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Which brings us to the two areas where Forza really triumphs: AI and car damage. There are those who feel that Forza’s AI is too aggressive. Cars slam into you from behind, carve you up from the front, and shove their way past you on a regular basis, and it can make the game a slightly frustrating experience. But it also keeps the racing tight, tough and unpredictable. GT4’s AI was an improvement on GT3’s, but there was still the sense that, given a car of equal or better speed, all you had to do was accelerate sooner and brake later than the rest of the goons making their way around the track. In Forza, you meet drivers who seem determined to give you a hard time, and as a result, when you win you feel that it’s not just because you drove the faster car, but because you took calculated risks and drove the better race. Each lap turns into a mini-drama on its own, and each win a satisfying victory.
And there’s bad news for those of us that relied on GT’s disinterest in car damage as a driving aid. With Forza, the days of slamming into the car ahead to slow for a corner or into the side of a slowcoach to nudge yourself around are well and truly over. You’ll crush your bumper, wreck your steering and destroy your suspension if you push it. Once again, the balance is superb. Forza’s car damage doesn’t punish you for every crash with a race-ending write-off, but it gives you enough grief to make you think twice about doing something stupid.
Take all that, and combine it with some excellent track designs, ranging from real-world racetracks that are all smooth curves and tight corners to city street races and hair-raising twisty mountain descents, and you have a racing game that grabs your attention and holds it for hour after hour. Like GT, it creates that horrid vicious circle where you win a new car or buy a new upgrade, then can’t resist racing to try it out, then can’t stop racing until you win, at which point you buy a new car or upgrade. It’s horribly addictive.
Two other features are also worth a mention. One, the drivatar, is a bit of a gimmick; a facility to train an AI driver to drive races for you, using the AI’s impressions of your own style and talents. In practice, I’m not entirely sure what the use is. It can be a good way to get through a dull championship, but you have to pay the drivatar and it takes a sizable portion of your winning credits. And sadly, like a small child mimicking Daddy’s swearwords in the playground, the drivatar reflects your own worst tendencies. Watching me crash repeatedly around a hairpin on the Tokyo circuit obviously affected the poor mite’s nerves, for in a race half an hour later it performed exactly the same trick and fell from first place to sixth in seconds.
Luckily, the other feature is a killer. Unlike GT4, Forza actually allows you to race online. Eight-player burn-ups are guaranteed to be an Xbox Live! staple, there’s an online career mode for the terminally competitive, and you can even trade your customised cars with the masses. Where GT feared to tread, Microsoft has taken a bold step forward.
In fact, bold is a great way to describe Forza Motorsport as a whole. Rather than ape Gran Turismo, it has taken its styles and fashioned them into something more aggressive, more thrilling, and frequently more fun. It’s a stark reminder that realism isn’t everything, and that sometimes the big numbers don’t add up. GT4 should win on points, but it’s Forza Motorsport that has stolen my heart.