Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

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.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

The improvement of the physics engine also shows in those moments in which you will lose control (because it will happen). Many racing simulators are extremely good at simulating the moment in which you lose grip, and with it the control on your car, but aren’t equally good at reproducing the physics involved in regaining such control without spinning into the grass. Forza 4, instead, does a great job with that, turning loss of grip into a relatively predictable experience, that can realistically be amended with a good command of basic racing skills and well honed reflexes.

This transforms driving at the very limit of grip or even slightly past that point from a stressful task into an extremely fun activity, because experience will tell you how your car will react when you push too far, and how to fix that without being punished excessively. After a while you’ll even be able to push too far intentionally and use it at your advantage.

Relative predictability reduces frustration and the fact that it’s also realistic is a rather large bonus.

I’m a rather demanding simulation driver, and while Forza 4 doesn’t push the boundaries of simulation, it really marks the first time within the Forza franchise in which I can honestly say that the game feels very coherent and solid in its approach to physics, allowing a virtual driver with a race craft built on more realistic (or even real) experiences to apply his knowledge and skills to the simulation without having to bend over twice to adapt to its idiosyncrasies. This is, in itself, a massive improvement, and one that increases the fun factor by quite a lot.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Of course the game is built to be enjoyable even by those that don’t come looking for a simulation at all, and the extensive aids can be easily tweaked in order to make Forza Motorsport 4 lean heavily towards arcade driving. If you want to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride while driving with two fingers, this game definitely has you covered.

The rewind feature is back from Forza 3, and honestly I always felt that it’s a veritable Godsend. Some think it makes the game too easy (and those are very free to deactivate it and shoot themselves in their elitist foot), but when used with moderation it can really help in learning to drive fast. Without rewind when you make a mistake, you have to drive a full lap to try the same corner again, and after you’ve done that, most of the times you will have forgotten what you did wrong, preventing you to fix the mistake properly. Rewind allows you to immediately go back a few seconds, with the mistake still fresh on your mind, and retry with a different approach. The result? You’ll learn much faster to be a better driver, to find the right lines and to fix your mistakes.

There actually is a rather funny glitch in the replay feature. If you just slam into another car and send it spinning, then rewind, in about 50% of cases when you resume your race without touching the opponent, the AI will still remember the collision and spin by itself, even if no contact is made.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

If the aids mentioned above make you sneer and you really want to squeeze every drop of simulative power from Forza 4, the game is advanced enough to warrant the use of an advanced wheel. It’s not random that Turn 10 partnered with one of the best wheel manufacturers on the market to create the official peripheral of the game, the Fanatec CSR (that I reviewed here) and that definitely provides a driving experience on a completely different planet compared to a controller.

Unfortunately, for some reason I cannot fathom, while the game supports 900 degrees steering wheels, it will only show the wheel on screen turn what I think is about 70 degrees. It’s not am immense problem, but it tends to be distracting until you get used to ignoring it.

If you really don’t want to use a wheel, you can get by with the joypad, especially if you use the assists, but if you want the real deal a wheel with a strong belt-powered force feedback and a clutch is where the fun is at.

Speaking about controls, Turn 10 also implemented Kinect for head tracking. While it definitely is a nice have, it also feels like they’re trying to use Forza 4 to force the peripheral on us.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Don’t have Kinect? Don’t expect to find any control on your wheel that will let you turn your camera angle gradually to the left or the right. You can do that with a controller, but if you’re driving with a wheel (and again, that’s the only way to enjoy the simulation at its fullest), the best you can do (after quite a bit of tinkering) is to get your camera to switch abruptly dead left or dead right. Of course, if you have any driving experience, you’ll know that such a design choice is all kinds of wrong, and the option proves completely useless.  Not well played, Microsoft, definitely not well played.

One flaw I’m not very willing to forgive in Forza Motorsport 4, that would be the lack of night racing and weather. Not only both options tend to look absolutely spectacular when well implemented, but they radically change the racing conditions, multiplying the fun a game can provide and its longevity.

The challenge of wet racing is what rally puts a virtual driver’s skill to the test, and unfortunately there’s none to be found in Forza 4. Night racing can seem just a matter of eye candy, but it isn’t. The worsened visibility makes everything more difficult, as you have way less time to react to what happens in front of your headlights (that in Forza 4 don’t work anyway). Considering the fact that there’s dusk and dawn racing, the lack of night racing in particular feels like a very serious shortcoming that could have been amended by diverting resources away from unnecessary gimmicks (did anyone mention Autovista? Don’t worry, I will later) and into implementing darkness, that would have massively augmented the quality of the racing department of the game instead of the simple car porn.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

The core of the single player of Forza Motorsport 4 is the World Tour mode, in which you’ll be prompted to travel the world in several different seasons of increasing difficulty with the narration of the aforementioned Jeremy “I’m gonna bore you to death with the same line repeated a thousand times” Clarkson. I really appreciate the attempt to put a degree of narration in the single player campaign, but what I don’t appreciate is to do it in such a massively limited way. It ends up feeling shoehorned in just to flaunt a guest star for the sake of glamour.

That said, Clarkson and the pathetic attempt to a narrative approach aside, the World Tour mode is actually quite great. The most clever feature is that every time you move to the next track, you’ll be presented with three different events based on the car you’re currently driving.  Not all of them will be fitting, but most of the times at least one will. This means that you won’t be forced to move to insanely powerful cars if you want to level up, but you can just drive whatever car you feel the most comfortable with at any given time, and still keep progressing.

There still will be some times in which no event provided will fit your current car, but they are balanced in a way that they happen enough to encourage an healthy amount of variation without making you feel forced to switch ride too often.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Events come in multiple kinds in order to keep the challenge varied, combined with the many different cars. Let’s get the Top Gear Challenge  (also nicknamed, by me, stooopid car bowling) out of the way first. I nicknamed it like that for a simple reason: because it’s not exactly the smartest choice for a game like this. It’s fun once, maybe twice, and then it will lead you to ask yourself why, for the love of all that’s holy, between all the amazing Top Gear challenges shown in several seasons, they picked this one. It’s the very climax of silliness, and the fact that you’ll have to repeat it a ton of times during your career makes things worse.

I understand that Top Gear includes a hefty amount of comedic relief, but this is a racing game, and if I want to play bowling, I’ll whip out Kinect Sports. If  I buy a racing game, I do so because I want to race, not to hit pins with a car, especially not multiple times.

Things get radically better with the other kinds of events. Why? because they actually resemble what you would normally do with a car on a track. I know, unbelievable. 

“Normal” races come in one-shot and two heats versions, providing a bit of variation by themselves without even delving into the realm of exotic competitions. Overtaking challenges are exactly that, prompting you to overtake a certain amount of slow cars before the finish line.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Multi class races put two line-ups of cars of entirely different power classes on the same track. You will compete only with the cars of the same class, but the massively faster or slower cars will provide an additional challenge and a nice change of pace.

Autocross is one of my personal favorites (and a returning feature from the first Forza Motorsport), and resembles an advanced driving course. Several gates made of two barrels are placed on a track, and you have to weave your way as fast as possible between them, without hitting the barrels. Not only it’s extremely fun, but it’s also a great learning experience as it teaches to drive fast while still retaining a refined level of control on your car. It can definitely bolster your overtaking confidence.

Speaking about overtaking, my actual favorite is the head to head battle mode, in which you’ll be pitched against another car with a similar performance, in the middle of traffic. Not only you’ll have to pursue and overtake your opponent, but you’ll have to do so dodging slower cars littering the track. The fact that the track in question will most of the times be a winding and narrow one like the Nurburgring or Fujimi Kaido turns the challenge into a simply awesome and exhilarating experience. If you go all out, it can be extremely difficult and extremely rewarding, especially if you make it to the end without a scratch on your car.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Progression is provided in this and other modes by a driver level and an affinity level with each of the car brands present in the game. As you drive cars from the same brand, upgrades (but not the cars themselves) will become cheaper and cheaper until you’ll be able to upgrade all the cars of that brand free of charge.

Driver level, on the other hand, awards you with a new car every time you level up. A very clever design choice is that instead of just gifting you a random car you may not like or care about, the game will give you a choice between a few different rides, letting you pick the one you’re most fond of.

The only drawback is that quite often the value of the cars provided has an immense range of variation. When you’re given a McLaren F1 worth 3,000,000 and a Jaguar XJ220 worth 180,000, what are you realistically going to choose? This said, when the value variation isn’t too wide, the system provides a great workaround to duplicates, and lets you buy your cars freely without being too worried about being gifted the same car at a later time.

The variety of tracks available is decidedly satisfying, even if there are just a few new locations on top of those offered in Forza 3. Whether you like circuits, road courses, rings or mountain passes, you will definitely find one or more good options in the game.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Personally, I can say that, as in Forza 1 and 3, Forza Motorsport 4 includes the best track of any racing game: Fujimi Kaido. While it’s a fictional track, it’s based on the many mountain passes that you can find in Japan, and that are used by street racing enthusiasts for Touge racing (racing on mountain passes). It’s made of several miles of extremely challenging winding road, with radical elevation changes and a spectacular environmental design. It’s simply a joy for any virtual racer. Whether you like grip racing or drifting, Fujimi Kaido is a place you can call home, and that will help you improve your skills radically.

Moving on to the main characters of the story, the cars, the variety is quite good, but not exceptional: there definitely are a few large holes in the line-up, that tends to be a bit too US-centric. Turn 10 definitely went a tad too far with the excess of obscure muscle cars that simply won’t be used much because their steering performance is ridiculous, while some Japanese and European brands have a very limited roster. The lack of any racing-fitted Lamborghini, for instance, is quite disappointing.

The big elephant in the room is the lack of any Porsche, replaced by a meager pair of RUFs. This is definitely a severe loss for the Forza franchise, but one that can’t be held against the game or its developer. The blame is to be laid on Porsche itself, that did the extremely stupid choice of granting an exclusive license to the use of its cars and brand to a single publisher, with the result of locking itself out of every other simulator in the market.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Considering that the simulators (or any game that involves vehicles on four wheels, really) released by that publisher don’t even get near to holding a candle to Forza 4 or that other game I promised I won’t name here, both in popularity and quality, not only we, the gamers, lose out of this ludicrous deal, but Porsche itself does as well. They aren’t exactly hurting for money, so not only their cars have the engine built in the wrong place as Jeremy Clarkson rightly says, but their licensing department seems to follow the same backwards philosophy.

But let us get to the worst flaw of Forza Motorsport 4: I will preface this with the fact that normally I’m very lenient when it comes to judging the AI of a racing simulator, there are simply too many variables for the CPU to always keep up, especially with the limited resources of consoles. Moreover, even in real racing it’s every driver’s responsibility to avoid collisions, so I don’t really mind if the opponents get aggressive, within reason.

That’s why I expect mistakes (when they aren’t too many I actually appreciate them, as real drivers make mistakes too), and to be bumped here and there, but Forza 4 goes way too far: The AI drivers are the dumbest example of dumb AI that I’ve seen in a long while.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

As I said, I’m used to AI opponents that get a little too close for comfort, or even a tad too touchy-feely, but most of the time the AI in Forza 4 will simply ignore the fact that you’re there and mercilessly slam their car against yours, no matter if they destroy both in the process. On top of that, no matter the fact that according to their descriptions they are supposed to be expert drivers, the AI dudes will very often simply forget to brake before corners, and end straight into the sand. I’m not talking about going slightly wide and with a couple wheel out of the tarmac, mind you, I’m talking about actually forgetting to step on the brake and to turn the wheel and ending up going straight.

Now just imagine if you happen to be in front of them what that happens.

Quite often I’ve seen that happen multiple times in the same race, so I’m inclined to think that it’s not an intentional feature of an AI programmed to make mistakes, but simply the fact that the CPU cycles can’t keep up with what’s happening on track, resulting in this kind of disastrous computerized ineptitude.

To be honest, I think that while Turn 10 raised the number of cars on track, they didn’t proportionally increase the hardware resources allocated to keep the AI relatively “smart” as it was in Forza 3. That, or maybe they increased the resources in a direct proportion, and not exponentially as it would be needed: when you increase the number of elements in an environment, you don’t just need more resources to control all those elements, but, since the environment becomes more crowded, you also need more resources to let those elements interact with each other, and react to the smaller room for movement. Most probably something went horribly wrong during the process of allocating those resources.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Just think about how annoyed you are when you race online and the usual newbie that won’t brake and will use cars as guard rails, ruining it for everyone. The biggest problem with Forza 4 is that now you can’t escape from that even while racing offline.

A second problem comes with the fact that, while they AI cars are very keen on trying to beat the player by bashing him into submission, they are also slow. Very slow. Even going up past the professional series, especially if you tune your car, you won’t have the slightest problem leaving every single AI car dead into your trail. Looks like M. Rossi is getting old. Maybe it’s time to replace him with V. Rossi.

The bumpy AI ends up being even more annoying due to the ludicrous penalty system. Don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely justified and welcome for the game to make your lap time invalid if you cut corners or use other cars as a guard rail to keep yourself  into the track, but unfortunately the system is absolutely crazy.

The slightest event beyond the smoothest possible drive will trigger the penalty system and invalidate the laptime. If you like to drive around or beyond the limit, you won’t post many hot laps in the leaderboard. Draft another car? Invalid. Another car drafts you ? Invalid. Slightest bump that you couldn’t avoid because M. Rossi charged at you like a furious fictional Italian rhino? Invalid. Lose a bit of grip in that corner in which you’re supposed to in order to drive fast? Invalid. I can’t count the times in which I didn’t even know what invalidated my time.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

This turns hot lapping, which is one of the most interesting activity for a pure simulation driver, into a quite frustrating chore.  Don’t expect to be posting many good laps with any traffic on the track, because you need a miracle to achieve that. Maybe if your Xbox 360 watches you through the eye of Kinect and actually likes your suit, you may have a slight chance.

Luckily Turn 10 devised a very clever way to keep hot lappers interested despite the aforementioned hurdle: the Rivals mode.

The Rivals mode is a series of “offline” (quotes mandatory, as you still need to be connected to the internet) events in which you’ll race against the ghost of another player. If you beat him, you’ll receive plenty of experience and credits (in the form of a bounty), and he’ll receive your gauntlet of challenge right in his face via instant message.

This creates an extremely addictive indirect competition that can easily keep players interested for several tens if not hundreds of hours. You don’t have the AI ruining your laps due to the ridiculous penalty system (even if the penalties that don’t involve other cars are still plenty ridiculous in their application), and you aren’t subject to the grief and angst caused by the usual Sunday online driver that is normally more than happy to slam into your back end at the entrance of the first corner.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

It’s you, an opponent that isn’t there to call you Modern Warfare-like epithets, a car, a track and a time to beat in order to deliver some well deserved humiliation. And it’s brilliant. 

It’s also a great learning tool, as racing against the ghost of someone that’s better than you is the perfect way to understand what you’re doing wrong and learn how to correct it. Again: simply brilliant.

Online gameplay is, of course, the true heart of this game, especially considering how solid the online offering of Xbox Live is. There are several modes to chose from, split in all variants of classes and courses.

The best news is that custom lobbies are back from Forza 2, after the ludicrous decision to remove them in Forza 3. This allows hosts to set basically every little parameter of their races, determining the balance and creating a much more interesting competitive experience. In this kind of game, this is a serious boon that cannot be overlooked.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

There also are a couple rather weird modes like tag and car soccer. To be honest, I’ll just repeat what I said about Top Gear Challenges here. If I wanted to play soccer, I’d play FIFA 12. If I wanted to play tag, I’d go down in the courtyard (if I was 5, that is).

I’m here to race and luckily, despite some resources wasted in creating modes that aren’t conducive to racing at all, there’s still plenty racing to be done online in Forza 4.

Of course, when you race online, an element of luck is always present. To really have fun you need to find a balanced race with opponents that have the slightest sense of sportsmanship, because one rotten apple can really ruin it for everyone, especially with collisions and damage enabled (and what’s the point of racing without?).

Luckily the aforementioned introduction of custom lobbies amended the problem by quite a lot, and while the first twenty days were rather brutal, the quality of the community seems to have improved a lot starting on November the 8th. I wonder why…

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

While it takes a little north of what I’d like to automatically find a match, there’s no real noticeable lag when racing (unless you’re unlucky enough to find someone with a horrible connection, but there isn’t much that can be done about that), making Forza 4 one of the best online racing experiences available at the moment.

One of the things that makes racing online even better is the livery editor: going online with a shiny supercar is great, but doing so while strutting your beautiful custom painted supercar is priceless.

While not as easy and quick as those PC simulators that simply allow you to paint your car in Photoshop and then upload the texture, the livery editor in Forza 4 is simply a work of art in the field of game design in itself. It’s time consuming, but it really allows you to pour your own personal style on your cars, ranging from a relatively simple racing livery to the most intricate drifting decal job.

Of course, like art in itself, it’s easy to learn and extremely hard to master, but when you get to the highest levels of craftsmanship, the results it can create are absolutely astonishing. If you don’t believe me  just check episode 1 and 2 of my dedicated column (that has been temporarily on hiatus because of the red light I mentioned at the beginning, but will restart soon) and see what I mean with your own eyes.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Of course, while not as groundbreaking, you can customize your car’s parts and setup as well.

The tuning parts shop is pretty much similar to the ones in the previous chapters of the series. You can replace many of the stock parts of your car with performance ones of incremental effectiveness, allowing you to fine tune your ride to the desired PI (that normally will be at the top of its class). You can also do advanced modifications like a drive train swap, that will be very useful for those that can’t easily handle rear wheel drive cars but still want to drive them. Change the drivetrain to 4wd and you’ll have a much tamer (but heavier) ride.

The part shop is also useful to radically change the visuals of your car thanks to the bodywork kits, that will give even the tamest city car a more aggressive look.

Of course putting performance parts under the hood of your ride won’t be enough to unlock its full potential, and that’s where the advanced setup options come into play. You can change everything, from the stiffness of suspensions to the camber of your tires, and the effect of your tweaks is quite noticeable in the performance of the car, letting you shave off several seconds a lap if you do things right.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Of course both painting on cars and setting them up to turn them into howling, hungry speed monsters isn’t exactly an easy task, nor one accessible to everyone. That’s where the marketplace enters the fray, improving the accessibility of those options to the whole playerbase (and giving a solid form of in-game revenue to those that can use them fully).

Both paint jobs and setups (including all the parts necessary) can be sold and purchased in full packages on the marketplace. Do you want a spiffy livery for your new Ferrari but can’t paint for the life of yours? Nothing easier. Just input the make and model, and you’ll be presented with an easily browse-able list to chose from. Want a great setup for it? You can do the same in the setups section of the marketplace, with the same results.

Lists can be ordered in many ways, but the top rated results are probably your best option, making normally unreachable artistic and technical achievements available to everyone with a few button presses.

If I can find a single flaw in this amazing feature, is that too many elements of a paint job or a setup are locked. If you buy a livery, for instance, you won’t be able to change the color of the rims. If you purchase a setup, instead, you will have no option to swap any of the cosmetic bodywork kits or the rims themselves.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

I do know that changing the rims and the bodywork slightly alters the performance (and the weight) of the car, but the change is so minimal that I seriously doubt that giving customers the ability to swap them would compromise the solidity of  the setup. Let’s not even talk about rim color, because obviously that compromises nothing.

From a great feature, let’s move on this emotional rollercoaster to a quite crappy one. Video capture and Photography mode.

You’re probably asking yourself what could be crappy about those, and it’s a legitimate question: there’s nothing wrong with the features themselves. what went horribly wrong is the implementation of the ways to pull their results out of your xbox and on a computer  to be enjoyed or uploaded elsewhere.

In order to do so you have to first upload your pictures and videos to your storefront (that, especially for high resolution pictures and videos is extremely time consuming), then you have to download them on your PC from the My Forza webpage, and finally you have to go back to your xbox 360 to delete them one by one (because a web-based mass delete option was too user-friendly right?) from your storefront to make room for more, since space is extremely limited.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

You probably know, if you read my reviews often, that I like to add a video review to them, and that being a snapshot-maniac, I include very sizable galleries of pictures for your viewing pleasure. This time there’s no video review and the gallery is much smaller than usual. The reason is simple, the extremely convoluted and basically nonsensical system turned gathering video footage and pictures into an absolutely unacceptable chore.

Was it really that hard to just do the logical thing and allow players to simply load pictures and movies on a USB stick? You know, those obscure things that you can push into those rectangular ports that the Xbox 360 happens to have…

Finally, let’s move to what’s a bit of an elephant in the room for me: Autovista.

This feature basically lets you walk around one of  25 cars, pop up its bonnet and open it’s doors, sit in it, turn on the engine and enjoy amazing and amazingly static graphics, while you listen Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson rant and rave about the car itself and generally express how much he hates everything that’s not a Mercedes.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

Don’t get me wrong: it’s funny for the couple hours it lasts, but it holds no replayability value and it has absolutely nothing to do with racing or driving. Even the challenges to unlock new cars are so systematically easy that it’s evident that they’ve been balanced to be played with the unsightly Kinect control scheme (hold your hands in the air and pretend to drive while the car accelerates and brakes by itself. Yeah, there’s a reason why I didn’t even mention it so far).

After you get over the initial impact of the amazing eyecandy and Clarkson’s witty monologue, you easily realize that Autovista can be summed up to two things: First of all it’s a costly commercial stunt to sell Kinect to an audience that mostly can’t care the less about it, shoehorning in a feature that feels so detached and out of line with the rest of the game that it isn’t even funny. Secondly it’s an amazingly nonsensical waste of development resources that could have been better spent into improving the actual game: even just creating one more track or a few more cars, or night racing, or weather. Basically everything racing-related would have been more worthy of receiving those development resources than Autovista.

Even just using Clarkson’s voice acting to add more variety to the World Tour instead of slapping it on Autovista, would have increased the overall quality of the game more than this.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

The final insult adds to injury after you unlock all the cars and you find the ugly nose of a Warthog vehicle from Halo 4 pushed right in your face. What exactly does that have to do with racing cars? Why exactly any development resources have been Wasted to implement something as useless and out of place? You can’t even drive it.

It’s so out of line that it doesn’t even have any of Clarkson’s funny commentary, replaced by an anonymous female voice. That’s really a pity, as I’m sure Clarkson could have a field day with that ugly mess. I’d pay to see him fling it right into the stratosphere with a trebuchet.

You may have noticed that I had quite a few negative things to say about Forza Motorsport 4, so you may be slightly surprised to peek just below and see an 8.5 as the final score. The reason is simple, while there’s quite some criticism to extend to the game, it’s definitely criticism out of love. It’s not a perfect simulator or even a perfect game, but despite its flaws, it offers so much content and so many enjoyable features that it’s still a must-have for any racing or automotive fans that happen to have a 360 plugged to their TV.

Review: Forza Motorsport 4

While the unnecessary Kinect features, the AI and some important missing elements (that could have probably been implemented if resources weren’t wasted on gimmicks) do cause the game to stop just short of a masterpiece, it’s still definitely the very best entry in the Forza franchise.

The evolution of the physics, the high number of detailed cars, the fun of driving just past the limit and still retaining a realistic control, alongside with the awesome online racing and rivals mode, topped by the livery editor, definitely put Forza 4 on a comparable ground with today’s best racing games. There’s a whole lot to enjoy, and it will most probably overshadow the flaws for most as it did for me

Ultimately Forza Motorsport 4 is a lot of fun, and a lovely playground for every petrolhead worth his salt.