Developer: Turn 10 Studios / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone [No Descriptors]
When the original Forza was released for Xbox, the game not only established Microsoft’s flagship racing franchise, but also delivered an experience that was surprisingly more accessible than the hardcore simulation tendencies of Gran Turismo. Four installments in, the franchise has retained its pleasingly low barrier to entry. In addition, developer Turn 10 boldly continues to implement new features while tweaking fan favorite modes.
Much like modern driving sims Gran Turismo 5 and Need For Speed: Shift 2, Forza Motorsport 4 successfully delivers a host of features that keep the replay value well beyond the 100 hour mark for any auto enthusiast. Where Forza 4 excels is in offering a mode selection experience that isn’t daunting. After you complete the race and get familiar with the controls, Forza 4 transitions you to the slick, user friendly main menu more welcoming than Gran Turismo 5‘s convoluted format. With each play session I was never troubled in trying to decide what to play next. Instead, I was pleased that there were so many experiences to fit any mood.
The World Tour offers a long goal-oriented single-player experience while I found myself using the Free Play modes the least, but it was comforting to know that those pick-up-and-play features are available for local co-op and for showing Forza 4 to my non-gaming car enthusiast friends.
There is a familiar sense of accomplishment in plugging away at the single-player campaign, which in itself should be admired for having a very unusual approach to a ‘season’ format. Forza 4 does not use the typical ‘branching out’ approach where beating one race unlocks two or three new races for cars that you now have to buy. Instead think of the seasons as a pile of LEGO blocks. The races and championships are already unlocked; the game instead tailors its race offerings based on your initial car and the subsequent vehicles you earn later.
Forza 4’s leveling system is very much tied to how it encourages you to stay loyal to your favorite car and manufacturers. The more your level up your Affinity rating to a manufacturer, the more bonuses you earn such as credit and discounts on parts.
This sense of selection is also illustrated with the car roster that’s a welcome change from the excess of Gran Turismo’s, where it wasn’t unusual to have 13 Honda NSXs or 22 versions of the Mazda MX-5. This practical quality-over-quantity approach also makes the idea of owning every car in Forza 4 attainable and more importantly, a worthwhile goal.
Forza 4 makes it surprisingly easy to stay with one car well beyond its initial showroom capabilities. I would often accept races that weren’t suited to my currently selected cars. Yet before I have the chance to hit my garage to find the right car, the game asks if I would like to upgrade my current car for this faster race. Before I know it, I’ve upgraded my Nissan Sentra three levels beyond its initial factory designs. It is wholly amusing to get my Japanese sedan to hold its own against a Dodge Viper. Yet this upgrading feature has its limits, especially if you spend enough time with, say, a Nissan Leaf. You might be able to upgrade it to the same class as a Ford Mustang but don’t expect to have much fun racing against it.
Even without spending as much as one credit, Forza 4’s campaign generously supplies a slew of cars, mostly when you level up. It took me about seven hours to get to Level 30, resulting in at least 30 opportunities to choose cars from different categories. That’s because with every level upgrade, the game lets you choose one out of half a dozen cars to own for free.
Much like past Forzas, the biggest key to Forza 4’s accessibility is its wide range of difficulty settings, not to mention the option to customize difficulty beyond the initial presets. If you want the Expert challenges that includes no auto-breaking but still want the race line to guide you, you can have that.
Forza Motorsport 4 also edges out Gran Turismo 5 for having a greater integration of the Top Gear brand, particularly with the presence of Jeremy Clarkson’s voiceover throughout the game. His delivery is typically verbose but informational as he introduces the various tracks in the World Tour or talks about the next season in the tour. It’s during the game’s initial launch intro where Clarkson is especially impressive, as he puts on an idealistic voice with a monologue about how we car enthusiasts are a dying breed.
As the first Forza release since the launch of the Kinect. The motion device’s integration is worth trying out at least once even if you’re the most faithful traditional controller devotee. It makes for an ideal demo experience for your non-gaming friends and it’s something they can try out themselves since there’s no shifting, accelerating, or breaking to worry about; all you do is steer.
The most noteworthy improvement to the multiplayer modes of past Forzas is the increased race capacity for 16 cars. When among strangers, it can make for a hectic Lap 1 mess of aggressive bumper car behavior, but it’s a truly sublime experience when you’re among friends and mature gamers, even if you hardly win.
For those who can’t sync up with friends for a real-time match, Rivals mode offers the kind of asynchronous multiplayer that’s appearing in more and more games these days. Any given visit to the Rivals menu offers a series of races by other players where you are rewarded for beating their times or scores. By the same token, your own times will be available for others to beat. It’s an addictive mode especially when the game offers a new random Rival challenge after each race.
As a feature that almost seems overdue, the inclusion of the Car Clubs provides a superb social experience similar to clans in shooter games. It also allows you to show off your personalized profile, which can become all the more unique as you earn many of the 400+ badges in the game. Furthermore, you can share cars with your club members, bringing out the game’s Pokemon-like appeal. On a side note, Forza 4 also has an Auction House as yet one more way to add wheels to your garage.
The Autovista option truly showcases the insane visual detail applied to 26 noteworthy exotic and luxury automobiles (as well as more of Clarkson’s acerbic personality, and even the most efficient use of Kinect.) Glance long enought at the textured visuals like the leather interior and contrast stitching and your brain might start fooling you to think you can detect that new $200,000 car smell.
The camera can take you right into the cockpit. Clarkson has quite a bit to say about each vehicle, both on a car’s individual parts as well as a slightly longer monologue about the car in general. It’s most entertaining when Clarkson doesn’t hold back on his opinions, especially when he posits it as fact.
These details owe a great deal to the series’ overhauled lighting system, known as image-based lighting, a technology co-developed by Pixar. Beyond Autovista, there are a ton of subtle and pleasing visual effects to potentially distract you from winning a race. Just seeing the sky and clouds reflect on the rear window is an often impressive sight.
From a level design standpoint racing videogame veterans might feel a hint of nostalgia the moment they try out familiar courses like Suzuka, which has evolved over the decades after its initial introduction in Pole Position II. My personal favorite road is in New Hampshire, a gorgeous course that is lined with yellow, orange, and red fall leaves. It’s a track that is scenic when using lower class cars and is a vibrant rush of colors during fast drives. Japan and Germany are the hosts of most of the point-to-point races. Some of these Japanese tracks provide the fix for anyone looking to drift, but be sure to turn off the auto-breaking if you’re playing it on Medium difficulty.
As the third Forza game on the Xbox 360, the quality of Forza Motorsport 4 speaks not only to the pervasively high quality of the franchise, but it also makes a case that we do not need a new wave of consoles just yet. Turn 10 Studios has once again performed a spectacular job with the presentation with much of the credit going to the lighting effects. This is complemented by the wide variety of driving experiences and includes a fully equipped multiplayer mode that performs superbly under good connections. It’s also a fine ride for anyone who wants to unlock everything in World Tour. It may not have the most cars, but it’s certainly the most enjoyable driving simulation experience you’ll find this year.