When Forza arrived in 2005, it was the plucky young upstart, challenging the golden god that was Gran Turismo. Microsoft putting their brand new racing sim up against the biggest of the big was a bold move, but In a short four years Forza has established itself as the best racing sim on the market. Forza Motorsport 3 was the best of the series, and now two years later Forza Motorsport 4 is here. Can it one-up one of this generations most complete racing simulations?
Above: Even the milquetoast rides are fun with the assists off
The bread and butter of racing simulations is the career mode, and FM4 spices up its “World Tour” mode with a number of different events. Instead of dictating the events themselves, FM4 picks a location and you're allowed participate in any event of your choice that has a race located at that track. The events themselves are fortunately more than just endless lapping. King of the Mountain is a touge style event where you race a single opponent down a mountain road while weaving through much slower traffic. Having to give up your racing line to zig zag around some F rank microcar is a lot harder than it seems.
There’s also a number of Top Gear branded events that skew a little more wacky than the average race. Car bowling involves whipping around the Top Gear test track trying to hit as many pins as possible, especially the gold ones. Drifting is encouraged, and hitting the high score requires either a big car or some serious sideways action. The Multi Class events also offer a nice take on the standard races, putting wildly different cars on the track at the same time so you can see the drastic difference between car types. Don’t worry, you only have to be competitive within your own class.
Above: Testa Rossa means "red head", in this case because of the car's red valve covers, Autovista taught us this!
The Top Gear touch also makes its presence known in the online play, offering car soccer as a multiplayer option. It may sound silly, but it’s quite a bit of fun. Multiplayer also includes “Tag (Virus)” mode and “Cat and Mouse” mode. Tag (Virus) has an infected player bumping into leading cars, passing the infection up through the ranks. The goal is to be the last one not infected, which is difficult when the majority of the racers are gunning for you. Cat and Mouse mode has two teams, each with one mouse and a number of cats, attempting to escort their mouse around the track. It’s up to the cats to simultaneously harass the enemy mouse if he’s in the lead while assisting their mouse if he’s boxed in. Of course there’s the traditional circuit, drift and drag racing to tackle as well.
We made sure to try out the game’s much hyped Kinect functionality, and it’s much more usable than you’d think. Most people we know who aren't into cars yawn at the idea of sitting down with a racing game where you actually have to brake. The Kinect functionality offers a degree of intrigue to these players, as it’s much more forgiving and allows you to fool around with a great looking game without memorizing every turn and your car’s torque curve. Using exclusively Kinect controls reduces the gameplay to simply steering your car around the track while you hold an invisible steering wheel. While this is hearsay to any dyed in the wool sim fan, it’s a foot in the door for the vast number of players that feel overwhelmed by too many options and a steep learning curve.
For more traditional players, the game does give you the option to use the controller while using the Kinect unit strictly for head tracking. What this means is that you can look towards the apex of the turn as you drive through it and the camera will shift towards the direction you’re looking. It’s a slightly more complicated version of Shift 2’s feature that automatically does the same thing. It only really works in cockpit mode, and requires a fairly in-depth set up with the Kinect unit so that it reads you correctly.
It's not just about the racing
While it’s difficult to convey in a press release or a review, the non-racing options in Forza Motorsport are occasionally as time consuming and entertaining as the actual racing itself. While you can certainly do nothing but non-stop races until you’re blue in the face, FM4 does a great job giving you a lot of fun things to play around with off the track. For the gearhead gamer, car tuning is still as addictive as ever, and dialing in your car’s settings will eat up many hours. Browsing the online content is also a huge time sink; the number of cool cars for sale on the auction house and seriously impressive fan made content are great fun to peruse.
FM4’s simple menus and interface make finding what you want simple and effective, and both are leagues better than FM3’s somewhat messy layout. Car clubs allow direct access with your friends and their vehicles, and the auction house, race area and storefront are easy to navigate. The car clubs also allow players to freely swap cars with one another, drastically reducing the amount of time you'll have to spend grinding for a race specific car. FM4 even gives you a daily cash bonus for checking into your message box and seeing what’s up online. The number of things you can dicker around with in FM4 are vast and fun to browse, especially the Rival challenges.
Well, maybe it is
Even if you’re not the kind of gamer that enjoys meeting up with others at an appointed time to play, the Rival mode offers a great alternative, establishing a set challenge for every Forza player to complete. A lot of the challenges are pulled directly from Top Gear itself, and ask you to complete certain challenges in certain cars on specific courses. The game pits you against people on your friends list first, then more advanced ones if you manage to beat them. Beating your target opponent awards you with a “bounty” of credits and some XP.
It should be noted that the XP bonus from racing online is definitely in line with the XP you get in World Tour mode, making leveling up strictly via online play a viable option. There’s enough events in FM4 that you can also make it through a large portion of the game in a single vehicle. Not that you’d have to though, as the game is constantly rewarding you with gift vehicles. Every time your driver level goes up you’re given the choice of a number of themed cars. Allowing the player to chose their prize car is a genius touch and should be the new standard for the genre.
Of course we couldn’t call this a review without a mention of the driving itself. FM3 had a great simulation feel that you could tweak by turning off the assists, but FM4 takes it a step further. While hardcore players will probably ignore it entirely, FM4 features both steering and braking assists that can help even the greenest newbie make it around the track without putting their car into a wall. FM4’s driving feel makes the difference between front wheel, rear wheel and all wheel drive cars immediately apparent, and if you insist on getting on the gas too soon out of a turn, you’ll quickly find yourself over or under steering into a wall. Even with the assists all turned off, Forza’s low level cars are very manageable, though the higher level race cars require a delicate throttle finger.
While we try not to get hung up on graphics, FM4 looks amazing. Gran Turismo 5 is no slouch, but the lighting in FM4 really impresses; when the light hits your car at just the right angle, you'll notice a bright flash off the mirrors just as you would in real life. And not to sound too snarky, but while the number of cars in FM4 may technically be half of those in GT5, none of them look like they were pulled directly from the PS2. FM4 is also the first driving game we’ve played where we really noticed how great the backgrounds look. While less picturesque courses like Infineon are accurate but a little drab, the Swiss Alps and Amalfi tracks are stunning. The game's graphics and attention to detail truly shine in Autovista mode.
Above: Two old British guys talking adds a surprising amount of character to the game
In our preview, I dismissed the Autovista feature as something you might only look at once or twice. After sitting down with it though, it definitely justifies itself as more than just a tacked on mode to pitch Kinect. You unlock a number of vehicles in Autovista by completing a small challenge for each, usually a short race or Top Gear challenge. Each car is rendered flawlessly, and the commentary from Jeremy Clarkson and Forza veteran Peter Egan is funny, informative and interesting. For the true gearhead or car geek, the Autovista mode is a lot of fun. It also allows players to get a little taste of what they traditionally miss out on in sim games, the feel of the car as a complete thing. Get in, turn the engine on, learn a little about the make’s history and the people that made the car. We didn’t know the McLaren F1 had a special compartment panel in the side for custom made luggage, now we do. While it’s certainly easier to render still objects than it is a full field of moving cars, we have to say that Autovista really impressed us, it’s the ultimate in car porn.
Artificial intelligence, genuine frustration
FM4 has pitched the fact that it features a new adaptive difficulty that tweaks your opponent's A.I. according to how you drive. On paper this seems like it would offer a great balance for new and experienced players, the reality of it is a bit less exciting though. AI has a tendency to box you in or just generally be erratic with their braking, making clean races hard to pull off. AI drivers also seem to get really mad if you make contact with them and immediately make it their effort to knock you off the road. While there may be karmic justice in that the AI reflect your own aggressive bad driving back at you, it’s dreadfully annoying in action.
Above: A beautful view and a hideous interior
At about driver level 15 cars become exceedingly difficult to pass and dramatically alter their driving line to block you from passing even when they’re driving slower than you. If you enjoy being cut off on the freeway, you’ll love it here as well. The AI occasionally spins out, misjudges a turn or slams into wall, which is a nice touch that makes the races seem more dynamic. At the same time, the overall level of aggression and erratic way the AI handles itself can make getting out of a pack of chaotic idiots less than fun. Meanwhile the car that managed to escape the dogpile of the holeshot pulls further and further away while you're stuck playing bumper cars. We love the idea of adaptive AI, but with no way to manually adjust it, it can become excessively frustrating.
The checkered flag
Despite the AI foible, FM4 does virtually everything else right, putting lots of new cars into the player’s garage quickly, streamlining the online, keeping the World Tour mode interesting, and pandering to the car fetishists with Autovista. It speaks to the game’s addictive nature that we spent almost as much time in the menus tuning cars, checking out other players vids and pics, and browsing the Autovista mode as we did on the actual race track. It's a shame licensing squabbles prevented true Porsches from making it into the game, and we'd love to see even a remedial rally race feature in the future, but overall we're incredibly happy with FM4. It easily lives up to the franchise's standards, and offers racing fans the same massive level of fun that FM3 did.
Is it better than...
Shift 2? As a complete package, Forza Motorsport 4 easily takes the cake. Its online and community features are way more robust, it looks better, and there's a huge amount of content to dig through. That said, Shift 2 still sports some of the most intense simulation style racing on the market, and if you can get over the somewhat off-kilter physics, it's great fun.
Forza Motorsport 3? Tie. Reviewing games can be tough when you have to factor in the amount of time that's passed. FM3 was near perfect, and FM4 does almost everything FM3 did, but better. The kicker is the wonky AI that makes the game excessively frustrating at times. On every other front, FM4 is an improvement.
Gran Turismo 5? Yes. While Gran Turismo might have the advantage based on raw numbers, Forza Motorsport 4 is the better experience. Better original courses, better online, a less cluttered interface, and less static racing make FM4 the better game.
Just for you Metacritc!
Forza Motorsport 4 is a big step forward from Forza Motorsport 3 in almost every way. The only flaw is the nonadjustable, overaggressive AI that occasionally makes the game overly frustrating. The pros far outweigh the single con though, and this is the new standard for racing sims.
Oct 5th, 2011