In the interest of full disclosure, I should make it clear up front that I have always been a loyal devotee of Gran Turismo. The series helped craft my automotive knowledge through middle school and high school, helped me choose the proper spring rates for my track rat in college, and generally consumed days and days of my young life. So when Turn 10 introduced Forza Motorsport for the Microsoft xBox in 2005, I was skeptical. Whereas Gran Turismo seemed to push the realism line ever further, Forza Motorsport felt laced with traces of Cruisin' USA or some other relic of the arcade circuit. But that was then.
The Forza Motorsport series has matured significantly over the intervening six years, and Forza Motorsport 4 has debuted as the pinnacle of xBox automotive entertainment. With over 80 manufacturers on hand and 22 tracks, each with multiple configurations, this latest version promises to be an eruption of digital motorsports glory.
With Gran Turismo 5 currently collecting dust and wallowing in a tepid pool of disappointment, it was finally time to give Forza another shot. Turn 10 was kind enough to provide a review copy as well as a loaner xBox 360 for a week. I tried not to look my Playstation 3 in the eye as I wired up the rival machine, brushed off any traitorous feelings and hit the power button. It was time to go racing.
I've spent the majority of my time with Forza Motorsport 4 in the World Tour portion of Career mode, working my way from adorable subcompact hatches to brawnier sheetmetal. The progression more or less follows the same path as other driving simulators, with one big exception. With each step up in driver level, players are rewarded with genuinely interesting cars to drive.
Instead of filling your garage with 15 variations on the same obscure Japanese kei car, the crew at Turn 10 offers up a BMW 2002 Turbo or a Toyota Sprinter Trueno Apex. Even better, you can pick your victory car from a selection of similarly capable machines, so that you aren't just stuck with a default prize or a vehicle that you already own. As a result, you find yourself having fun almost by default. The variety of available vehicles is fantastic, and each one is rendered in painfully expert detail inside and out. Visually, Forza Motorsport 4 sinks the Gran Turismo battleship.
Turn 10 has also made Forza Motorsport 4 accessible for those who aren't diehard gearheads with a convenient vehicle class system. While we're more than a little irritated to find no specifications for victory cars available, each vehicle is broken down on a points and letter-grade system. This means that you won't find yourself wading into a race with a grossly over- or under-powered vehicle. At least not if you're paying attention. All you have to do is match up the classes, pay attention to your numbers and you're good to go. There's no balancing out power-to-weight ratios or performance modifications, and while purists may pine for their power graphs, the truth is that you spend less time flipping through menus and more time racing in Forza Motorsport 4. That's always a good thing.
Turn 10 didn't just pour all of its resources into an impressive vehicle catalog, either. That same variety is applied to track selection. Instead of offering gamers the same reconstituted tracks, Forza Motorsport 4 delivers a wide range of venues spread all over the globe. In three days of racing, I never campaigned on the same track twice. Whether you're bashing fenders with a Ford Ka at Road Atlanta or nudging bumpers with an Escort RS Cosworth at Hockenheim, the track surface, background and lighting are all expertly executed. Of course, that variety also means that racers have to rely on their reactionary skill instead of course memorization, at least for the first lap or two.
I should probably lend a word or two to the driver AI in Forza Motorsport 4. Whereas Gran Turismo seems to be populated by a race of superhuman drivers who would rather fall on their own tire iron than miss an apex, Forza 4 lines you up against a virtual cast that actually has personality. Some are more cautious while others will go headlong into a hairpin and wind up playing in the gravel. As a result, you can't simply stick to the driver's line in front of you and hope for the best. That's a hard-earned lesson on a real track day, and it's no less true here.
That's not to say I'm completely won-over by Forza Motorsport 4. While the game boasts a revamped physics engine, the racing can feel a little over-assisted even with all of the driving aids turned off. While that makes the game more accessible for those who haven't been glued to a controller since The Mighty Mighty Boss Tones were acceptable party material, it also takes a good bit of the challenge out of the experience. The interaction between the car and the track feels a bit plasticized, which is a surprise given how beautifully everything is rendered.
Speaking of driver aids, the game defaults with every assist imaginable on. Not only are you provided with a driving line laid onto the track, but the game will also automatically slow you down if you're coming in too hot on the easiest settings. As with most real sports cars, you're going to have more fun when you turn everything off.
I'm also still a bit on the fence when it comes to Kinect integration in Forza Motorsport 4. While the system's head tracking is a step toward allowing gamers to finally look through an apex from inside their virtual helmet, the range of camera motion is a bit limited. Under tight turns, you'll need to snap a vertebra or two just to get your virtual self to look through the side glass. Even after playing with the sensitivity settings, we were frustrated to see the limited range of view. Unfortunately, we can't muster up any good words for Kinect in Autovista mode, either.
Theoretically, in Autovista mode your virtual self will move around a vehicle while Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame prattles on about the car's merits or lack thereof depending on how you move your body. The whole system had me swaying drunkenly, flailing my arms about and generally growing more irate by the second. I don't want to do an interpretive dance, damn it. I just want to open the door of the Ferrari 458 Italia. Do yourself a favor and stick to the controller on this one or you'll find yourself looking for things to fling about the living room.
New tech integration aside, Forza 4 is an impressive game. It lacks much of the technicality of Gran Turismo, but makes up for the deficit with excellent and engaging gameplay, an interesting and varied selection of vehicles and a wealth of detailed tracks. Is it enough to make me sell my Playstation 3 and finally become an xBox 360 convert? No, but I'll have no problem admitting that the Forza franchise has grown into an amazing effort from here on out.
With downloadable content available right from the launch date, each player can customize their game to suit their automotive tastes with packages that bundle similar metal together, including the currently-available Muscle Car pack. Forza Motorsport 4 is available starting October 11 with an MSRP of $59.99 for the standard edition and $79.99 for the limited collector's edition (above).
For a hardcore gamer's perspective, check out the Joystiq review of Forza Motorsport 4.