I’m squeezing the trigger so hard I can feel my pulse in my finger, pounding away as I tentatively navigate the last few corners on the last lap – ahead, but only by a few seconds, the quicker Golf R in my rear view mirror gaining ground. My Seat’s nimbler, tuned to be lighter and faster on the bends, but with less grunt it’s down to my driving skills rather than horsepower to determine the outcome.
Moments like this aren’t exclusive to Forza, of course, but Turn 10’s sim racer joyfully ensures that your path up the career rankings is one filled with drama, carefully selecting rival cars that ensure a smooth difficulty curve without either letting you run away with the trophy every time or – worse still – require rote memory of each course’s twists and turns just to stay ahead.
It’s also a career mode vastly improved over Forza 3’s, this time presenting a focused, linear path through a series of structured levels, but always offering a choice of three races at every stage. If you prefer to stick to the slower classes, for the most part, you can, but the rewards are greater if you step up a gear or two, the options changing based on your currently selected car.
Of course, there’s also the ugly (but at least separate) event list, an Excel-spreadsheet of blues (you have a suitable car), greens (you’re in a car suitable) and greys (neither of the above) with a smattering of padlocked sections that require you to be a certain level.
These present multiple races, with credits and other miscellany as token rewards.
You’ll find that you’re actually filling in these checkboxes as you go through the main career mode, but if you’re the masochistic type then you can work your way through these assuming your garage is extensive enough. It’s not recommended – the treats aren’t really worth the labour and it’s a rather unfulfilling experience – instead we’d suggest you simply vary your career choices.
The remainder of the user interface, though, is a delight. Simple side menus expand and retract as required, letting you drill down deeply without ever losing your place. This is especially useful when you start to delve into the game’s Rivals mode, which offers a massive array of game types and challenges for the single player – except that instead of battling AI, you’re competiting against the best (and worst) Forza players on the web.
Our time with Rivals was unfortunately comparatively limited, but it shows huge potential. From a monthly Community section through to events based on Top Gear and Autocross (complete with cones and barriers), each area houses multiple subsections and each of these has its own leaderboard. The game will pick a rival based on your current skill, but you’re free to choose anyone from the high score tables to compete against.
It works well, not least because you can immediately see your rival’s ghosts out on the track, and whilst some events limit your car, class and tuning abilities it’s the ones where you’re given free reign (within some boundaries, of course) to pick and choose a vehicle and then modify it to suit that will see the most play from us. Time spent with the huge array of parts, sliders and settings just as important as your prowess on the track.
Naturally, Rivals mode also extends to your friends – expect Autolog like alerts when your mates better your times, and a simple button press is enough to jump directly to that particular event and try to win back your crown.
Other tweaks to the way the single player is laid out include new race types – the multiple class events are great fun – and the ability to choose between a selection of themed cars after you reach each level rank rather than just one. There’s no way to effectively compare the cars during the selection process, but it’s stil much better than just being given a car that you might not really want.
And then, of course, there’s the painting and designing aspects, which are absolutely unrivalled and have already produced some incredible looking cars from those with a creative flair and time to invest in what’s an initially slightly clunky interface but one capable of absolutely anything. Completed designs, logos and tuning setups can be sold in the in-game marketplace, and your cars can be auctioned off in the eBay-like Auction house.
Car Clubs are new, too – giving players a clan-like setup where they can create and join clubs (you can only be a member of one) that then add a tag to their username and the ability to share cars and leaderboard positions. Also worthy of discussion is the Autovista mode, which singles out a number of cars for super high definition, exquisitely detailed versions that you can, quite literally, walk around and climb inside.
Autovista, despite videos to the contrary, doesn’t require Kinect, the hardware best saved for head tracking (and certainly not racing, which dumbs the game down to its lowest level) but is utterly bewildering in terms of visual quality. The Heavy Rain style controls are a bit odd, but the mode is well worth spending some time with. The car models are amazing, especially with regards to the internals.
That’s actually a quality that’s carried over into the main game, too – the huge amount of vehicles (that cover everything from Top Gear favourite Kia cee’d through to American muscle, 80’s Japanese sports cars, Hummers and race spec monsters) are all great looking, inside and out, and are easily amongst the finest seen on a console. The lighting is improved, too, and although there’s some aliasing the game runs at sixty frames a second constantly.
But it’s not in the graphics, the improved career mode, the expanded single player options, the rivals mode or the tuning that Forza 4 really impresses the most – it’s in the handling. Somehow Turn 10 have managed to translate the rawness of driving – the unpredictability and the feeling of being on the very edge of grip – into a game. On Simulation mode, with the assists off and an evenly matched line-up of cars, Forza 4 is a dream.[videoyoutube]And yes, it’s better with a wheel (we’ve tried the game with a selection, including a brief stint with the new wireless one from Microsoft) but there’s no shame in playing with a controller, the sensation of the tyres losing traction and the accuracy of the on-screen counterpart mirroring your actions never more closely relayed than here. We’re seriously impressed with physics on offer: never unforgivingly hardcore, but close enough to raise a smile.
And then there’s online. It’s as complete and sophisticated as you’d like, with sixteen player races, fully customisable game setups and the ability to dive into a rack of preset game types (from rank-based circuit mode to – yes – games of soccer) right from the menus.
Access to your Car Club is omnipresent and TSA readers that have joined us for games of Forza 3 in the past will be happy to know that Tag is still in there, along with a few new modes.
Unfortunately though, what would have been a nigh-on perfect release is marred slightly by a lack of new courses – there’s only a few which admittedly include the wonderful Bernese Alps – and the overwhelming feeling that the developers have held back lots of goodies for DLC, presumably including the latest car models. We also don’t really find favour with the game letting you buy vehicles with real Microsoft Points if you don’t have enough in-game money.
But these shouldn’t spoil the overall picture. Forza Motorsport 4 might well be the best videogame racer this generation. Whilst the visuals aren’t necessarily the best we’ve ever seen and the handling occasionally feels like it’s doing odd things you can’t fault the scale of the game and the sheer breadth and scope of it all, ambition thankfully matched with substance.
It really is more than just a racer – the livery editor alone will keep budding designers happy for months, the car clubs are nicely implemented and the rivals system will ensure that competition remains at the forefront of those that want to spend most of their time out on the tarmac.
A towering, dazzling achievement, then, pushing the hardware further than its been before and building on Forza 3 in all the right places. We’ll reserve judgement in the shape of a score until we’ve spent longer with the multiplayer and progressed far enough through the ranks to ensure we’ve not missed anything. But fans can rest easy with their pre-orders: Forza 4 is superb.