I’ve finally been able to actually sit down and spend some more time with Turn 10‘s latest iteration of Forza Motorsport. Turn 10 released the first Forza game on the original Xbox in 2005, at the very end of that console’s lifecycle. Since then, they’ve managed to release a new Forza game every two years. I wouldn’t say these are huge leaps over each preceding game, but through its consistent improvements, the franchise has surpassed Gran Turismo as king of the racing simulation genre for quite some time now. Especially given that Polyphony delivered a relatively disappointing ‘next-gen’ effort with GT5 after over six years of development (the previous GT game was released on the Playstation 2 way back in 2004). Even though Forza Motorsport 4 is the newly crowned king of the genre, it’s not perfect. A number of crucial things are still missing from the formula.
The most important of which is definitely a decent career mode. A racing game’s career mode used to be rather important, but since the advent of online racing against human opponents on Xbox Live, the career mode is increasingly neglected. Which is a shame, because I’ve always preferred a steady rise through the ranks of sports cars, instead of immediately jumping into a Le Mans prototype to race against superhuman fourteen year-olds. The standard by which all other career modes should be measured, is the ‘Kudos World Series’ found in Project Gotham Racing 2. Ironically, PGR2 was also among the first to boast a complete suite of online capabilities, but that didn’t keep (the now defunct) Bizarre from pouring heart and soul in the game’s single player component. The player progresses through ‘Series’, where you use everything from a Mini Cooper S in the ‘Compact Sports Series’ to a Mercedes CLK-GTR in the ‘Ultimate Series’. The cars were all hand picked and provided a very distinct personality for each new league. Forza Motorsport 4, by contrast, rewards the player with cars from a certain category (whenever a level is gained), but doesn’t tie these together in a specific class. The game offers challenges based on the contents of the player’s garage. There are unique events, of course, but the player simply picks a race from a calendar when he or she owns the required vehicle. Since you can pretty much do whatever you want, it’s very flexible, but lacks the concentrated feeling of having someone ‘write’ a path through car history (or hierarchy).
Most critics argue that the game, instead, emulates the ‘sterile’ nature of car brochures. But sports cars should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up! They should be celebrated as living, breathing objects. At least… in my opinion. The intro, narrated by Jeremy Clarkson, does speak of the beauty of fire-breathing V8’s (and the driver as an endangered species). But the game doesn’t quite live up to that initial promise. Clarkson offers his thoughts on a small selection of cars in the ‘Autovista’ mode, but it’s extremely limited (just 25 cars). When you view these games as a car encyclopedia, I much prefer Gran Turismo‘s detailed descriptions for each of its cars (such descriptions are entirely absent in Forza 4).
Nevertheless, in the end, a lot comes down on a racing game’s core driving mechanics. And that’s where FM4 absolutely shines. In an interview with the game’s creative director, Dan Greenawalt elaborates on a collaboration with Pirelli (the best tire manufacturer… in the world):
For Forza 4, we took an entirely new approach to our tire simulation. This time, we threw all of the old data away and asked Pirelli to provide us with all-new data for everything. Pirelli did custom tests on a huge variety of tires to cover all of our cases—including tire width and height, compound, inflation pressure, heat, wear, sidewall height, load, angle, etc. We then changed our system to accept the real-world data directly and without any fix-up from us at all. This means that the tires in Forza 4 behave exactly as the Pirelli test tires did, even in complex situations where multiple parameters are changing rapidly. (source)
After playing Forza 4 for a couple of hours it’s difficult to remember what the previous games felt like, but in the first few moments, this new driving model is tangibly different. It takes some getting used too, especially the game’s simulation mode (the highest difficulty for the steering parameter) is very lifelike and completely unforgivable. For instance, bluntly correcting over-steer will often result in a terrible tank slapper. A racing wheel (instead of a controller) will probably be much better suited to making heroic saves in those situations, but explaining that kind of purchase to a significant other can be gruesome. Just stick to the controller and accept the fact that you’re not going to be topping those leader boards in this lifetime. Still, the new physics are a noticeable improvement over the other Forza games.
Forza Motorsport 4 is the best racing game available right now (on consoles), but if you’re not dying for a racing sim, there’s little reason to run out and buy it. I’m probably going to burn out on this version even faster than the last one, given the ‘nip/tuck’ nature of the game’s updates and the lack of inspiration in the career mode. Writing all this has made me realize that Turn 10 has the basic framework for their franchise locked down pretty tight, now all the game needs is a personality.