Circuit-based racing games are repetitive by nature, but the deja vu you experience when playing Forza Motorsport 4 is especially pervasive--at least if you're familiar with its superb predecessor. You can't help noticing that the majority of the cars and tracks in Forza 4 also appeared in Forza 3. They look noticeably better now, which is no mean feat in itself, but early in your new racing career you could still be forgiven for wondering if developer Turn 10's latest offering might more appropriately have been titled Forza 3.5. Thankfully, that feeling dissipates as new features and improvements reveal themselves, and ultimately there's no doubt that this is a worthy sequel to one of the best racing games in recent memory.
If you're one of the many people who played and enjoyed Forza 3, or are still playing and enjoying Forza 3 two years after its release, you're rewarded for your efforts the first time you start up Forza 4. You don't get to keep your vast collection of cars or your multimillionaire bank balance, but you're awarded a good selection of cars and a modest sum of money based on factors such as your Forza 3 driver level, VIP status, and whether or not you owned any of the rare "unicorn" cars. It's great that after spending countless hours with Forza 3 you don't have to start from scratch in Forza 4, and you might be pleasantly surprised by some of the cars that you find in your garage once you start playing. Newcomers to Forza have to make do with a first car that wouldn't warrant a second look if you passed by one in real life, but as one of the Forza faithful you might have access to a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Ferrari 430, an Audi R8, and a Bugatti Veyron as soon as your career gets under way, to name but a few.
Forza 4's World Tour mode is structured quite differently from Forza 3's Career mode. Where the latter challenged you to complete numerous themed series and, as a result, often saw you driving the same car for hours at a time, the former gives you much more freedom to drive what you want, when you want. You don't have any say in where your world tour takes you, but every time you land at a new circuit you're given at least two or three different events to choose from. Normally, the choices available to you appear to be dictated by the car that you're currently using or at least by the cars in your garage, so you almost never need to buy a new car to progress. In fact, you might not feel the need to buy any cars at all; you're awarded a new car every time you earn enough experience points to gain a driver level, and where in Forza 3 you didn't get any say in which car you received, now you get to choose from two to five options. Thinking about saving up 9 million credits to buy a Ferrari '67 330 P4? Don't bother; you can get one for free once you reach level 30, assuming you choose it over the Ford '66 GT40 MkII and the Shelby '65 Cobra Daytona Coupe.
In another departure from the Forza 3 formula, the cars you drive no longer gain levels along with you. Rather, driving a car increases your affinity with its manufacturer, which then rewards you with cash bonuses and discounts on car upgrades. It's a great system in theory, but it's baffling that with an affinity level of just four--which might take you only a handful of races to achieve--you qualify for a 100 percent discount on all parts. That means you can take your E-class Toyota MR2 with 145 horsepower and turn it into an S-class car with over 350 horsepower without spending a single credit. This makes it a lot easier for you to make your favorite cars competitive online and leaves you with more money to spend on new vehicles, but--in conjunction with the new option to purchase cars using Microsoft points--it devalues the in-game currency.
Regardless of how you acquire them, Forza 4's cars are a joy to drive, and they feel even more responsive on the track than their Forza 3 counterparts. Whether using the in-car view or any of the several available external cameras, you're afforded plenty of audio and visual feedback with which to make split-second decisions on the track, not to mention the excellent rumble and force feedback effects you get from standard controllers and steering wheel setups respectively. That's just as well, because AI opponents are noticeably more aggressive this time out and aren't nearly as quick to back off when you get alongside them. They don't always drive intelligently, they occasionally seem oblivious to your existence on the track, and they're oddly prone to errors after you use the rewind feature to correct your own mistakes, but at least you feel like they're putting up a fight for the most part. It's unfortunate that making even slight, accidental contact with an opponent renders your current lap time worthless on the leaderboards, but this is a necessary evil because it's possible to use opposing cars as a quick way to brake for corners on occasion.
Like previous games, Forza 4 does an outstanding job of catering to drivers of all skill levels. Options like assisted braking and steering, traction control, and the suggested racing line make it easy to get behind the wheel and compete even if you've never played a racing game before. Using any of the driving aids, including the aforementioned rewind feature, means you earn less prize money at the end of every race, but unless you desperately want the achievement for owning every Ferrari in the game, this is hardly a cause for concern. The only real worry with Forza 4's driving aids is that once you get used to driving with them, it can be hard to wean yourself off them. If you make an effort to experiment with switching certain assists off when you find that you're winning races too easily, though, you're sure to find a setup that's both comfortable and challenging after a while. Race results aren't the only metric that you can use to judge whether you're racing with too many assists turned on; Forza 4 uses a small onscreen graphic to rate every corner you take and every pass you make, as well as any drifts and drafts. This inspired addition can be humbling, but it's a great feeling to string together three or four perfectly taken corners in a row.
Unsurprisingly, Forza 4's racing action is best enjoyed online where you can compete with up to 15 other drivers simultaneously. (Forza 3 supported only eight players online.) A robust lobby system makes it easy to find and get into sessions that include straightforward races, drift and drag events, and games of tag and the team-based cat and mouse. There's also an all-new option to participate in multi-class races that see two, three, or even four different races take place on a track at the same time. These events invariably pose an interesting challenge, because at the same time you're competing with cars in your own class, you need to steer clear of drivers from other classes whose cars are significantly faster or slower than yours. The potential for drama on the track increases in these situations, and while it's rarely much fun getting forced off the road, the silver lining is that collisions often make for great photos and replays, which can be shared via both your in-game storefront and forzamotorsport.net quickly and easily.
Another great new way to enjoy multiplayer competition is the new Rivals mode. Here, you pit your skills against other players' ghost car replays in events that include hot laps, track day overtaking challenges, drift contests, and slalom-style autocross events. Beat a rival's score, and if they're a friend or a member of your car club (the new Forza equivalent of a clan or guild), they receive a message letting them know that you beat them. If you don't have any friends or fellow club members to compete against, you have an opportunity to compete against the replays of randomly selected players. Rivals mode works in much the same way as the Autolog feature that developer Criterion introduced in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (and which more recently appeared in Burnout Crash!), and it offers a compelling reason to revisit the same events over and over again.
You also have the option to revisit events from your world tour and to take part in events that you passed on at any time. There's little reason to rerun races that you've already won, but some of the new, score-based event types are definitely fun to play more than once. Track day challenges require you to overtake as many slow cars as possible while driving a fast one, for example, while one-vs.-one challenges are head-to-head races in which you much chase and overtake an opponent on a course filled with slow-moving traffic. These event types feel very different from regular races because with so many cars in front of you and around you, you rarely have an opportunity to stick with the racing line that you're normally trying hard not to stray too far from. Top Gear events are similar in that regard, but rather than challenging you to avoid other drivers, they involve knocking over bowling pins as you race around the popular BBC show's test track.
That track is one of only five that are new in Forza 4, along with Hockenheimring, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Infineon Raceway, and the fantasy circuit that runs through the Bernese Alps, all of which are great additions. Most of the Forza 3 tracks return, so there are plenty to choose from (26 circuits, most with two to five variants), but the absence of the New York street circuit is a little disappointing. All of the included tracks are superbly detailed and give the appearance that they've seen plenty of use in the two years since Forza 3 was released. They also benefit from improved lighting effects, which can have you admiring impressive shadows when racing at sunrise in one race, and reaching for a pair of sunglasses in the next, when the midday sun's glare hits you via another car's roof or a trackside mound of snow. What's conspicuously absent in Forza 4, though, given the existence of games like Gran Turismo 5, is an option to race at night or in different weather conditions. When you're racing outside of World Tour mode there are "track condition" settings available for some tracks, but the options only include things like "late afternoon," "sunset," and "overcast," the latter of which comes with no chance whatsoever of rain.
Of course, you might not be interested in driving in the rain, and it's even possible that driving isn't your primary reason for being interested in Forza 4 at all. Like in Forza 3 before it, Forza 4's community features are set up in such a way that those of you more interested in tuning or designing liveries for cars than in driving them can definitely find an audience of potential paying customers. As a tuner you can easily adjust settings like tire pressures, gear ratios, downforce, and wheel alignments to improve a car's performance. Some of the options can look a little intimidating if you're not mechanically minded, but the effects of any changes that you make are explained in enough detail that you don't feel like you're just fumbling around in the dark if you give tuning a try. Come up with a tuning setup that works well, and you might even be able to sell it from your personal online storefront along with any vinyl designs and car liveries that you've created by expertly manipulating geometric shapes and simple images. You have all of Forza 3's vinyl shapes plus 80 new ones to work with when creating your designs in Forza 4, and producing graphics that other players are willing to spend money on still takes a lot of work. The tools are powerful and easy to work with once you understand them, though, and it's a great feeling to be complimented on your car's appearance when you've designed it yourself. (It's also worth noting that you can import your vinyl designs from Forza 3, but not your completed car liveries.)
New features and improvements are relatively thin on the ground for tuners and painters, but for those of you who simply love cars, Forza 4 has a treat for you in its new Autovista mode. Here, using the optional Kinect support to mimic the act of walking around a car and interacting with it if you choose, you get to explore some of the game's most desirable automobiles in stunning detail. You can open doors, trunks, and hoods; you can get into the driver and passenger seats; and you can even inspect wheels and engines. Interact with the right part of your chosen car, and you get an amusing overview of it voiced by Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson; interact with other areas of the car, and you get much drier but informative descriptions of various components. Only four cars are available at the outset, but you can unlock another 20 or so (including the Halo series' Warthog, which can't be driven) by completing specific race challenges.
Like even the very best new cars, Forza 4 doesn't reinvent the wheel, but rather it refines and improves upon what came before it. That's no small achievement given how truly special Forza 3 was, and if you're still playing that game, there's a good chance you'll still be enjoying this one two years from now.