Forza 4, Turn 10's latest installment of their Xbox 360 exclusive racing franchise that would have probably been titled 4za by a lesser studio, is on course to be gaming nirvana for petrolheads. We rated its predecessor as being numerically superior to Gran Turismo 5 on merit of the dynamic singleplayer campaign and sense of unabashed fun that underpinned the entire game... and after enjoying plenty of hands-on time along with expert commentary from director Dan Greenawalt, we're rather impressed by how the sequel's shaping up. By which I mean that our tongues haven't fully retracted yet.
The Forza series prides itself on being "hardcore sim that a six-year old can play." Physics and driving mechanics are all painstakingly modelled from raw data that's then completely scalable for players of different abilities and tastes. The familiar range of driving assists including auto-braking, ABS, racing lines and even steering make a welcome return; allowing gamers to enjoy a ruthlessly hardcore simulation or a drift-heavy arcade racer. As well as anything in between.
However, Turn 10 decided that Forza 3 had taken their artificially approximated tyre mechanics as far as it could go... and proceeded to axe it in its entirety. A new deal with Pirelli means that raw data from countless road and laboratory tests (on a range of tyres attached to various cars) has been directly plugged into Forza 4's DNA, making for what promises to be one of the most authentic and realistic simulations of road/car interaction to have ever been coded for entertainment purposes. After all, realistic is a bit of an understatement considering that it's powered by reality. In practice, this does lead to a much greater loss of speed when driving over a rumble strip or uneven surface, making staying on track much more important this time around.
Never mind all that, though, because the first thing you'll notice about Forza 4 is just how shiny everything looks. We rarely prioritise graphics over gameplay, but in this case we simply have to concede that Turn 10's new visual overhaul is nothing short of jawdropping. The new Image-Based Lighting system (IBL to its friends) is the key to every car's exquisitely reflective surfaces as it allows objects to be ambiently lit by the environment rather than from preset light sources. For example, the bottom of a car is never pitch black because it's partially illuminated by sunlight reflected from the road surface. Factoring real-time reflections into this equation leads to an eyewateringly gorgeous experience.
There's nowhere better to enjoy the IBL system than the new Autovista mode, which features several rare and unique cars that can be studied (read: ogled) in intimate detail. Slick Kinect functionality or a regular controller can be used to move up to within a few inches of any part of the car, including the engine, dashboard and center console. Straight-laced narration delivers a factual and dry rundown of each car's capabilities, supplemented by some entertaining opinionated waffle from the irrepressible Jeremy Clarkson. The exact number of cars that have been modelled in this exquisite fashion is still unknown, but Greenawalt was quick to suggest that Autovista focuses on rare and interesting automobiles that most people would never get to see, let alone drive.
Drive. Right. It's time to get back on track (heh) and return to the racing, which has received several updates since Forza 3. The constantly-adapting singleplayer World Tour is even more dynamic this time as it features a number of new events, such as track days that challenge you to pass an infinite number of rivals within a certain number of laps, and custom performance-based difficulty. The choice of events is tailored to the cars you have in your garage (slightly weighted towards the ones you enjoy using the most). In an interesting twist, the new Rivals mode lets you download ghost cars from your friends for singleplayer events, earning you extra XP and a sizeable bounty along with the all-important bragging rights.
As you gain experience levels, Forza 4 presents you with a selection of optional bonus cars (as opposed to simply doling out preset freebies every now and again), which will join the vehicles purchased with hard-earned credits and a small tailored selection of rare cars from existing Forza 3 save files. Loyal fans won't get their entire collection back, but it's a considerate nod to the community nonetheless.
Multiplayer functionality has also received a sizeable update. Traditional events have been bolstered with some less serious gametypes such as a zombie infection mode and the utterly infamous Top Gear Football. We can see these accessible and engaging modes becoming a guilty pleasure between hardcore racing sessions.
It's not just about racing competitively, though. Car clubs function much like clans in an online shooter, providing a forum for like minded players to socialise and race together. Cars can be simultaneously shared with every member of the group regardless of whether the original owner is online, as well as tuning files, custom liveries and layer groups.
Forza 4 is looking slick, feature-packed and seriously shiny ahead of its October release. We'll keep you updated as we hear more down the line.