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Turn 10 drops the clutch on Kinect and puts the pedal to the graphical metal in Forza 4...
Over the last two years, I've eaten approximately 40 cheeseburgers, watched around 100 re-runs of Top Gear, and done at least 30 regrettable things while out drinking (that I can remember) which have resulted in compensatory apologies the morning after. Forza Motorsport developer, Turn 10 Studios, has on the other hand managed to add considerably more detailed cockpit views to over 500 cars in its game; an Autovista mode that renders cars at a ludicrously high level of detail for showroom-style perusing; Kinect implementation for this mode as well as head-tracking and casual race controls; more features and variation in the online race modes; smoother, more detailed, and better lit visuals; improved damage modelling, and more seamless presentation across the board of Forza 4's feature set. It's an impressive feat – not, perhaps, a feat on the scale of Concorde, or the SS Great Britain – but an impressive feat nonetheless. Turn 10 Studios has proven that it's certainly the most efficient driving sim developer out there, although the question of whether or not it makes the best game isn't quite so straight forward...
On booting it up for the first time, and before you've even set foot in a game menu, Forza 4 treats you to a hot lap across the Bernese Alps in the new cockpit view of a Ferrari 458 Italia – as baptisms of fire go, this one's straight out of the ninth circle of hell. Harpies and gargoyles scatter from the tire smoke as you squeal off the line, while the 458's dashboard of yellow dials and red needles roars like the fires of Hades itself. The triumphs of Forza 3 instantly return to you: that peerless sensation in the handling as the balance of your car squirms under braking, and the silky smooth 60 frames per second now complemented by visuals that are that little bit stronger and more vibrant. The biggest difference to the eye, however, is from that cockpit view: Turn 10 instantly lifts itself up to the bar of Need For Speed: Shift and Gran Turismo 5's lavish in-car displays. When you compare the fact that it has over three times as many cars as Shift 2, and more than twice as many cars with full dashboard views as Gran Turismo 5, it becomes abundantly clear that Forza 4, once the underachiever, is now at the top of its class in this particular subject.
And so it's with a roaring fire in your belly that you'll continue on into the cursory career mode (or 'World Tour' in Forza 4's case) but, sadly, it's here that things start to fall apart. Just as they did two years ago, Turn 10 and Microsoft have decided to continue Forza's transformation into a playpen for the ruinous casual gamer. No longer happy destroying the once great brand name that was Nintendo, it seems casual gamers have now moved their attentions onto driving sims – or so Microsoft might have you believe. You see, it's never quite made sense to us that people who play simulators are even the slightest bit interested in casual gaming. It's a bit like serving puffer fish to a fussy eater, or buying a Marilyn Manson CD for your Daily Mail-reading grandmother – quite how the anorak-clad devotees to brake horsepower and torque are in any way linked to the kind of people who play Zumba Fitness and Kinect Adventures is a riddle that only Edward Nigma could solve.
The World Tour comes with customisable difficulty settings and, to its credit, Turn 10 has now integrated Forza 3's divisive 'Gameplay Rewind' feature into this so that you're awarded Credits for not using it. Curiously, however, options to increase the difficulty level of the AI have now been removed. You can alter AI difficulty when competing in standalone events (the top, 'Professional' tier is the only one that offers much of a challenge), but for some unfathomable reason all the World Tour events are locked to a mind-numbingly easy default setting. Any driving game fan worth their salt will have slotted into the lead within the first lap of each race and inevitably, like a marriage that's lost its spark, you'll try all kinds of things just to spice up the action. We attempted to keep a Koenigsegg pointing forwards with a manual/clutch gearbox and the traction control, ABS, and stability control set to 'Off' – all the while, the AI tailed us three corners back. This AI also has a clumsy tendency to drive straight on at corners. The first couple of times you'll think these are just believable mistakes but, as the AI proceeds to carbon copy this particular mistake at least once or twice each race, you'll rapidly lose that suspension of disbelief.
Defenders of the series will surely say that AI isn't so important in driving sims; that it's more crucial to have the handling system and customisation options which allow you to create whatever driving experience you like. And we can see their point but, if that's the case, then why not provide the option to choose an AI setting (or at least make it challenging enough in the first place)?! Even in races where your car is outclassed by the competition and most of your opponents can burn you down the straights, you'll still win with ease simply because they're as cautious through the corners as a man with his newborn baby in the passenger seat. Things do start to improve in the separate events away from the World Tour though: unlike their casualised brethren, these individual events require you to purchase specific cars in order to gain entry, which gives you something to play towards, and access to harder AI means that you can at least forge something of a challenge out of the races. For those loyal core fans who've made Forza what it is today, this is where you'll be spending most of your time – World Tour really is as good as a write-off from the outset.
Microsoft's gadget du jour, Kinect is inevitably one of the major selling points behind Forza 4. Its implementation is headlined by the new Autovista mode; a virtual showroom of sorts that renders a selection of 25 cars at ludicrously high levels of detail. From here you can lean left or right to circle the car's exterior, make gestures to open doors and engine compartments, or walk forwards to step into the driving seat and admire the car's innards. It's car porn to the nth degree, annotated by occasional splurges of info from Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson (although half of the time it's just the generic voice-over guy) and engine sounds that purr like a Siberian tiger. Kinect controls do add novelty value, but it's a novelty that will wear thin for many – occasionally awkward gesture recognition may well leave you resorting to a traditional gamepad for ease of use after a while. Quick Race and Hot Lap modes are also available with Kinect, and the imaginary steering wheel controls are actually surprisingly responsive. The whole experience is heavily chaperoned by auto-brake and accelerate stabilisers, but it's all laid out in a separate hub away from the main Forza 4 experience so, thankfully, you don't end up with any casual in your core.
Where Kinect does manage to get inside of the core experience, though, is with a head-tracking feature that enables gamers to glance left and right in the swanky new cockpit views. The feature works pretty well and can be used either subtly, for spotting apexes, or more acutely when attempting to glance at an opponent on the periphery of your blind spot. A solid range of adjustment options, which allow you to tweak sensitivity to your desired level, then ensure that it's a lot more user-friendly and responsive than its GT5 equivalent. Turn 10 also outdoes its Polyphony Digital rival with a much better multiplayer suite: the new Car Clubs are sure to keep Forza's already huge community expanding, while Top Gear branding has been appealingly applied through online 'Rivals' challenges (yes, they have 'Reasonably Priced Car') and a new Soccer mini-game to sit alongside old favourites like Cat And Mouse or Tag.
With all of these huge steps forward in the series, then, and the strides that Forza 4 takes ahead of its competitors in many areas, it's the silliest of oversights that ultimately stop it from becoming a brilliant game. Already indoctrinated Forza fans are likely to come away tickled pink by all of the technical wizardry that Turn 10 has sweated blood to achieve, but if you're a gamer who also likes a bit of driving sim action then you may well end up slightly dissapointed.
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