that will make people return to the game: speed and accessibility. Even with the lowest-rated vehicle in the E class of cars, with the camera pulled as far back as possible, you still get the sensation of going fast once you hit a nice straightaway. Obviously, that sensation improves when you are lower to the ground and have better cars, but it's impressive that even the worst car can excite you. As for accessibility, the game can be set up — every assist on, only cosmetic damage, driving lines made active, and easy AI opponents that panic on turns — so that newcomers to simulation racing can have a good time. Then again, the game can also be tweaked to the point where gas pressure matters, tire heat makes a difference, the rewind feature is removed, and you have the possibility of flipping over your car should you take a turn badly enough. Professionals are rewarded for making things tough on themselves, but rookies don't get punished for always slamming on the gas. This variable difficulty level might lower the barrier of entry for the game, but it does so in the name of enjoyment — something that other racing simulators seem to forget.
There are some aspects of the racing that still disappoint. The damage system may have improved, but it still lacks the brutality of the DiRT or Need for Speed Shift series. Car pieces still come off, but it is disappointing to see glass mostly intact and fewer dents when you hit a car or guard rail. The game features racing at various times of the day, but it still refuses to try nighttime racing. Finally, despite the presence of a thermometer before you begin each race, you never race in anything but clear sky conditions. It would've been exciting to race in weather elements such as rain, but that may have to wait for another iteration of the game.
Until you back out of Career mode, you may never notice that there are three other modes on the disc. Community mode acts as the hub for almost all of the series' online and side activities. Some of these remain relatively unchanged since they've worked out so well in previous versions. There's still a marketplace, where you can search for and buy lots of things from vinyl groups to designs and tuning blueprints. Players can still post their favorite pictures or movies for the community to see within the game and on the official Web site. The eBay-like auction house is still there, so players can set up buy-it-now prices or bid on auctions. The livery may have had an increase in parts because of community voting, but you're still limited to 1,000 layers per creation. The layout may be the same, but players who have downloaded or created their own vinyl groups in the prior game can import them, so it's much easier to re-create the art on new cars. You can even earn more cash by visiting this section every day.
Online play still performs well, with little to no lag in races — a surprise considering that the game now supports 16 racers. Every mode from the previous game is here, including the odd race types, like tag and cat & mouse, which were introduced later via patches. For those who love groups, you can make your own car club and share cars, both stock and tuned, with the rest of the group. It's a good community feature that could be seen in other games if it takes off here.
Of all the online modes, Rivals is probably the most exciting. It's just you against the leaderboard as you try to best your rivals' performances on a variety of tracks and events. Like Career mode, the events range from car passes to bowling to hot laps, and beating your rival gets you bonus cash for your trouble. That variety, along with the freedom to use any eligible vehicle to complete your task, helps feed the addictive nature of this mode, especially since you'll always have a new time to beat or score to conquer. While racing veterans will eat up this mode, don't be surprised to see newcomers give this a shot just to see how they compare without having to directly compete.
Autovista is one of Forza 4's big new additions, and it will appeal to all types of car fans. You're given the ability to check out some of the most prized and, in a few cases, unusual cars in the world in a virtual showroom. You can pop open the trunk and hood as well as open every door. You can jump inside to check out the interior and start up the engine to hear it roar to life. Look around, and you'll find special dots of interest, which, when clicked, provide some information and specs about the car part. You'll also get some words about the car from Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson as he gives you his take on each of the highlighted vehicles.
There are only a few cars available from the start, but the unlocking system works well. Instead of buying the car in Career mode or completing a certain percentage of the game, players simply select the locked tile and win the given challenge. Most of the challenges have you winning races, but a few have you doing other things, like fulfill a quota of cars passed in a few laps or get above a given score in car bowling. Once you've succeeded, you can explore the car. Since cars can be unlocked in any order, players won't have to trudge cars in which they have no interest before exploring the ones that caught their eye.
The big flaw with Autovista has to do with the car selection. With only 26 highlighted cars (counting two secret ones), only a very small fraction of the car library gets the complete treatment. Granted, the excellent cars picked for this mode are ones that most people will never examine in real life and with that much detail. Like the car library, there is hope that DLC will fill in the void, but for now, what's here will satisfy.
Free Play contains its own set of submodes that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played racing games. You have your standard free race, head-to-head split-screen multiplayer, and hot lap, where you try to get the fastest time on a track. Like online multiplayer, every track and car are available whether you've been playing for 10 hours or 10 minutes. The only difference is that your performance doesn't go toward player leveling or manufacturer affinity, so driving here feels like a test drive to determine what you want to use for your multiplayer and career modes. Having everything unlocked here is a boon for those who find a typical racing career mode to be too daunting.
The main menu also contains a Marketplace link goes to the specific Xbox Live Marketplace section of Forza Motorsport 4. For now, it just contains Xbox Avatar items, and it will contain future DLC packs as evidenced by the developer's track record. An item that is intriguing but not active as of this writing is the presence of car tokens. According to the description, players can spend real money to buy a token that can be used to purchase any car in lieu of using earned credits. The idea is sound since there is a market for players who are willing to spend real money to obtain things that others would get through time. Despite this, one has to wonder if such a thing will take off considering the other options that players have to earn credits and obtain cars.
Microsoft has trumpeted the fact that there is Kinect functionality in Forza 4, and it's better than expected in some parts. There are three levels of Kinect integration. The first is the use of head tracking, where your head turns are translated into camera shifts while you're racing. You can adjust the sensitivity of the tracking, so even the slightest turn in real life can be translated as a full-blown head pivot. The effect is nice, and it isn't limited to cockpit view, since the head tracking can be done at any camera angle, though it is certainly most noticeable when you're in the driver's seat. For those who can't afford a multiple monitor setup, this is the next best thing. As good as that is, however, don't expect too many players to use it since their attention is likely glued to the view ahead of them.
Voice commands are also here, but they are quite limited in scope. The commands are only used for navigating through most of the menus, and even then, there are certain menus that have no voice navigation. Unless you're bad at navigating menus, you'll get to the areas you want much faster with a controller, making the voice navigation more of a novelty.
The previous two functions can be done at any time in the game. The final one, full-on Kinect controls, can only be done when accessed from the title screen. After waving your hand to confirm the use of the Kinect, you'll be taken to an interface using complete Kinect controls and modes. You only have access to two modes: Free Play and Autovista. The standard rules for Free Race apply, so you're free to choose any track and any car in either split-screen multiplayer, hot lap or quick race. As with the opening race, you'll be stuck in cockpit view and easy difficulty. You only have to worry about one thing — steering — since acceleration and braking are done automatically. In a way, this can be seen as another version of the Kinect launch title, Kinect Joy Ride, only with real cars and mostly real tracks. It is much better than that game, since it reads hand motions much more accurately, so younger gamers will have a good amount of fun with it if they don't yet have a grip on the more traditional control methods. For everyone else craving some challenge, expect the full-on Kinect controls to be like voice navigation: It is nice to have, but it quickly becomes a novelty.
Autovista, on the other hand, seems more natural to use with Kinect. Aside from detecting hand and arm movements well, the game reacts to your body movement, including body shifts. Shifting to the left or right will move the camera to that direction, and leaning forward or backward will let you enter and leave a car as well as give you a closer look at some of the parts. While you may still want to go with a regular controller, the use of the Kinect here complements the experience rather than detracting from it.
Since the second game, the Forza series has been a fine example of graphical beauty. Initially, it doesn't look as if there was much done on this front in the past two years. The cars look the same but with more anti-aliasing thrown in to reduce the number of jaggies. All of the car interiors look like they've been redone, but it doesn't feel like a very big leap for series veterans. It's when you start racing that you notice that the big change is in the lighting, not polygons. Every car gives off a sheen that makes it look like it came fresh from the showroom. Environments have just the right amount of light bloom from the sky on certain turns and an almost blinding reflection on the tarmac on some tracks. The lighting and shadows give it a more lifelike appearance, which is bolstered by the constant 60 fps when all other opponent cars are in view. While this is impressive, the work on the cars in Autovista mode is some of the most stunning in any game. The leather and metal are textured realistically, and you can see everything to the minutest detail, including the text on bolts and brake pads as well as the weaves in carbon fiber parts. If it weren't for the pop-up text when it highlights certain features, you'd swear you were watching a very nice hi-def feed of a car TV show.
The game simply sounds great. The musical score, which was mediocre in Forza Motorsport 3, has improved. It's still an ambient electronica mix that has elements of classical music and rock, but it fits the racing vibe and the menus. The engine sounds are stronger and more distinct than ever, especially to gearheads who know the difference between a 1957 Ford Thunderbird and a 2010 Dodge Charger. The sound upgrade isn't limited to engines, as the other effects, like howling wind and metal scrapes, come through with more clarity than before. As expected, Clarkson's voice coming through in Autolog is brilliant but so, too, is the voice for the narrator, who explains every new mode and takes over for Clarkson in Autolog when it comes to explaining particular car details. The pitch and delivery add an air of sophistication to the game, and it is certainly welcome.
Forza Motorsport 4 feels like a proper sequel for the series instead of a glorified car roster update; it's not quite so easy given how much you could do and experience in the previous game. The different activities outside of straight car racing make the package feel rounded and complement the other available activities. The selection of cars in Autovista may feel limiting, but that won't stop the aficionados from exploring it multiple times. Forza 4 still isn't perfect — it lacks weather and time of day options, and the Kinect support, while nice, isn't something that many people are going to utilize. Still, everything from accessibility to car selection and the deep customization system make for a fun game that racing fans and non-racing fans alike can get lost in for hours on end. Unless you absolutely abhor racing of any kind, you owe it to yourself to get this game.
More articles about Forza Motorsport 4