“We are an endangered species, you and me,” claims a rather presumptuous Jeremy Clarkson as you fire up Forza 4 for the first time. He’s the game’s Stephen Fry, if you will – where LittleBigPlanet had the softly-spoken brainbox to recite the game’s charming premise, Turn 10 ropes in the outspoken Top Gear presenter to shout about how good cars are and waste mouth-words on ridiculous conjunctions like ‘mechanical soul’. It’s an oddly informal introduction to a game with a history of being a clinical, soulless racing sim, but perhaps that’s precisely the point. That preconception no longer applies, Forza’s fourth lap leaving the po-faced, deadly serious racing to Gran Turismo 5 while learning how to smile and making the racing sim fun again.
Once Clarkson stops prattling, the game launches straight into a single-lap showcase of fancy cars and lush settings, a Metroid-style tease of future power before all that is stripped away from you and you’re left pawing over low-end hatchbacks and the dread sets in. But this fear of the long, hard 60mph slog is – like so many other preconceptions you may have based on Forza’s track record – unfounded, and quickly eased. Turn 10’s latest racer rewards faster and more frequently than any game of its ilk, happy to lavish drivers with a selection of sweet new rides every couple of races, and these four-wheeled rewards for boosting your driver level aren’t even the half of it. Credits pour in for decent finishes while manufacturers reward loyalty with yet more cash and significant reductions in the cost of performance upgrades on their cars. After advancing just a few levels, the generous company in question will forego charging you for upgrades altogether, tossing any notion of game pacing to the wind to open the all-you-can-mod buffet and easily allow cars to be pimped way beyond their stock forms.
With this fast-moving vehicular free-for-all in mind, World Tour mode has been designed to build itself around your currently selected car on the fly. A trio of events relevant to your current vehicle are offered up each time from a near-bottomless well of event and track permutations, along with the occasional curveball chucked in to tempt you into christening a new set of wheels. It’s fast food racing at its finest; two or three laps a pop on a pre-selected track with various restrictions in car class and power, but with a whole grid of potential events also available should you ever want to go off-menu. Often, the bonus for an event will make it more attractive than others (how could anyone turn down the excitement of a ‘Mystery Bonus’, after all?) but the quickfire nature of events means you’ll seldom miss out on anything more than a slight credit or experience bonus whichever you pick. Occasionally, the game will throw in gimmick events to try and break up the racing, and not only are these not even necessary in a game already so packed with options and content but they’re also pretty rubbish. The random nature of things like knocking over cones or weaving between ‘traffic’ (read: slow AI cars) are completely at odds with the precision and technicality demonstrated in every other aspect of the game, and there’s little doubt Forza 4 would be a tighter game without these clapped-out bangers stinking up its garage.
Accessible’ and ‘simulation’ are two words we don’t recall ever seeing in direct sequence but, somehow, Forza 4 manages to unite these two unlikely bedfellows. The structure brilliantly facilitates pick-up-and-play gaming and the page-long list of assist settings does exactly the same on a gameplay level. By tweaking everything from opponent AI to braking assistance and damage effects, it’s easy for anybody to strike a balance with which they’ll be happy – the Forza hardcore can crank up the realism and expect a healthy bonus to rewards for doing so, while inexperienced drivers can race with training wheels on without penalty. There’s not even a punishment for using the rewind feature to correct mistakes mid-race (beyond lap times becoming exempt from the main leaderboards), though this can be disabled entirely for a healthy reward boost if the very idea of it offends you.
Rewinds aren’t the only thing that will see your otherwise scorching lap times flagged up as dirty, either. Forza 4 has an incredibly strict policy when it comes to what determines a clean lap, and often getting one wheel a bit dirty or having a rival nudge your bumper is enough to void a lap time, meaning that if you’re chasing leaderboard fame it’s probably best to wait until you’ve got a clear track on which to do so.
Wondering how we’ve gone so long without mentioning the handling? Then we’ll put you out of your misery. Truth be told, there’s nothing to say – there’s no worthwhile critical analysis to be made of something so meticulously crafted and practically flawless. Turn 10’s sublime handling model accommodates newcomers and veterans alike, a system that can be tweaked to sit anywhere between ‘real car’ and ‘videogame’ settings as the player sees fit. Online functionality is as impressive as ever too, the auction house and plethora of racing options joined by Autolog-style Rivals hot lap challenges to ensure that Forza 4 genuinely has the ability to last forever.
And it really could. With diamond-solid mechanics, some of the best visuals of the generation and more events than all but the most dedicated gamer will ever finish, Forza 4 is an incredible racer even before you factor in ongoing support with new cars, tracks and modes via DLC. “There is a haven,” Clarkson states at the end of the intro movie. “A place that celebrates speed, grip, gears and fun.” For once, it seems, the loud-mouthed Top Gear oaf might have said something that nobody could take issue with.