In Eric Bana's 2009 documentary Love the Beast, Bana and Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson are sitting at a picnic table on an overcast day talking about cars. They're talking about Bana's first car, a 1974 Ford XB Falcon hardtop that he purchased at the age of 15 – and car he still owns, and the car around which the documentary itself is based.
Clarkson is making a point about car people and non-car people; he believes non-car people just can't see beyond the wires, glass, metal and rubber. They can't see the personality behind the engineering, the soul beneath the surface. It's a position Clarkson expands upon in the introductory sequence of Forza Motorsport 4; that car lovers are being marginalized in a world where practicality trumps adrenaline. A world where we're told to think of economy and the environment rather than excitement and enjoyment.
With Clarkson's help Forza 4 is positioning itself as an ode to the automobile of sorts. A celebration of all things four-wheeled and fun in one accessible package. Forza 4 is Turn 10's tilt to create the world's best and most comprehensive racing sim, to build an essential destination where car lovers can gather to trade, tune and take each other on.
Booting up Forza 4 is like slipping back into your favorite jacket and finding $50 in the pocket. It fits just as comfortably as it did the last time you wore it but it comes with a pleasant bonus. The DNA of Forza 3 is strong in Forza 4, lending a certain familiarity to proceedings, but welcome tweaks and additions across the board strengthen the overall offering considerably.
With your first foray behind the wheel automatically muted by a suite of driving aids, the first thing you'll notice will be the improved visuals. Forza 3 was no slouch at the time but two years on and Forza 4 is a marked improvement. It's all thanks primarily to Forza 4's new image-based lighting model, which basically means the cars look perfectly seated within the game's tracks. Harsh sunlight burns bright against bodywork and cabin view is a great way to observe the shadows that dance smoothly back and forth across dashboards. It's excellent stuff.
The car models themselves are also hugely impressive. The finest aspects are reserved for the game's special Autovista models, a mode that allows you to absorb even the tiniest of details, but every car stands up to close inspection. They look as good in motion as they do static, too. The frame rate is buttery smooth and they look fantastic circulating around the game's bright and crisp tracks.
Still, Forza 4 doesn't just look and feel better, it sounds better too. Turn the music down and the volume up, up until you can only communicate with other people in the same room by shouting – or perhaps blinking in Morse code. That's the sweet spot. The older cars sound the best. The howl of a D-Type Jag will rattle your nipples off, and if the snarl of a 351 Cleveland V8 in Forza 4 can't bring Steve McQueen back from the dead nothing can.
The richer engine notes may weave a symphony of power and violence but Forza 4 is actually quite a fresh audio experience in other areas too. There are new sounds for collisions, wind rush and more. The inoffensive but bog standard music may not blow your skirt up, but the thick tapestry of sound effects should.
The real stars here, obviously, are the cars. Turn 10 has really nailed the roster this time around. If you can't find cars here you love then you honestly don't love cars as much as you think you do. It's really that simple. Turn 10 being forbidden from including Porsche has surely stung, but Forza 4's slate of over 500 vehicles from 80 manufacturers really does have something for everyone.
Forza 4 embraces car culture from all over the globe, and it does so without a disproportionally large focus on vehicles from just one country. You won't find 135 Nissans and only 12 Ferraris here. Hot hatches, classic British sports cars, Hollywood heroes, JDM favorites, German super sedans, timeless American muscle, exotic Italian thoroughbreds, even an immortal Australian icon – they're all here, and more.
Forza 4 captures the cult of cars better than any racing game before it. It's a game that understands what makes a 20-year-old high-performance pickup truck just as important to some people as a brand new Lexus LF-A. A game that understands that a 1977 V8 Vantage is just as desirable as a 2010 V12 Vantage. A game that understands why you can't have five Ford V8 Supercars without five Holden ones too.
Visuals, sound and a robust garage are still but one part of a larger equation. All of it means naught if the handling is bunk. Fortunately Forza 4 feels more authentic than ever. Turn in is sharper and the feeling of grip, particularly under heavy braking or aggressive cornering, is really well translated. The lock-to-lock steering rate has been increased dramatically and Turn 10 has added a simulation steering option (which removes the subtle steering assist that makes it easier to drift by interpreting your inputs and automatically modifying your steering angle accordingly). Forget slow and soggy steering rates; jerk the wheel in Forza 4 and your car will twitch and lunge ferociously.
As far as the braking goes, it's been massaged in a bunch of ways. With ABS off you'll note there's a larger sweet zone before lockup. Turn 10 has also worked with how more subtle braking inputs are handled in order to improve how light braking techniques are represented, like trail braking (gradually releasing brake pressure past the corner entrance to keep weight transferred over the front tires for longer). These braking and steering upgrades, coupled with the tire data Turn 10 has gleaned from its Pirelli partnership, have worked wonders. With far better feedback regarding the loading and unloading of tires you get a better feel for your car's behavior, especially in stressful areas like corner entries.
The Fanatec wheel is the obvious choice for the hardcore but the bulk of players will be using a pad, and we have no complaints with the controls. Of course, if all this sounds like far too much to process Forza 4 still comes with a full set of driving aids that should keep even the world's worst driver on the asphalt.
Opponent AI has been tweaked too, meaning closer and ultimately more satisfying racing. In World Tour mode the AI is dynamic, becoming tougher the better you perform, making for more competitive racing.
Outside of World Tour there are four different AI settings (up from three in Forza 3). Crucially, Turn 10 no longer removes power from AI cars to slow them down for players on the lower difficulty levels. Underpowered cars made it easier for less-skilled players to keep up but allowed them to blitz the hamstrung AI on straights. This time Turn 10 emulates lower level AI by giving them less confidence going into corners, so they brake sooner and carry less speed through them (like an actual novice driver would). The key to outfoxing lower level AI is outbraking them, because all AI levels will be pedal-to-the-metal in a straight line. Combined with an increase in the amount of cars on track this ultimately means more doorhandle-to-doorhandle racing and less lonely laps way out ahead of the pack.
The best part about the whole thing is how Forza 4 incentivizes you to keep pushing, and how it lets you control this progression to a certain extent. The RPG style approach of Forza 3 has been enhanced considerably.
The speed to level 50 has been ramped up to give players new cars more quickly, and the overall level cap has been pumped up to 150. This way players will be rewarded for longer, rather than maxing out with plenty left to accomplish but nothing to be gained from it. This time around you'll be given a choice between a number of gift cars at every level up to level 50, rather than a predetermined one. Each set of choices is themed and gives you far better control of the cars you want to have in your garage.
Car leveling has been changed too. In Forza 3, once a car hit level five there was no longer any real incentive to keep driving it. In Forza 4, cars no longer level. Instead, the player builds manufacturer specific levels, called affinity levels. With this new system, if you race in a Ford, you gain Ford-specific XP. The same car, a different car, it doesn't matter as long as it's a Ford. Instead of five levels per car there are now 50 levels per manufacturer. Hitting level five will reward you with a 100 per cent discount on performance parts, and there are large cash bonuses up for grabs beyond that.
What's particularly satisfying about Forza 4 is that you earn XP (and credits) everywhere, not just in World Tour mode. Forza 4 is a hugely robust single-player game. The event list is enormous and the amount of cars you have at your disposal to tackle them is immense. Hop online, however, and things get even better.
We're not talking about the ever-impressive conventional multiplayer either, which by and large is quite similar to Forza 3, albeit with the return of user-hosted public lobbies. We're talking about Rivals mode, which is easily the most addictive part of the whole game. Rivals mode is basically a combination of events that allow you to play against your friends or other Forza players online, even when they're offline. Your rival will be represented by a ghost car of their attempt at any given challenge and you need to beat them. By beating your rival, you'll get bonus credits based on that rival's position on the leaderboard, and the size of the board itself. If your rival is in the top percentile on a well-populated board, their bounty will be significant. If you challenge and defeat a rival who also happens to be a friend or fellow club member, they'll receive a message inviting them to try and beat you again.
There are seven different Rivals tabs with a series of individual events in each. Some of the best Rivals mode races are the Track Days (trying to post a competitive and clean lap time while fighting a rival, constant slower traffic and the circuit itself is an intense racing experience) but beyond that there are Open Time Attacks (which allow tuning) and Spec Hot Laps (which don't), Autocross events, bespoke Top Gear challenges (including the "Reasonably Priced Car" challenge, one lap on the Top Gear Test Track in a Kia cee'd), Drifting and a stack more.
You can level up using nothing but Rivals mode, if you want. Indeed, we found it a great place for Forza 3 veterans to start. It's pretty unlikely Forza 3 graduates will be too keen on being forced to beetle around in any one of the uninspiring starter cars. Rivals mode will be a great place to become accustomed to the adjusted handling and build up some XP, credits and cars before heading back into career.
It's worth mentioning that Forza 3 alumni will be rewarded with a bunch of gift cars immediately based on what driver level they reached in Forza 3 and what cars they had in their garage. With the far more flexible World Tour mode offering events based on the cars you want to drive you won't have to bother with a starter car if you'd rather not.
There have been a number of additions to the customization options too. The livery editor has been bolstered by a host of new shapes (chosen by the community) so expect to see even more impressive creations on the Storefront.
The general car upgrading system remains largely the same but Turn 10 has added upgrades specifically for the game's electric cars, a drag racing tire compound and a variety of new aero and appearance options. Some muscle cars now boast aftermarket hood scoops, and many cars with discrete front and rear bumpers now have the option to remove them entirely. Also, many older cars also have painted headlight covers for an old-school look.
Outside of Forza 4's main package there's Autovista, a bespoke mode not associated with your Forza 4 career. Autovista, as you probably already know, is a new feature of Forza 4 that allows you to virtually explore some of the game's most exotic and iconic cars. When you begin you'll have access to around just a handful of the cars. To unlock more you need to pass a specific challenge for each one. Do so and you'll be able to pore over the hyper-detailed model of it in Autovista and listen to Jeremy Clarkson's thoughts on it (which are sometimes refreshingly candid).
But beyond all that, Forza 4 is still one big automotive sandbox. Want to race a mate up Top Gear's mile-long runway at full speed in your favorite cars? Do it. Want to flog a Hummer H1 around the Nurburgring for kicks? Experiment away.
Is Forza 4 beyond improvement? Of course not. It's disappointing Turn 10 was unable to see to featuring night racing this time around, like peers GT5 and SHIFT 2 manage. Weather effects, like those we enjoyed in the likes of PGR4, also remain absent.
While we're at it, we'd say SHIFT 2 has a slightly superior assortment of tracks overall too. Forza 4's tracks look great but US circuits noticeably outnumber the remainder. SHIFT 2 is a little more egalitarian when it comes to tracks, with the likes of Monza, Mount Panorama (Bathurst), Brands Hatch and Spa-Francorchamps all featuring. Hopefully we see these sorts of tracks find their way into Forza in the future.
Turn 10 has improved the look of general scratches and scrapes, the kind you get by kissing a wall or rubbing against an opponent, but on the whole car damage is still quite underwhelming. It falls fairly short of the sort of damage we recently saw in Driver: San Francisco, which itself is several rungs below DiRT 3.
While the Kinect functionality is actually quite excellent for head tracking, allowing you to check mirrors and look through apexes with exceedingly minor head movements, its much-touted role in Autovista fails to ignite much interest. It's far less finicky to just use a controller.
There'll likely be some resistance amongst fans regarding the new car tokens (players who don't want to save up in-game currency to buy cars can exchange Earth-dollars for car tokens via Xbox LIVE – the most expensive cars in Forza 4 will cost three tokens) and how upgrades are now free after around 30 minutes play per manufacturer. How it'll impact the in-game economy remains to be seen.
But these flaws hardly register. Above everything, however, Forza 4 is a game that wants you to enjoy everything it has to offer. It doesn't hide the bulk of its cars away, or make you jump through hoops to unlock tracks for general use. In free play you can drive any car on any track you want. It doesn't make you earn colors to paint your cars; it wants to create whatever you wish, when you wish. It doesn't stop you from buying cars you want to own because you haven't leveled up enough. If you've got the credits, the car is yours. There's still a deep, broad game here that you could play for years, but it's not being strangled by its own design.