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.
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.
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