Forza Motorsport 4 is a digital playground for car lovers (hands-on)

The next iteration of Turn 10's series of racing games promises more cars, more tracks, and, hopefully, more fun.

Forza 4 screenshot
The Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt go toe to toe in the Burmese Alps. This could only happen in a racing game. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I'm a huge fan of cars and a huge fan of video games. So it should go without saying that I spend a lot of time playing racing games. I was a bit late to the Forza Motorsport party, having spent a number of years as a faithful fan of the Gran Turismo franchise. However, last year I got hooked on Forza Motorsport 3 for the Xbox 360. Recently, I was slipped an early copy of Forza Motorsport 4, the next iteration of Turn 10's racing series promising more cars, more tracks, higher levels of realism, and, hopefully, more fun.

Like most Xbox 360 console games, Forza doesn't require installation to play. However, if you want to gain access to the widest variety of cars, you will want to install the data on the game's second disc. While you're at it, go ahead and also install the data on the first disc to speed up your load times between races. Fortunately, the installation is relatively quick and painless, but owners of Xbox 360s without hard drives won't be able to take advantage of this functionality.

Firing up Forza's World Tour mode for the first time, I was immediately transported behind the wheel of a borrowed Ferrari 458 Italia for the first race. This sort of over-the-top first race is something of a racing game trope. And like most racing games, once you've finished that first race behind the wheel of a supercar, Forza asks you to work your way back up from the bottom of the automotive totem pole and choose the first car for your garage. I chose a pink 2011 Chevrolet Spark.

Every race that you win nets you experience points and credits. Credits can be used to buy new cars and upgrades. Points count toward increasing your numerical driver level, and with each increase in level, you'll be awarded a shiny, new free car for your virtual garage. Within a few surprisingly hair-raising races, I'd added a 2011 Mazda2 to my stable. Within the hour, the 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata was mine.

Forza 4 screenshot
If you want pink rims and crazy sticker-bombing on your racing Miata, you can have that. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

That '94 Miata would also be my first foray into the world of upgrades and tuning, as Forza 4 offers a veritable smorgasbord of suspension, power, and aerodynamic upgrades for you to improve (or totally futz up) your car's performance. The MX-5 Miata was one of my favorite tuner cars in the previous iteration of the Forza franchise. However, although Forza 4 offers a profile import function for legacy profiles, it doesn't offer a vehicle or vehicle tune import function that I was able to locate. This meant that I was back to square one, choosing upgrades and tweaking settings. Fortunately, tuning is one of my favorite parts of a good racing sim, so I didn't mind spending hours perfecting everything from the performance and paint scheme, to the stickers and graphics on my ride.

With a few more races in my rearview, I came across the first of Forza's many "Top Gear" events (based on the popular automotive show): Top Gear Bowling. In this event, I was tasked with knocking over enlarged bowling pins while piloting my vehicle around Top Gear's test track. Eventually, I would be asked to make a fast lap in the show's Reasonably Priced Car, the Kia Cee'd, and take part in a massive game of car soccer.

"Top Gear" events keep things interesting, but the bulk of Forza 4's races are standard-fare races to a finish line. Forza 4 borrows Need for Speed: Shift's corner-mastery system, which rewards drivers for perfecting the entry, apex, and exit of the various corners of each tracks, but ups the ante by giving a score of 1 to 4 for each bend rather than Shift's yes or no score. The whole mastery system is unobtrusive (displaying as a tiny pop-up on the HUD while you drive). However, it's so unobtrusive that it's easy to just forget that it's even there in the first place.

Within a few hours of tuning, bowling, and (most importantly) racing, I'd won my first championship and was asked make the tough choice of selecting my prize from a '69 Nissan Fairlady Z, a '65 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GTA Stradale, a '73 BMW 2002 Turbo, a '71 Lotus Elan Sport, or a '71 Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R. After about 10 minutes of deliberation, I settled on the Skyline.

Forza 4 screenshot
From Japanese micro cars to classic American muscle, the vehicles of Forza 4 run the gamut. Turn 10 Studios

Forza's selection of vehicles still pales in comparison to Gran Turismo 5's roster. On the other hand, one could argue that Forza's selection is more streamlined. You won't find 15 different Lancer Evolution variants in this game, but do you really need that many?

In addition to racing and tuning, Forza 4 also offers seriously granular photo and replay modes that allow players to capture still images and video of their rides to share with other players on the in-game Storefront or on Forzamotorsport.net. There's also the Autovista mode that allows users to get a look around and inside of a selection of premium cars (such as the Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Reventon, or Delorean DMC-12 with detailed engines, interiors, and moving doors and hoods. Each premium vehicle features about a half dozen bits of spoken audio commentary from Turn 10's announcer and one extended commentary read by "Top Gear's" Jeremy Clarkson.

The whole deal is wildly addictive for car lovers. I cracked open Forza Motorsport 4 at about 7 p.m., but it wasn't until 5 a.m. that I finally shut it down for the night--and that's before I dug into the multiplayer aspects of the online racing, the Rivals mode, buying user content in the online Auction House, and joining a virtual car club.

Whether Forza 4 is better than Gran Turismo 5 is a bit irrelevant since neither game is cross platform. The game you end up with will depend largely on what console you own. I will say that Forza 4 is a much more accessible game than GT4, offering the same scaling difficulty introduced in Forza 3 that can provide casual fun for novice racers as well as a challenge for the experienced hardcore.

Forza Motorsport 4 for the Xbox 360 hits shelves on October 11 at an MSRP of $59.99 for the standard edition and $79.99 for the Limited Collector's Edition.

 

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