The rush of holiday releases is in full swing, and on the heels of Gears of War 3 Microsoft brings forth its second major holiday release, Forza Motorsport 4. Forza has built a name for itself by becoming the first console simulation racing franchise to compete with the established giant of Gran Turismo. Forza 4 continues the tradition of excellence established by Turn 10 and Microsoft Game Studios, but it’s not nearly as large a leap for the franchise as Forza 3.
The first thing you’ll want to do when you boot up Forza 4 is install the second disc, as otherwise you’ll be swapping whenever you want to use half the cars in the game. I recommend you install the first disc as well to reduce what can be substantial loading times. If you have Kinect you’ll be able to choose to “play with Kinect.” This gives you quick access to a simplified version of the game which requires no controller. Through this mode you can access Autovista, Quick Race, Hot Lap, and Split Screen modes. Otherwise you’ll be given menu options for Career, Community, Autovista, Free Play, and Marketplace.
Career mode is similar to Forza 3, but has some major changes. It involves progressing through a series of races on the various tracks in the game, while continually leveling up in Driver Level and Affinity. For every new Driver Level achieved you’ll be given your choice of one free car out of a themed set, with cars generally becoming progressively more valuable as you achieve higher levels. You can also purchase cars through in-game credits. These can be earned through completing events, selling cars online in auctions, or buying them with Microsoft points. You’ll also be able to upgrade your cars, paint them with a variety of custom paint and decal options, and tune them for optimal performance.
Unlike Forza 3, you’ll level up affinity for the manufacturer of your car instead of leveling the car itself. Affinity levels rise based on the make of the car you drive for any given race, and give you discounts on parts as well as credits bonuses from those manufacturers. Oddly, by level 4 affinity with any manufacturer you will be given a 100% discount on upgradeable parts. With that level obtainable after only a handful of races, upgrading in the game is basically completely free for all cars, assuming you put in just a small amount of time with that manufacturer before buying anything. The great thing about this is that it lets you toy with your cars to your heart’s content, and put them in any class through any combination of upgrades without draining credits for new car purchases. On the down side, it defeats the purpose of putting a cost on upgrades at all, and devalues the currency in general.
The races in career mode are tiered by your stage in World Tour. As you complete more races you’ll complete “years” of Season Play. After each year you enter a higher level of races, featuring more potential high-end cars and thus better potential credit and experience rewards. The big change for Forza 4 is that you’re given a number of choices of which event to complete to advance through the season based on your selected and owned cars. This is a huge plus compared to Forza 3’s system, which often left you stuck racing one car and one type of car for hours at a time to complete career mode. While each race in the series takes place on a predetermined track, the ability to race in multiple classes and styles of events adds tons of variety. The game features hundreds of individual events, and completing them all will take a long time. In addition the game features new Top Gear–based events, Car Bowling and Car Soccer, which combine for an even more varied driving experience.
And thankfully the driving is just as smooth and satisfying as it was in Forza 3, if not more so. Controllers are responsive and capable, while driving with a force-feedback wheel will give you an incredible amount of control and response, sucking you completely into the experience. Physics are accurate, and visual and audio queues will help you make the fine adjustments you need to be an excellent driver. If you’re not a super-hardcore sim racer, you’ll be happy to know that all the assists from Forza 3 return, and are individually adjustable. The rewind function is also back. The fewer assists you use (including the rewind feature) the more credits will be awarded to you in career mode, encouraging you to learn to become a better driver as you play. I highly recommend you play with as few assists as possible, as the feeling of full control over the cars is simply astounding.
Community mode, as you’d expect, gives you access to all the online features of the game, including online racing, Car Clubs, Leaderboards, the Auction House, and the Storefront. You’ll also have a Playercard which identifies you in online play. You can pick a badge and title, which are displayed with your Gamertag and Driver Level. New badges and titles are unlocked in both online and career play. Racing online lets you create or join games, picking from a huge variety of game types including series staples like Circuit, Timed, and Drag, as well as all new modes like the Top Gear Soccer mode. Any track, car, and tuning set-up can be used, as specified within the limits of the game’s host. In another huge addition, you can now compete with up to 15 other players at once online. Car Clubs are the guilds of Forza, and the Auction House lets you sell your upgraded and painted creations for in-game credits. Perhaps the most addictive new community feature is Rivals Mode, which pairs you against ghosts of friends and selected online rivals from the leaderboards, rewarding you for defeating them with credits and better leaderboard standings. An incredible amount of time can be spent sampling Forza 4’s variety of online features.
Autovista is a simple car exploration mode, narrated by Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame. In this mode you’ll explore every facet of the interior and exterior of a car, accompanied by in-depth information and occasionally hilarious comments from Mr. Clarkson. You’ll get information on the cars’ top speed, construction, history, and design decisions, as well as the ability to take the cars out for a challenge drive from this menu. It’s an entertaining and interesting mode for enthusiasts, but unfortunately only includes 26 cars, including the Warthog from Halo 4.
If you are a Kinect owner, you’ll be given the option to “play with Kinect” or “play with a controller.” Kinect play will give you a simplified version of the available game modes, allowing you to quickly race with motion controls, play around in auto-vista, or play multiplayer. More useful for the more serious Forza players is the ability to navigate menus quickly in controller mode with voice commands. It may not sound like a huge benefit, but it speeds up menu navigation, and is satisfying and fluid. Racing with Kinect is an entertaining distraction, but not for even moderately serious players. It can be a fun thing to show off to your non-gamer friends and family.
While there are a huge amount of cars and tracks in Forza 4, the vast majority of both are repeated from Forza 3. Only five new tracks make an appearance in Forza 4, and some of the Forza 3 tracks have been removed, making for 26 circuits in total. The big removal from Forza 3 is the fan favorite New York Street Circuit. Most of the 500 cars are returning from the previous game as well, though the new additions are relatively big ones. The biggest omission is the lack of Porsche thanks to a licensing battle with EA, and it’s a pretty unfortunate loss in a game designed to bring the biggest and best racing cars together. With the game’s huge and varied career mode and massive online features, Forza 4 almost feels like the reverse of an annual sports franchise. They really ratcheted up the core game, but didn’t provide a hugely substantial roster update. Regardless of these complaints, it’s an incredible amount of content that can be enjoyed for countless hours.
One of the most surprising areas of improvement is the graphics. Forza 3 was a very pretty game, and considered by many to be the height of 360 racing graphics. Well Turn 10 has raised the bar, and the fourth entry really puts Forza 3 to shame. From the cars to the tracks, the detail is astonishing, and once again all cars have fully modeled interiors. If there’s one remaining graphical complaint, it’s that the foliage still looks pretty fake, which is an odd issue compared to the attention to detail given to everything else. The game could also benefit from night driving and weather features.
Audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Sound effects are absolutely excellent, especially with surround sound, but the music is still disappointing. Forza 4’s techno tunes are appropriate for the high-speed nature of the game, but some licensed music would have been a great addition. Fortunately, this is Xbox 360 and you can play your own tunes from your hard drive. Perhaps more interesting than any of this in the game’s presentation is the addition of the Top Gear partnership, which adds some nice humor, heart, and style to the game.
Forza 4 is an astonishing accomplishment. In only two years it has managed to address the biggest complaints I had about its predecessor. There is a massive variety of content in career and online mode, and the graphics are absolutely stunning. Top Gear’s additional content, such as Car Soccer, Car Bowling, and the presence of Jeremy Clarkson as a narrator add heart and humor to a genre that’s generally clinical, dry, and overly serious in its presentation. The game is not complaint free; more new cars, new tracks, and some improved audio content could have done a lot for the game. Minor quibbles aside, I cannot more highly recommend Forza 4 to racing fans. Whether you’re a hardcore sim driver who is looking for authenticity, or a casual car fan who wants some fast fun, Forza 4 is an outstanding experience.