Some say that familiarity breeds contempt, and to be honest, I was feeling that in a serious way some 15 hours into reviewing Forza 4. Indeed, I can pinpoint the first moment when something began to nag at me: It was turn three on Tsukuba. There I was in my Lancer Evo VI, slipping into first place by pulling off the kind of outside overtaking manoeuvre that makes that cheap but brilliant-handling 4WD car my first buy in any racing game. But instead of feeling good, I began to get a sinking feeling. How many freakin’ times have I done this? Not only in the Forza series, but in Gran Turismo too. Same track, same car, same overtaking manoeuvre. Why am I doing this again?

At that point, I really wasn’t feeling Forza 4 at all. I’d certainly appreciated its upgraded presentation, but after I’d perused its roster of cars, it felt just a little too much like looking through my personal Forza 3 collection – only I didn’t own any of them yet. I’d taken a good, long look at the single RUF car and realised that, fantastic though it is, it’s absolutely no substitute for the missing Porsches that were so good in the previous game. And while Forza 4 has upgraded lighting effects and improved graphics, at this point I’d got used to the difference, and it was beginning to look the same. And in terms of gameplay, it was feeling like a grind: I was driving the same well-worn road I’ve driven in many previous racing games to build up a stable of pretty much the same cars I already own in prior editions of Gran Turismo and Forza.

Forza 4 was really beginning to feel like Forza 3.1.

I continued to level up and grow my car collection – which happens quite quickly and is definitely more rewarding than in previous Forzas because you now choose from a selection of prize cars whenever you win a race – but I still couldn’t shake that nagging feeling. Sure, the visuals are more finessed. Sure, the driving engine is improved. And the sound’s better. But it felt like getting a new operating system: It’s clearly better than the last one, but in ways you take for granted very quickly.

But then things changed.

I took a break from levelling, and started playing with the Rivals mode. I began to work my way through the rankings, beating other players’ ghosts over and over until I hit ghosts that really challenged me. I had to tune and re-tune my car. I finessed its settings. I bought new cars, experimenting and fettling endlessly to shave 10ths off my lap times so I could win. And that’s when it struck me. WTF just happened to the time? It's three o'clock in the morning and I’m having fun: Serious, addicted, immersed, focused, totally hooked, obsessed-with-winning fun.

And that is what makes Forza 4, Forza 4 – not Forza 3.1. What the developers have done is opened it up – taken a racing series that was already comprehensively competitive thanks to its leaderboards and social features, and dialled them up several notches to make them even more varied and fun. Forza 4’s evolution is not really in its cars, in its handling engine, or really even in its graphics. It’s in its Car Club and Rivals modes that both work together to facilitate convenient, compelling, varied and deep racing experiences between individuals and groups of players – both synchronously and asynchronously. The single-player mode is merely a way of building a car library and getting you ready for the real game – which is competitive racing with other players.

Forza Motorsport 4

And the thing I really like about that competitive racing is that, if you're good enough, Forza 4 turns you a "boss" character for other players to beat.

Helping add variety beyond the point-to-point racing, time trials and drifting of yore, are a roster of new challenges. One of my favourites is a mode where you can race an opponent on road courses packed with slower-moving other cars, weaving in and out of traffic in a highly dangerous fashion. There’s also fun stuff like knocking over bowling pins as you race, autocross modes which require you to go through cone gates that are often way off the racing line, and even a Top Gear car soccer mode that you can play with 15 other people. All these help deliver a great all-round racing experience that’s varied, interesting and, when you add the social component, hugely fun.

 Next page: Clarkson

There are a few other new features in Forza 4 that I should mention, but I’m less enthused about them, simply because I think they’re more marketing tools than bona fide game enhancements. I get what the developers are doing with Autovista, a mode that lets you interact with incredibly detailed models of certain cars – but to me it’s novelty demo stuff that just doesn’t add anything to the game other than a showcase of the developer’s talent. In the press pack's marketing materials it’s positioned as a way of “igniting your passion for cars.” But that feels like a bunch of nonsense to me. They’re highly detailed models of cars. I don’t feel any more connected to them than I do if I’m watching a video of them. Indeed, I feel most connected to them when I’m driving at them in the game.

What saves Autovista from being utterly pointless is the narrative commentary from Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, which gives life to the almost too hyper-realistic models, but only because he’s such an entertaining guy and has some really interesting things to say. But even then, it’s a one-shot deal. Once you’ve heard the commentary, you don’t really need to hear it again.

At the end of the day, I wish the seemingly huge amount of development hours spent on these impressive, but ultimately cosmetic niceties were instead spent on other, more practical things. Such as making more new cars to supplement the rather-too-long list of cars seen in prior Forza games. Or perhaps adding a few more tracks to go along with the too few that were added this time around, because when it comes down to it, this is a game that is all about driving.

Forza Motorsport 4

The game also uses Kinect, but it’s another feature I don’t think adds much value. Making menu navigation slightly more convenient is nice, but I just didn’t get on with the head-tracking system, which seemed to force me to turn my head away from a screen that I actually want to be looking at to point an in-game camera at an area I might not. I’m sure some people will think it’s cool, but to me the whole thing just feels like a box-ticking exercise where Microsoft have asked Turn 10 to integrate Kinect, not because it’s a game enhancement, but because they want to sell more Kinects.

But the good news is that while I’m moaning about these things, they don’t really take anything away from the game – probably due to the ironic reason that they don’t really add anything in the first place. They’re easy to ignore, because they don’t get in the way of the real game, which is absolutely brilliant.

Which, of course, begs the question: Now that we’ve reached the end of the road for this generation of racing games, which franchise emerges the victor? Well, having played Gran Turismo 5 for many months earlier this year, I feel that the PS3 racing flagship still delivers the most realistic-feeling and authentic driving simulation experience. Brilliant though Forza 4 is, Gran Turismo 5 just feels a little more convincing at the limit, if only by a few degrees. And while the lighting and graphics in Forza 4 are outstanding, Gran Turismo 5 manages to articulate an atmosphere in its dynamic lighting and weather effects that is simply gorgeous. It also has more cars, but while their quality hits higher highs than the best in-game models in Forza 4, many – indeed most – of them are vastly inferior.

Forza 4 fights back, however, with sheer wealth of features. It has much better tuning modes for gear heads, and its hallmark visual customisation tools for designers and artists is superb. It has a storefront that lets everyone sell everything from prize cars to custom stickers. And, of course, it has its deeply impressive roster of competitive racing modes and challenges – backed with outstanding social features.

Put them all together, and you have the ultimate automotive playground. A place where car buffs can come together and enjoy virtually every aspect of car culture you can think of – and engage in fierce, beautifully articulated competition. It’s a remarkable achievement, and the reason why Forza 4 accelerates down the final straight and leaves Gran Turismo 5 eating its dust, crossing the finish line as the best racing game in the world today, tomorrow, and probably for the next few years.

I’ll see you on the track.

Forza Motorsport 4: Specs

  • Available for Xbox 360 only Age rating: 3+
  • Available for Xbox 360 only Age rating: 3+

OUR VERDICT

Simply the best racing game available right now. From its stellar graphics and presentation to its outstanding online racing modes and social features, Forza 4 is an absolute winner. The only fly in the ointment is a few unnecessary features and gimmicks such as Kinect support.

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