I fell in love with the Forza series six years ago on the original Xbox because it delivered a sim racing experience that I found enjoyable, an online setup that wound up being years ahead of its time, and the decal creator completely blew away any other visual car customization tool at the time (and is still only topped by the tools in its sequels). The 360 incarnations have been all about fine-tuning things and making use of the newer tech to provide a better experience in every way, whether it’s expected changes like visual, audio, and gameplay improvements to things that no one really expected but seemed like they always should’ve been there, like the auction house feature. Now, the fourth entry brings with it Kinect support and the best overall racing experience I’ve played this generation, and in some ways, the best ever.
As far as immersing you into the game, this really is the best game ever at doing that. Much of that is due to the new Autovista mode that allows you to thoroughly explore many of the parts of two-dozen real cars (and Halo’s Wartog) either with a controller or with the Kinect sensor. Using the controller gets the job done, but this mode really shines when you use the Kinect and actually move your arm out as if you were opening a door. Sure, it seems a bit goofy in theory since you’re just examining cars and hearing info about them, but there’s something about it that is strangely addictive, and it isn’t just the lure of an achievement for exploring every part of a car. It’s kind of like a car museum of sorts, only with a narrator who seems interested about the cars and gives you information in an entertaining way. Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson’s narration for this and many menus is pleasant, sometimes funny given his tone of voice, and makes car exploration far more fun than if you were to do it at a dealership. The lack of a guy trying to sell you a car at an inflated rate for real cash might have something to do with that as well, come to think of it.
Racing with the Kinect was something I was both very interested in and incredibly leery of, largely due to playing Joy Ride and being turned off to the whole idea of steering a car using my hands as a steering wheel. I figured with this, if I really struggled, I could just use my Wii wheel and that would at least help me from being too frantic with my movements, but it never came to that. The Kinect controls feel really organic, the car responds exactly as you would expect it to even though the game controls the braking and acceleration. The slight delay that comes with using the Kinect didn’t hurt me, which was a very pleasant surprise given how carefully moving the left stick around and throttling the gas can mean the difference between an effective pass and one that requires a rewind. Thankfully, that never posed a problem because actually maneuvering the car with my hands worked so well and the AI-controlled speed and braking didn’t cause an issue here either. I’m amazed at how well the Kinect integration is, and it helps to make the experience more immersive too. It doesn’t just apply to the Autovista mode, but to races, especially in the cockpit view.
The core racing experience is largely the same - only more refined and with minor improvements in every way. Crashes are more violent, with parts flying off, and paint rubs off in side-to-side showdowns better than before. The controls are a little tighter than before, and the pace of races is a little faster thanks to aggressive AI that will at times stop at nothing to win - even if it means spinning someone out to get in your path. The series debuted with pretty aggressive AI, and has only gotten more aggressive with time. Now, you’ll have foes (not always, but sometimes) try to spin you out on the starting line, which forces you to work harder to get ahead. The good thing about this is it adds some challenge, but never gets frustrating since you can always win as long you don’t make any big mistakes. The thrill of running your rival off the road never gets old, and is now expanded in the game’s online setup.
Much like how NFS: Hot Pursuit’s Autolog system encouraged online play by beating challenges, now you can do the same with either members of your car club or select a rival online and try to beat their time. There are also a wider variety of in-game challenges, like the defunct PGR series, that test your racing skills by putting obstacles in your way. In Forza 4, you’ll have traditional things like drift events, and odd challenges like bowling events where you have to reach X amount of points within one lap to win, traffic challenges where you need to pass X amount of cars, and chase missions where you’ll not only have to dodge traffic, but also pass a particular rival up ahead to maximize your XP.
The online setup is a lot like it was before, although I like the newer, more colorful menus a lot. They retain the simplistic look while also adding some life. Red, white, and black are the main colors, along with sleek car photos, and it makes the menus more exciting to go through, which is good since you’ll be using them a ton both off and online. Online, you’ll use them to manage your car club, or share cars with your friends, create your storefront and sell designs for either one car or any, and of course, set up races.
As is to be expected with this series, actually racing online is a breeze. Most people online are nice, especially those who put up really sweet designs for free, and the car clubs are structured so well that if you wanted to, you could just race there and do everything online without having to worry about running into a jerk out to ruin a game. The amount of online players at once has been doubles - from eight to 16, which works pretty well. I never had lag truly once ruin a race. Does it get in the way slightly? Sure, but like past games, it never hurts things too much.
Some of the best things from Forza 3 have been carried over and improved, like the car vinyl designs and tuning setups, and as a nice bonus, your F3 designs can be brought over to the sequel. If you’ve got your save data from F3, you’ll even get an XP and credit bonus when you start this game. Unfortunately, that also means it uses the same sorta wonky save system as F3, which limits you to only moving and not copying data - something I found out the hard way with F3 when I accidentally corrupted all of my saved data by trying to copy it from one storage device to the other. So if you didn’t do that, you’re in luck, and if you did, then I’d recommend playing F3 for a few hours and getting your driver level up before playing F4.
One great thing about Forza 4 is that you can now choose from a handful of options when you level up in the career mode. Before, you’d go up a level and be gifted a car, and while that was nice, if it wasn’t a car you wanted, you were either stuck selling it for a pittance or just having a needless car in your garage. While you can’t cherry-pick from the entire 500+ roster with a level upgrade, having multiple choices really is nice, and you can get some great stuff with this - like Ferraris and Vipers relatively quickly without having to break the bank.
Visually, Forza 4 is a spectacular game. The meticulously-detailed car models used in the Autovista mode will blow your mind. You’re able to see the textures of the steering wheels, LEDs on the dash, and what kind of material is used for the seats. It’s remarkable stuff, and the in-race car models are equally impressive because they also look really good (especially in the cockpit view), and there are now more cars on the track than ever before. Even with being able to now race with 16 total cars in one race, there’s no slowdown offline. I love the graphics as a whole, but I do take issue with the awkward fade to black and then fade in that occurs when you change camera angles. It is less than half a second long, maybe even just a matter of frames, but can still lead to getting passed or crashed into needlessly. It’s nothing that can’t be remedied with a rewind, but is still annoying.
The soundtrack in Forza games has always left something to be desired, and that remains true here. The default music is perfectly fine, but not quite up to par with other racers. Its sound effect work is incredible though - the roar of not only your own engine, but also your rivals’ is overpowering at times. This is especially true when you’re either in the cockpit or first-person views and can really hear every little noise each car is making. It’s thrilling, and turns being pinned between two cars from being terrifying into at least an enjoyable experience. And as I mentioned before, the voice over work by Jeremy Clarkson adds a lot. He makes the most seemingly mundane information about a car seem interesting, and his pleasant tone makes even the toughest challenge seem doable because of how calm he is describing it before a race.
Forza 4 has its flaws, but they’re relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. The latest entry in the series does everything right that prior ones did, but adds some new things that are surprisingly well-executed. Both the Autovista and Kinect functionality add a lot more to the total package than I expected them to. I wouldn’t say that the Kinect support makes it a killer app for that hardware, but if you’ve got one, this is a game you definitely want to get to show it off. Series veterans will want to snatch this up as soon as possible, but newcomers, especially those without a Kinect, are probably better off trying out a prior entry and seeing if they like the series before spending $60 on this entry.