If Forza 4 lacks anything, anywhere, it’s in the racing rather than the driving. On the one hand, the restructured World Tour career mode gives you plenty of choice. While you’re shuttled from track to track in one set order, at least you can choose what kind of event you want to compete in, so you’ll never find yourself forced to race mid-range hatchbacks if you’d rather race vintage sports models or high-performance monsters.
The structure also means the game is always moving. While there are multi-stage events scattered through each tier, you never find yourself stuck doing the same races in the same class of cars over and over again. If you want to buy cars and upgrade them manually you can do, but Forza never forces you to do so. The game doles out a choice of new prize cars for every driving level you gain, and slick auto-upgrade options ensure that you’re never without a car that can handle the next race, providing you have a little cash to do it up with.
All this is great, but while Forza 4 certainly delivers more exciting racing than the rather pedestrian Gran Turismo 5, the competition still lacks a little bite. Your CPU-controlled opponents are smart enough to block your overtaking moves (and occasionally dumb enough to spin off the track on corners), but once you get in front they really struggle to catch up with you unless you a) get too timid on the corners or b) are driving something relatively underpowered.
You see, while playing Forza 4 we kept on thinking back to this year’s Shift 2: Unleashed. While EA's game didn’t handle as well as Forza 4, Shift 2 made us work much, much harder for every podium position, which encouraged you to take more risks and race in a gutsier, more aggressive style. Forza 4, by contrast, puts the emphasis on technical skill and precision. While later races in faster vehicles make you feel like you’re pushing the envelope, it just doesn’t match Shift 2 for four-wheeled thrills.
Luckily, this doesn’t prove to be as much of a handicap as you might think. For one thing, Forza 4 is still so much fun to drive that you never feel bored with it, with the constant stream of new cars and new track variations ensuring that there’s always a new experience to be had. New Top Gear branded challenges also help, even if their semi-comic tone can feel out of keeping with Forza 4’s more serious bent.
For another, there’s all the competition you could ask for in the game’s revamped online modes. The star here is Rivals mode, where you can race either Xbox Live friends or random strangers in special challenge events using ghost cars, so that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re playing online at the same time or not. Your rivals are notified when you beat them, and you in turn are notified when someone beats you, and there’s nothing more guaranteed to get you back on the track than the news that your hot lap has just been obliterated by a friend. In a nice touch, Top Gear’s Star in a Reasonably Priced Car is one of the challenges; it’s just a shame it hasn’t been integrated with the show’s real-life leader board.
Some of Forza 4’s long-term success depends on how well Turn 10 supports Rivals mode with new monthly challenges, but it’s certainly a great new way to play the game, particularly if you don’t like the pressure of the traditional online mode. This remains as smooth and playable as it was in Forza 3.
Sometimes Forza 4 can feel too generous, as if the constant feed of level-ups and prize cars is a bribe to keep you playing. Yet if it is, it’s hard to complain. While GT5 still wins on the number of cars available, Forza 4 seems to have a more satisfying collection, with fewer variations and a fascinating selection of special editions and vintage models. It’s as rich and deep a driving game as Gran Turismo, but also more fun to actually play. If Forza 4 could inject a little of Shift 2’s attitude - though perhaps without the irritating X-Games nonsense - then its position as the top serious racer would be assured. As it is, it’s still the reigning champ, and comfortably one of the best driving games ever made.
Like Gran Turismo 5, Forza 4 works better as a driving game for car nuts than a straight racer, but whatever minor shortcomings it has on the track are more than made up for by the generosity of the package. It looks beautiful, drives brilliantly and has so much going on – both online and offline – that you’ll be glued to the wheel for months.