The soft feeling of Alcantara on my left palm contrasts starkly with the cold metal of the shifter knob under my right hand. The glare of the sun almost blinds me, as I speed down the hairpins of Fujimi Kaido with my engine roaring like a hungry beast.
The rear tires squeal and slide just a little on the very edge of grip, enough to put me into each corner, but not enough to send me spinning against the guard rail. Precise, rhythmical movements lead my car waltzing left and right, dancing with danger at 120 miles per hour over the pass, and then on the downhill.
The cold, calculating nature of my brain holds at bay the lethal sensation of power that comes from my spine: I will not let it blind me, slow my reflexes and drag me far from the apex. Brake… Downshift… Left… Countersteer… Accelerate… Upshift…
Then a blinding red light fills my vision, and reality overcomes my senses.
You may have noticed that this review of Forza Motorsport 4 comes a tad late. Unfortunately that delay happened due to the red light mentioned above, that added over my determination to test this game as thoroughly as possible. I’ll say it immediately, Forza Motorsport 4 is a gigantic game. You won’t be able to experience it all within a week, and after a month you probably won’t still be nearly done. Also, if you came here looking for comparisons with another prominent console racer released about a year ago, you may be disappointed. It won’t happen here, as we review games on their own merits, and not on how they compare to their competitors.
The first noticeable element when loading Forza 4 is how much the engine has improved since the release of the previous game of the series. The cars in Forza Motorsport 3 looked quite good, but not as realistic as I would have liked, the lighting engine was sketchy, and this made them look like they were mostly made of plastic.
On the other hand the rides in Forza 4 are downright beautiful, possibly bordering the limits of what the Xbox 360 can produce in terms of visual fidelity. The level of detail is consistently high both for interiors and exteriors of all cars, and you’ll have to squint really hard in order to find flaws or parts with a low polygon count to save resources.
This said, what really excels aren’t the cars (having great looking cars is pretty much a standard in racing games nowadays), but the courses and environments. The visuals of the places you’ll drive in are nothing short of fantastic, especially because of the large, wide field of vision that lets your gaze really travel far when you’re on an elevated position. The Bernese Alps and Camino Viejo are perfect examples. The beauty of the mountains around you is so stunning that it often can prove distracting, and an even better factor is that props placed near the course really fit well, visually, with far-off objects in the background, avoiding the slightly jarring divide you often see in older games.
Unfortunately while the environments look awesome, they also look a little static. There are no birds, planes, helicopters or anything that could give the impression that we’re driving in a realistic world instead of a beautiful painting. It’s a minor issue, of course, but an issue none-the-less. It becomes a little more disturbing in the rare moments in which you’ll have to do a pit stop. There’s no pit crew, animated or otherwise, which is another element that shows that Turn 10 had to really cut down to the essential in order to fit the cars and tracks and their level if visual fidelity into the limited resources of the 360.
Despite that the new lighting engine is what really makes the graphics of Forza 4 shine, casting near perfect reflections on the bodywork of the cars, and allowing for lovely illumination changes with dusk and dawn races (unfortunately only on some tracks). Turn 10 found a method to render the brightness of the sunlight in an extremely realistic way, and this enriches the overall visuals of the game quite visibly.
Unfortunately while the environment is extremely coherent in itself, in a few different lighting conditions cars don’t really fit with the asphalt on which they are speeding. It’s not extremely noticeable or jarring, but it does prove distracting once in a while.
Considering the overall solid lighting engine, the lack of working headlights is also a noticeable flaw, especially considering dusk racing and the fact that tunnels aren’t exactly rare in the game. The addition of headlights would have increased the beauty of the graphics by quite a lot. Honestly I hope Turn 10 will finally consider it for Forza 5.
For something that has always been publicized heavily as one of the major features of the Forza franchise, visual damage is rather hit and miss. The damaged areas look good and rather realistic, but no matter how hard you crash your car, your windshield will always be in pristine condition. Also, most of the damage is precalculated, and even a slight bump with another car can make both cars look like someone went at them with a spiked club. In addition to that, the moment in which the damage actually happens looks really innatural. When you hit a car head on you will notice the damage on it (or to be more precise, the decal that looks like damage) appear from thin air on its bodywork. It’s sudden and lacks any kind of gradual increment, creating a rather jarring effect.
Of course this isn’t a game breaking flaw, especially as I race to avoid other cars and not to hit them, but sometimes it’s pretty much inevitable, and the way damage is handled adds a small degree of insult to injury.
If you want to see more about the visuals of Forza Motorsport 4, you can head to my flickr gallery, and you’ll find plenty screenshots for your viewing pleasure.
The audio aspect of the game definitely shows an high degree of care and attention to detail, at least in the effects department. The sounds of engines are raw and strong, and compared to those that I heard from the same cars in real life (of course I didn’t get to experience all of them, or even the majority), they are definitely realistic. The same can be said for the other effects like the squealing of tires or the sounds of impacts or crashes.
A definitely pleasing element is created by the expertly engineered surround effects that will really make the player feel immersed in the driving experience, especially if he has a 5.1 or a 7.1 setup or headset.
The soundtrack is a little hit and miss, and depends a lot on what kind of music you like. Personally, while the variety of tracks is not disappointing, i felt that many of them weren’t very conducive to racing exhilaration. I will never understand why racing game developers don’t license some good old Eurobeat for their games. There’s no better racing music, and I’m sure those that watched and loved the Initial D series will understand why.
That said you can simply replace the default soundtrack with your own MP3s, so it’s not much of a problem whether you like it or not.
Voice acting is another area with evident pros and just as evident cons. The voice of Jeremy Clarkson will make Top Gear fans like me giggle in glee, especially while listening to his almost delirious but extremely funny dissertations in the Autovista mode. There’s no doubt here, he’s an excellent voice over actor.
The problems become apparent when we move to the World Tour mode, that forms the bulk of the single player game. Clarkson recorded a very small numbers of lines for it, with the result that his voice overs become absolutely boring during the vast majority of the game, forcing you to hear him saying exactly the same sentence basically every time you’ll visit the same track, and you’ll visit the same track a lot.
No matter how much of a Top Gear fan you are, and believe me, I’m a pretty rabid one, after a few seasons of the World Tour good ol’ Jeremy’s trite lines will very possibly make your ears bleed, and you won’t be able to enjoy an episode of the popular series as you did before you started playing Forza 4. I don’t know about you, but after a while I honestly wished that they had the Stig voice the World Tour parts of the game. Talking just as much as the Stig does, of course.
But let’s move to what’s really important in a racing simulator, or at least a game that’s publicized as one (I prefer to call this class of software a semi-simulator, but that’s just me), and pop the hood open to see what’s under it. Awesome graphics and ear-cuddling sound are a nice have, but how does the gameplay perform?
If you played Forza Motorsport 3 you’re in for a nice surprise (if you live under a rock, I guess), as you will be able to import your savegame into Forza 4. That nice surprise almost immediately turns into a bittersweet one, as you notice that you have absolutely no control on the cars you will import. Remember that one you really liked? Well. You better hope that Forza 4 likes it too, or you won’t get it. On top of this, no matter if you played Forza 3 for years, the credit bonus will be a veritable pittance. But hey, it’s free stuff, so in the end it’s still welcome. It could have been designed a lot better though. I definitely understand not letting us import ALL our cars, but a bit of control wouldn’t have hurt.
Things get way, way better when we actually bring those cars on a track. While I still wouldn’t define Forza 4 a true simulation, or even the most realistic simulation on the console market, the physics engine has improved massively since its predecessor, especially when looking at rear wheel drive cars.
In real life most MR and FR (rear traction cars with the engine built in the middle or in the rear) supercars need monstrous traction control systems to be driven comfortably. When left unbridled and pushed to the limit they become extremely tail-happy. In Forza 3 this simply wasn’t simulated, or at least it wasn’t simulated nearly enough, as even the most powerful rear traction beasts still felt quite planted during corners. The result was that not only driving them was much easier than handling their real life counterparts, but their performance was also flattened in an absolutely pityful way, as their strong points were ripped off alongside the challenge involved in driving them. It was so bad that Turn 10 had to create a specific online lobby for them, because every 4wd or even a crappy FF (front engine, front traction) would smoke them on every track.
This doesn’t happen anymore in Forza Motorsport 4, and now the choice in traction between different cars is actually meaningful. While front and all wheel drive cars feel safe and stable, rear wheel drive supercars, especially when very powerful, are as tail happy as their rear counterpart if you turn the traction control off, but, if you can keep them under your command, they’ll throw their nose into corners like no tomorrow. That’s, of course, a big if, and your skills will be challenged and rewarded.