Forza Motorsport 4 (Xbox 360)
Developer: Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release: October 11, 2011
Price: $59.99


Look, we understand: The Forza Motorsport video game series is intimidating. Whether it’s the Italian pronunciation of the name (fort-suh), the snooty British announcer, the inch-perfect race track re-creations, the photo-realistic car models, or even all that ambient techno in the background, this series runs the constant danger of looking more like an interactive car commercial than feeling like a racing game. Maybe you don’t want what looks like an automotive simulator. Maybe, like Big K.R.I.T. said, you'd rather just be rotating your tires.

What's smart about Forza 4, however, is how, stage by stage, it unlocks these bastions of luxury and excess; because few things are more luxurious or excessive than having the ability to travel four times faster than the speed limit. Just playing this game makes you want to strive for the next tax bracket, subscribe to Forbes magazine, and open up a Cayman Islands bank account. If your automobile-loving gene is hibernating, there’s a car in here--or even a family of cars--to wake it up.

MERCY MERCY ME, THAT MURCIELAGO

Two important things happen right off the bat. First, it drops you into the seat of a Ferrari 458 Italia, the game’s red-headed cover model, for a hot lap around the Bernese Alps. Second, it then takes away those keys to the Ferrari and tells you to pick out your first actual car: the Toyota Aygo--as in, l’eggo my Eggo? Or the Ford Ka--is that how they pronounce “car” in Boston? There are several other choices, but they, too, are all front wheel drive subcompacts with little engines: something you'd see towed behind a motor home.

Forza giveth, Forza taketh away. But this simple act keeps your eyes on the prize. By giving you a taste of real vehicular power, then replacing it with something that can only be described with words like "cute as a button," you now have a clear line of sight on one of the finest cars in the parking lot. This provides at least one possible goal extending beyond the finish line on a race track, which is something the previous Forza didn't necessarily do. It's always been up to you to establish your goals and to blaze a trail to them, which sometimes left Forza 3 feeling aimless. Yes, we appreciated Ferrari before, but now we clearly visualize one new victory condition as the accumulation of every single Ferrari, painting them ninja-black, and putting them in our garage. Lamborghini is next. Holler back, Murcielago.

#1 STUNNA

If that goal sounds planned or forced, then rest assured that getting there is half the fun, and there’s no one path to victory. If you hate Ferrari and all it stands for, you’ll never have to drive another one after that first lap around the Bernese Alps. Over 40 brands populate the starting lineup, and over 40 more are on the way via downloadable content. But there’s plenty available from the get-go to build up or even satiate your appetite for auto erotica. You can be sitting on Dubs in a big old Range Rover, or be the number one stunner in a Bugatti Veyron. And if you don’t chuckle when you take your Honda Civic hatchback for a spin around the Idianapolis Motor Speedway, then you’re probably missing some of the everyman appeal that’s stitched into the seams.

There are other invisible nods to popular culture you can enjoy, too. If you’re working on your Vin “The Fast and the Furious” Diesel impersonation, rice up a Mazda RX-7 and work on your Tokyo drift in Japan’s Tsukuba Circuit track. Take Joe Dirt’s Dodge Daytona and bust it up by hitting the corners too fast in the Le Mans (it’s French). Or hop in a DeLorean straight out of Back to the Future, find a long stretch of track, and see what happens when you hit 88 miles per hour.

I AIN'T THA ONE

That’s the kind of “meta” fun you can have, but all of it would be for nothing if the game play was all wrong. So this is where we get back to the intimidating part. The driving feels more like a simulation than many other racing games you might have played. More than Need for Speed, more than Colin McRae: Dirt, more than Race Driver: Grid. Definitely more than arcade racers like Midnight Club and Juiced, if those are your frames of reference. This is Gran Turismo for the Xbox 360--the current summit of race driving simulation.

But video game/race simulators--like Forza 4--have tools in place to ease the learning curve. Tools like anti-lock brakes, traction control, and damage resistance. No doubt you’ll feel like you’re cheating with this much assistance enabled, but we recommend you stick with the easy difficulty settings until you start getting bored with all the 1st place trophies. When you’re ready for a greater challenge, move up. But get too cocky and the game will recommend that you don’t hit expert level without a peripheral racing wheel (with pedals and shifter) to play with. That right there more than doubles the purchase price of your game.

Hardcore video game racing fans don’t flinch at this stuff. Racing games are categorized under sports, and sports, for many people, are more than a game, they’re a lifestyle. They’ll be rollin’ with the top down screamin’ out, “Money ain’t a thang.”

HEAVY ROTATION

If you’re interested in glimpsing that lifestyle, prepare for a lot of repetition in the track rotation. That’s not fair: There’s a lot of repetition in football fields and hockey rinks, too, and that’s not a deterrent to their respective sports. So, 22 globally-renown race tracks spanning three continents, modifiable for longer, shorter, and reverse runs, is more than a fair amount of variety in any one sport. Regardless, real-world race tracks aren’t often built for their aesthetics, and breathtaking vistas follow the same law of diminishing returns as anything else. Once you’re tired of examining the burned rubber painted onto the tracks, then your eyes will wander to what’s beyond the guardrails, and once you’re tired of the topography, your eyes will wander back to the anatomy of the racetrack.

The newfangled Autovista mode, however, is what transforms an engine sitting on four wheels into a true object of desire. Autovista mode is a high-resolution bid to turn Forza 4 into the Playboy of racing games by getting the camera up close and personal with the vehicles but keeping the shots tasteful. Jeremy Clarkson, a tall, jowly co-host from the UK television show TopGear, narrates portions of the Autovista mode with dry wit and the love-hate relationship that comes naturally to an automotive devotee. If you’re pocketing cash from racing, and opening the doors to more and more expensive cars...and you still don’t get what the big deal is, then Jeremy Clarkson will help you. You won’t spend all your time in Autovista mode, but his loving insight infuses the entire game with an infectious passion. His contribution to the future health and well being of the Forza series cannot be underestimated.

By the time this review posted (a week before launch), the multi-player lobbies were virtually empty. Still, we started a Team Complex car club--if you don’t know, now you know--and got some 1-on-1 competition going. Lag was nonexistent, which was expected for the light amount of weight we placed on the server hosting our races. Unless you select a race dropping everybody into the exact same randomly-chosen car, however, anybody can race any car from any class on the same track. You might be on the starting line with, say, a Volkswagen Rabbit and notice that your opponent just hopped into an Aston Martin DBS Coupe at the last second. You are now what’s known as SOL. That’s the technical term anyway.

BREAK YO NECK

Enable Kinect and you’re in for an evolution. The Autovista mode, which is wobbly to navigate with a game pad at times, becomes a nice lean-and-look operation around the vehicle with Kinect. When racing, Kinect’s head-tracking ability lets you look slightly left and right into the turns on the road, which is nearly impossible to pull off with a thumbstick in the middle of any type of turn. Magically, the head-tracking appears to work best once you stop realizing it’s there. Also, with Kinect, you just put your hands at 10 and 2 and you’ve got yourself a steering wheel.

When you get bogged down by the menus, Forza 4 only as charming as a sharply designed retail website. But when you’re given that first hit of crack in the Ferrari 458 Italia, and when TopGear’s Jeremy Clarkson starts talking about cross-eyed headlights and comparing miles per hour to hurricane force wind speeds, then Forza 4 finally sets aside its manufacturer’s lab coat for an enthusiast’s driving gloves.

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Score: 9/10