After the disappointment that was last fall's half-decade-in-the-making Gran Turismo 5 , the Xbox 360-exclusive Forza franchise took the lead in the race for best driving simulator on a console. Forza Motorsport 4, which offers up an exceptionally slick, finely tuned driving experience, affirms that this series is now in the pole position. However, after spending nearly 30 hours with this latest iteration I can't help but feel as though developer Turn 10 took advantage of its new lead to coast to the finish line.
Let's run down its list of features. Hundreds of intricately detailed cars from dozens of manufacturers? Check. Scores of authentically replicated real-world circuits? Of course. A long and varied touring mode that provides ample opportunity to try different kinds of vehicles, automotive technologies, and racing styles? You bet. Robust online play featuring loads of modes and terrific community support? Yup. Finely honed driving physics that allow experienced players to feel the difference between mechanical elements as obvious as transmission and engine layout and as subtle as the stiffness and balance of springs? Yes, sir.
Of course, its predecessor, Forza Motorsport 3, had a nearly identical checklist. So, how does the fourth game in this epic racing series differentiate itself from its forerunners?
Obviously, it sports fresh cars and original tracks, but you can expect to see plenty of carry-overs. New race courses are particularly rare. I spent most of my time zooming through the same circuits I've driven countless times before in earlier games, including America's Laguna Seca, Japan's Suzuka Circuit, and, of course Europe's famed Nurburgring. This may not prove an issue to those whose chief pleasure in racing games is derived simply from mastering lines and curves, but it could prove niggling to race lovers who enjoy getting to know fresh circuits. If Turn 10 is running out of notable real-world courses to exploit, I suggest they include more along the line of the fantasy Bernese Alps circuit set in Switzerland, which offers a series of sweat-inducing high-speed slow curves set to the backdrop of one postcard-worthy vista after another.
The career mode, meanwhile, has received a minor overhaul, though not all of the changes are necessarily for the better.
Once again, players fly through hundreds of races on their way to earning a top driving level and developing an extraordinary livery of vehicles that would make Jay Leno weep with envy. The game leads players through all ten of its touring seasons one race at a time, at every stop offering a choice of three events with qualification criteria and restrictions befitting vehicles in their current garage. But the freedom isn't as great as it may at first seem. Events are always restricted to a particular track and a specific type of race, such as a cone challenge, 12-car championship, or racing dual. Players simply get to choose the kind of cars allowed.
What's more, since the new career mode tends to tailor races to a player's stock of cars, it all but eliminates the tried and true driving simulator formula of slowly earning enough cash to first buy the perfect car for a specific kind of race, then gradually upgrading it to make it a competition-killing super vehicle. Many of the cars we buy or earn in Forza Motorsport 4 are already top-of-class, meaning they're ready to race. Unless you want to bump them up in class, there's little reason to tinker. Plus, the more we race with a given manufacturer's cars, the more said manufacturer will show its gratitude by lowering or eliminating the cost of performance upgrades. I ended up spending almost all of my money on new automobiles rather tricking out existing ones. Consequently, I didn't develop the sort of close relationships with cars that I normally do over the course of a game. It's a subtle shift, but clearly noticeable by the time you enter the second or third season.
A more radical change is the addition of Kinect functionality. Microsoft has promoted Turn 10's simulator as an example of how a serious game can exploit the Xbox 360's motion and speech detecting peripheral without dumbing down a hardcore experience. This is both true and false.
If you choose to play solely with Kinect you won't be able to take part in the career or online modes. Instead, you'll be offered a selection of individual single-player or split-screen two-player races. Then you need simply make like you're holding a wheel and steer. The precision is remarkable – at least on par with using a gamepad and almost as accurate as using a steering wheel peripheral. The only problem? Players have no control over speed or braking, which the computer handles automatically. Hence, half the experience is missing. It's fun to try, but it's hardly a driving simulation on par with the rest of the game.
Players can also use Kinect in the new Autovista mode. Standing in your living room, Kinect will track you as you walk around astoundingly detailed virtual recreations of vehicles like the game's signature 2010 Ferrari 458 Italia or the 1982 DeLorean DMC-12, opening their doors and hoods, inspecting their engines, and even climbing inside to take a look at their cockpits, where you can press their ignition buttons and hear their engines roar to angry life. Audio recordings filled with car facts as well as reviews narrated by the host of Britain's popular Top Gear television program can be called up while browsing. If you can get past the ideas that Autovista is essentially an interactive advertisement for some of the world's most coveted cars, you'll realize that it's the closest most of us will ever get to a first-hand experience with these automobiles, and Kinect helps make it a little more immersive. Still, it's really not much more than a glorified bonus feature.
You'll likely end up using Kinect most often in a rather unexpected way: Navigating menus. Whenever you're not in a race, simply say "Xbox" followed by what you want to do next – "buy cars," "upgrade," "garage," or a dozen other commands. You'll be transported directly to the appropriate screen. This is an enormous improvement over toggling a joystick to wade through multiple menus. What's more, it worked flawlessly. Not once did I need to repeat myself. Kinect's voice recognition is truly impressive. Still, as cool as voice-activated menus are, they have little impact on the meat of the experience, or the reasons why someone might purchase a racing game.
Online play is perhaps the only area of unequivocally positive change. It merges the single-player and multiplayer experience like a smartly designed on-ramp, allowing players to grow their driver level in both modes while offering up new ways for them to compare skills via regularly changing "rival" races with criteria and goals similar to those of career competitions. Players can also join clubs, share cars with fellow members, and operate a storefront where they can easily upload and share everything from racing photos and video clips to specific tuning configurations. If your top priority is racing online, nothing else comes close.
I came away from Forza Motorsport 4 thoroughly satisfied with its core racing experience – driving the game's awesomely speedy cars is every bit as thrilling and realistic as it should be – as well as its deep and diverse online play and community features. And the addition of Kinect, though far from game changing, is at least intriguing. However I can't shake my light disappointment over its familiar tracks and re-jiggered career mode. Just because it seems to have usurped Gran Turismo's throne to become the best driving simulator around doesn't mean Forza Motorsport couldn't be even better.
Forza Motorsport 4
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Turn 10