Forza Motorsport 4 Review
Nearly every year there's some racing game hitting store shelves, proclaiming to be the most realistic and intense. In some cases, these games hold true to their boasts, delivering specific elements that outdo every other game on the market. But not one game in all these years has really put it all together yet. Gran Turismo 5 got close last year, but its insufferable interface, strange AI, and numerous frustrations with online and offline play put a serious damper on what was otherwise a great racing game. Forza Motorsport 4 is finally here, though, and while even this latest effort from UK developer Turn 10 Studios isn't quite as ambitious or feature-laden as Sony's big bad monstrosity, it does deliver a fun, much more engaging and accessible experience that gets players just about to the same level of simulation once you're ready to buy a real steering wheel and start turning off the assists.
The career mode is where I started, and with an import of my modest progress in Forza 3 after the loss of a much more complete save game a while back, I was gifted a few starter cars and a little cash right after the first race. That allowed me to quickly get into D-class racing and not stay stuck in the F-class econoboxes that newcomers have to linger in for at least a few races. Every driver level you gain nets you a choice of several cars, and they're not all hoopties and 80-mph hatchbacks, either - you'll get fun muscle cars from the 60s and 70s, solid and zippy modern cars, and eventually some very nice picks from major supercar manufacturers. The seasons in Forza 4's career mode are shorter and give players a few options on what car from their stable (and therefore what race) to start. You won't get to pick the track, but many races are tailored closely to the cars you have available.
One of my favorite new parts of the career mode is that manufacturer affinity, which you gain by driving a specific maker's cars, now gets you deep discounts on parts and cash prizes. After about six or seven races in one maker's cars, you can get parts for anything with that badge without paying in-game cash at all, which is immensely helpful if you're short on credits and want to upgrade your car to compete in higher-class races - or if you want to try people's tuning setups cheaply.
The visuals have been updated with a new lighting model that at times still looks just a tad sub-par, and at other times is the best in any racing game to have ever been released. What I like the most about it is in the cabin; sun glare is now an issue, and shadows are cast on the dashboard and wheel as you change your orientation to the sun. And speaking of the sun, get used to a lot of it, because Forza 4 still hasn't implemented rain or night driving. One of my fondest moments from GT5 was just doing lonely laps out on the Nurburgring, where over the course of a half hour of driving, I saw dusk fall, my headlights come on, the moon come out, and an eventual rainy dawn emerge. Obviously, Turn 10 would have done this if they had the time to work it in - it's a feature that keeps getting asked for - so while I'm disappointed we still don't have it, hopefully we will see weather and night driving next time around. (Also, I'm still waiting for some game to render the Nurburgring without making a single tree out of 2D sprites - considering how little this issue has been dealt with in Forza 4, I might be waiting a while.)
The sound has been much improved in Forza 4, making this probably the best-sounding racing game I've ever heard. There are a few inaccuracies that some have pointed out, but there are still quite a few surprisingly authentic things about the sound of the cars, both inside and outside of the cockpit. What helps, too, is the more pronounced and directional sound coming from the tires; now, along with a couple of other visual cues and better feedback from rumble motors or a wheel's feedback, you'll know very clearly which tires are losing grip in a corner and can more naturally react. Previously I had given the "best racing game sound" crown to NFS Shift 2, but Turn 10 has just earned it back with Forza 4. One thing I don't really like is the soundtrack, and after an evening with it, I killed off the game's music permanently in favor of music over the Xbox 360's custom soundtracks.
There are a couple of new features kicking around this time, some of which either require Microsoft Kinect or are "better with" it (hint: they're not). The first is Kinect head tracking for when you're using any other control scheme and want to turn your head to rotate your in-cockpit view. I found this feature great on paper, but it's not terribly smooth in some living room situations, and I found it rather disorienting as the steering wheel was no longer staying fixed on-screen. (I had similar issues with Shift 2's non-Kinect-powered helmet camera mode). Second, there is a Kinect-based control mode where you awkwardly hold your hands out and pretend to steer - but you control neither acceleration nor braking in this mode, and all assists are forced on - it's not something you expect (or want) out of a game that can hang with real-deal simulations. Finally, there's Autovista, a mode where you can get a close-up look at a couple dozen of the most curious and/or rare cars around. (There are Kinect controls for this, but I found that it didn't improve anything over using a gamepad or even a steering wheel to look at the cars.)
In Autovista, you'll see numbers on performance, hear anecdotes from the manufacturers, sit in the cars, and get to inspect many areas of the car up-close, both inside and outside. Top Gear UK's Jeremy Clarkson is on hand for some cars to give his unique, abrasive, and often humorous views on them, and it really adds something special to Autovista - especially if you're a fan of the show. For more Top Gear fun, Turn 10 included the show's popular test track along with the Kia Cee'd, the car they dump celebrities into so they can compete for lap times. There are additional events based on some of the goofy things the Top Gear boys have done over the years, and they're kind of a blast to play online, too. (I'm hoping that in Forza 5, Top Gear's James May gets to do all the narration.)
Other new features improve things in a variety of ways, and the bump up to sixteen cars in both online and offline events over Forza 3's eight is a great example of how the whole game can be improved with a couple of seemingly minor improvements. Many of the online events are entirely new or feel rejuvenated in different ways, and I found that there's plenty to do besides "standard" racing: there's knocking over bowling pins on the Top Gear track, autocross variations of tracks with cone navigation, track days where drivers are forced to deal with "traffic" during their races, and plenty more.
With a selection of over 500 cars and more coming out very soon, Forza 4 doesn't have the largest garage, but each car is shown in loving detail and all look equally good (well, as long as the car itself is handsome; there's no saving hideous creations like the PT Cruiser) inside and outside the cockpit as well as on the track. With the exception of Porsche, where the license was lost due to a disagreement of sorts with EA (who has exclusive video game rights to the Porsche brand), just about every major manufacturer you could want is here along with a solid selection of up to 20 or more cars for some of the more popular makers.
There are a few curious omissions, though, like the lack of any Ford Mustang newer than 2010; after such a huge improvement in the last year for this car and its performance and handling, I was eager to get out onto the track with one and was rather disappointed. 'Course, I was then able to take my pick from nearly half-a-dozen each of Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru WRXs, so it wasn't all bad. Still, it'd be wonderful if the lineup is substantially expanded in all directions as DLC is released over the next year - and maybe one day we'll get to drive exoskeleton cars like the Ariel Atom and the like.
For the online mode this year, Forza 4 includes a couple of major new features. First, there's guild/clan-like car clubs, where you can set up races and share paint and tuning setups very easily. Then there's the Rivals mode, a halfway-online mode where you're challenged to beat the uploaded ghost replays of increasingly more skilled, real-world opponents. You never play online together at once, but if you want, you can set up rivalries with your friends and try to beat each other's times on various tracks.
And this is in addition to Forza 3's already impressive online feature set, with auction houses, online races, amazing paint and customization work, ridiculous tuning, and crazy little events that soundly break the boundaries between genres. But amongst all of this is an open, welcoming feel to everything that encourages players to find fun nearly everywhere they go, rather than hiding it behind labyrinthine menus or long loading times - and without requiring piles of PC mods that have to be downloaded and installed.
Much has been said about the Forza series' rewind system where you can turn back time in any offline mode to fix a mistake. Defenders, like me, often call it a learning tool that we use to improve our skills for when it's time to drive without rewinds - just like you must do in nearly every single online-enabled mode in Forza 4. Those who hate the idea of rewinding call it flat-out cheating, although it's not like I ever considered a race that I completed by using rewinding anything like an accomplishment anyway. (Nor do the developers; "verified" laps for Forza 4's leaderboards must have no collisions, no cut corners, and no rewinding - and verified laps are always better than unverified, even if the former clocks in at a slower time.) Obviously, rewinds can be abused to the point of allowing players to get through the game's whole career mode without a speck of driving skill, and it's hard to defend the feature if people use it like that, but if you find the allure of rewind too tempting, Forza 4 allows you to disable the feature altogether in the Difficulty menu.
Any serious racing game fan knows that the closer you can get to the real feel, the better you'll drive and the more realistic everything is, but there's a problem here in Forza 4. You see, Microsoft's iron grip of control over Xbox 360 accessory licensing has made it difficult to get your hands on a solid and reliable steering wheel, and it hurts the prospects of this game quite a lot. MS was selling a decent force feedback wheel a very reasonable $100 for quite a while, but they've discontinued it, and a lack of other options has caused the price of MS FF wheels on eBay and the like to skyrocket up to between $150 to over $300.
Micosoft's rather disappointing substitute is the $60 Wireless Speed Wheel, which can barely be considered an actual wheel, as you hold it in the air - like you were playing Mario Kart on the Wii - and turn it to steer while pulling triggers for gas and brake. Apparently it has no LB/RB buttons so you can't actually perform a few in-game functions like car tuning, so you'll need to swap between this and a regular controller often just to move around in some menus. I tried this controller at E3, and while it works much better for driving than a standard gamepad, it's simply no substitute for a real steering wheel - even one that's 90% plastic, like Microsoft's discontinued force feedback model.
The only other options available are MadCatz' awful steering wheels from several years back (and I still see these things infecting store shelves) as well as some high-end gear from a company called Fanatec, where a wheel and set of pedals will run you $400 - and the H-pattern shifter is a separate charge if you don't want to use the on-wheel paddle shifters. I've tried out Fanatec's hardware and it's wonderful. A high-end setup from these guys is worth every penny if you're a serious racing fan, but only the most hardcore gamers with money to burn would even consider dropping the cash for it.
When you're looking for a fun, deep racing game to play, there are always trade-offs you've got to make. Do you want the maximum of realism seen in the more independent PC games (which won't have a huge selection of real-world cars built into them)? Do you go with the console games and their massive bankrolls put into licensing real manufacturers? Can you find the right balance of realism, accessibility, and fun? And if you're really into these games, can you find a steering wheel setup that works for you? For my money, I think Forza 4 strikes one of the best balances I've ever seen, with the only real issues being a few missing features, a slightly curious car selection, occasional ugliness in the eye candy, and controller-availability issues that are essentially Microsoft's fault more than anyone else's. These relatively minor issues make Forza Motorsport 4 narrowly miss the bullseye, but this is still the best racing game released this year.