You realise you are in for something special when you’re staring at a video game rendition of the gorgeous Ferrari 458 Italia, and even the angle of the sticker on the power steering fluid filler cap is exactly the same as the real thing parked next to you. It's commensurate with the level of detail and passion that has clearly gone into making Forza Motorsport 4.
Some fans of the series may have been worried that with such attention to visual detail and so many ancillary features and options, perhaps the meat of the game had suffered in favour of a more holistic approach to cars. Worry not. Turn 10 has once again produced a driving game that manages to ably balance the interests of simulator fans against those who just want some four-wheeled fun.
Difficulty scales by taking aspects of simulated racing and letting the game manage them for you, if you want it to. Braking can be controlled by the use of Auto Brake. The racing line will dictate an appropriate path through the apex of a corner. These assists and other features can be enabled or disabled, such as steering, tyre wear or fuel consumption, until it all feels right.
Of course, veterans will likely turn all the assists off before hitting the road. With an all-new tyre physics model and an enhanced damage model, Forza 4 proves to be a very competent racing game. Cars feel weighted, and the tracks have the kind of bumps, cracks and camber changes which will challenge even seasoned drivers. The new physics make cars more responsive, and this is both rewarding and challenging at times.
Upon running out of talent – something that will prove to be a frequent occurrence for many – Forza’s tweaked damage model becomes apparent. With more localised damage to the cars, a minor prang hampers progress in a longer race. If there's only a lap or two to go, it might be possible to make it to the finish line with a lead maintained, however it's a vastly different story if a corner is misjudged and the vehicle rolls.
Auto Vista and Rivals are two new additions to the series. Auto Vista has been much touted in the lead up to launch, and depending on where your interests lie, it’s either a wonderful inclusion or a distraction from the business of racing. Fifty cars are available to explore in minute detail, and all manner of information is at hand, such as engine specs on the Bugatti Veyron, or the history of the Ford GT. These are narrated by none other than Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, lending his cynical and often hilarious opinion to all and sundry. Engines can be started, interiors explored, and even bonnets, roofs and miscellaneous panels can be detached to reveal hidden aspects.
Some cars on display require unlocking through various challenges such as winning races, passing a set number of cars, or completing a Top Gear challenge. The latter is an important addition; Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear brand are tied into Forza 4 in numerous ways. There is the Top Gear Test Track, and the likely to be popular "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" rivals challenge, as well as the aforementioned Auto Vista car commentary. In addition, two challenges which were deemed too expensive to be regularly performed on the perennial UK show come to life in the form of Top Gear Bowling and Top Gear Soccer.
The focus on Top Gear results in a good deal of content, which enhances rather than overwhelms the overall racing experience. Much like the show itself, subtle personality is injected – which stands in contrast to the more flamboyant approach of DiRT 3, for example.
Rivals mode is already proving popular with fans who have access to the demo. A hybrid of online and offline modes, challenges are presented along with another player's score. This player is offered as competition, with the goal being the ultimate trumping of their score or time. This can be done at any stage in the proceedings, and swiftly becomes an enjoyable way to compete with other players without having to be online at the same time. Once a few friends have set some times, addiction prevails and lap after lap can be spent trying to get that corner just right. There’s something vaguely Pac-Man-like about being chased around a tricky race track by someone’s lap ghost.
The career mode has been revamped, split again into a basic event list and a more defined method of progression. This time around it’s called World Tour. Players are taken to various tracks across the globe and invited to choose from three races. Credits are still earned to spend on new vehicles, but there is now the option of buying car tokens with real world cash. Experience is gained for each race, and with each driver level attained a choice of new vehicles is offered as a reward. New events will pop up; not just races, but some bowling, some drifting, and some mixed class racing. It's entirely possible to run an S-class race whilst dicing between F-class cars, making for some thrilling encounters.
Profiles can be imported from Forza 3, and based on the players' existing driver level, cars and credits will be available from the outset. A nice feature, although it's just as fun to start from scratch again with a low budget vehicle to enjoy modifying it over time. During this process, the AI cars are upgraded to ensure a reasonable challenge is presented. As with most racing games, AI is predictably easy at lower settings, and often brutally difficult at maximum. Expect to be jostled with; the AI fight back a lot more, often refusing to give up position and cutting the racing line.
The AI can easily be saved for another day however, as Forza 4 supports 16-player online races. For many, this might consist of coming 16th rather than 8th, although it's tremendous fun if the first corner carnage caused by the crowded track can be avoided. Making a welcome return are the player-controlled lobbies, and with the removal of the "hopper" system matchmaking is more user friendly. The usual options to filter race regulations are on offer here too.
The new Car Clubs integration is welcome as it allows groups of players – perhaps real world clubs – to come together and form a virtual car club that can share builds and cars between themselves. This allows everyone to race the same tuned custom car, or perhaps loan out various vehicles to other club members.
There's no shortage of cars on offer with which to facilitate this. 500 fully rendered, interior modelled, high-definition cars will be available at launch, and with over 80 manufacturers from around the world present the choice on offer is practically overwhelming at times. From shopping carts like the Fiat 500 all the way to Hummers for those with an inferiority complex, there's something for everyone. But as expected, the Achilles heel of most modern racers is still present: there will always be models that didn't make the cut. To get around this, downloadable content packs are scheduled to be released each month to bring more cars to players. None of these will consist of any Porsche model however, as due to a licensing complication with EA the closest on offer come from RUF.
Supplementing the car selection is the now ubiquitous tuning mode. This is the area where the least has changed, although minor tweaks are visible. Certain cars can have the bumpers and spoilers removed, and there are also options for modifying electric cars, which are understandably different from the options for internal combustion cars. The remainder of the options are business as usual: turbo upgrades, suspension kits, weight reductions and so forth are all available. In addition, the performance index returns, and will dictate what cars will enter a race.
Racing isn't all about vehicles, and the inclusion of a good selection of tracks goes without saying. A typical mix of real and fantasy tracks are present, with the standouts being the newly mapped Burmese Alps, and Infineon raceway. Both bring unique challenges: the former a fast flowing mountain race and the latter a tricky real-world track with plenty of elevation changes and hard-to-read turns. The biggest issue, at least down under, is the absence of Bathurst. This is made even stranger by the inclusion of many V8 Supercars which can be raced all around the world – just not on any actual V8 Supercars series tracks. Moreover, the original Forza at least had a Bathurst inspired Blue Mountains circuit.
If it were possible, the game looks even better than Forza 3, and must surely be squeezing the absolute maximum out of what is effectively six-year-old hardware. There is a new, and much mentioned image-based lighting model, which allows the cars to look more like part of the world around them. There's no doubt the modifications made work extremely well; tracks look fantastic, and the Auto Vista mode shines. The improvements also allow tracks to be rendered at different times of day, facilitating some truly impressive textures and reflections, along with a new selection of places to pose your car and admire it – including the Top Gear studio.
Other enhancements to visuals include sparks, exhaust flames, and improved smoke and dirt. These effects are used subtly and to good effect, not thrown in at every single opportunity. Some cars even have Active Aero parts; moving wings actually move in the game. Brake at high speed in the Veyron and the rear wing will tilt to increase drag and act as an air brake. All these physical attributes are layered with the return of the Paint Mode, along with new decals and the ability to import old layers from Forza 3. Sadly not old paint jobs however, the new lighting engine proving too much of a barrier in that regard.
Forza 4 hasn’t escaped the Kinect treatment, but rather than gimmicky, it's a pleasant surprise. Voice navigation in menus is acceptable, and head tracking is better implemented than most would expect. That said, it's unlikely to be a feature the hardcore fans leave enabled for extended periods. Cars can also be raced by using hand gestures to form a steering wheel, with the game taking care of most of the tricky aspects and leaving the steering over to the player. This allows anyone to get involved and enjoy a race or two regardless of skill. Two races being about the maximum anyone will tolerate before their arms burn.
For all this of course, there is compromise; albeit carefully considered compromise. There is no night racing, no weather effects and no rally component to this edition. Believing firmly in the 60 frames-per-second philosophy, Turn 10 felt it was not able to do these modes justice on the current generation of hardware. There are also tracks that did not make it through to this version, and the rear view mirrors run at a slightly lower frame rate.
Nevertheless, none of this matters. For all the minor problems at hand, Forza Motorsport 4 is the most complete car experience available today. Vast in scope, with many new features, it is slickly presented and well executed. Other titles will cater to hardcore racing specialties better, but for those looking to race, tweak, tune and participate in a community, this fourth iteration offers more than enough entertainment.
Turn 10 has rightfully earned a podium finish.