Review: Forza Motorsport 4 roars onto the Xbox 360

Editor’s note: This is our first game review from Rob Wyatt, a game programming veteran, Xbox architect and chief scientist at Otoy. He plans to review games using his lens as a technical expert.

“An unapologetic love letter to cars.” That’s how Jeremy Clarkson, host of racing show Top Gear, describes Forza Motorsport 4, Turn 10’s latest racing game for the Xbox 360, which has just debuted two years after its predecessor.

The use of Top Gear in the latest iteration of Microsoft’s exclusive racing series for the Xbox 360 shows that the stakes are high in the racing genre, which generates $2.5 billion in sales a year worldwide, according to market researcher EEDAR. And in this multibillion-dollar battle, Forza represents the pinnacle of Microsoft’s bid to wrest control of the market from Sony’s Gran Turismo series.

The Top Gear connection is not limited to the introduction; the production style throughout is very characteristic of the TV show and this is especially true in the non-racing section known as ‘Autovista,’ a viewing-only mode which is like having a visual encyclopedia within the game.

This mode is like having a digital version of Top Gear in your console. Of course, the content is narrated by Clarkson in his usual dry and witty style. It provides a nice break when not racing.

All about the racing

But racing is what this game is about. The game, which takes about 45 seconds to load, is a lot of fun. You’ll see that it flows well, looks good, sounds good, and it’s one of the few racing games where you get a real feel of speed.

I am no hardcore racer and I had a ton of fun playing. It is very accessible whether this is your first time with a racing game or you are a seasoned vet. Playing in career mode, you begin with a world tour in a “group F” amateur league with cars such as the Toyota Aygo and the Chevy Aero; probably not your dream vision of motor racing, but you have to start somewhere.

The game lets you progress quickly as being stuck for an eternity in a rather boring sub-compact car would be awful; in no time you’ll be unlocking features, winning races and moving up through the ranks. Every time you increase your standing, you are rewarded with a new car. Existing cars can be upgraded with credits earned while racing, and you can pretty much take any car to a ‘group A’ performance. Even with all the upgrading, it takes time and effort to get a bona fide super car.

If you have the previous version of the game, the game data will be automatically detected and you’ll get a whole bevy of  cars. If you don’t have the previous game, all is not lost if you just want to drive fast. Outside of career mode, you can engage in ‘free play,’ which provides arcade-type play and lets you drive any car in any scenario, whether on an empty track, in a quick race, or in a head-to-head split screen race with a friend. All the free play modes are great if you just want to waste 15 minutes.

Driving against the AIs

Difficulty can be set from ‘Easy’ to ‘Expert.’ In Easy mode you get easy artificial intelligence (AI) opponents and a car featuring an automatic transmission, stability control, traction control and assisted steering and braking. In expert mode you’ll be up against professional AI opponents and a car with physically simulated steering and a manual transmission with a clutch.

The AI drivers behave realistically for the selected difficulty, and overall the AIs provide a good race. In the more advanced modes, the AI cars are difficult to get past as they hold a good line at high speed and you either have to wait for them to mess up or break from the ideal line and power past them — assuming you have the car to do so.

Turn 10 recommends using a physical steering wheel and pedals while in expert mode, and I would have to agree. But in the non-expert modes, using the standard controller is intuitive and comfortable. The physics in the game feel good but are obviously being messed with, in a good way, to make the easier settings feel more like a game and less like a simulation.

Dis-Kinect

In Expert mode, it very much feels like a simulation. The game does support Microsoft’s Kinect motion-control system, but I couldn’t get into it. It really feels gimmicky, like it was implemented for a checkpoint on the box. You play with a virtual steering wheel holding your arms out in front of you. Doing so is frustrating and tiring. Another frustrating Kinect feature is the head-tracking. As you turn your head, the camera pans to the direction you are facing. Moving your head around in a real car works but when you do that while playing a game you are no longer looking directly at the TV. You are limited to a single lap when playing, and for this your arms will the thankful. In a social or party setting, where it’s less about actually playing the game and more about entertaining your friends, you can get some laughs using Kinect.

You can choose from hundreds of cars from at least 80 manufacturers. The selection gets bigger online as additional vehicles can be downloaded from the marketplace. I was impressed to see classics from all over the world: vintage cars, muscle cars. The European rally and track cars are all represented and can be raced against each other. The cars from the United Kingdom are right-hand drive, which is a nice touch.

These cars do take damage — you can scratch them up and roll them over. But they’ll remain mostly recognizable and you don’t get the crazy destruction that other games provide. From a graphical point of view, the damage is simple but effective and comprises of decal textures for scratches and small modifications to the 3D model for more serious damage.

A number of new tracks are provided in version 4, including the infamous Top Gear test track and a few real world circuits: Hockenheimring (Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis, Indiana), and Infineon Raceway (Sonoma, California).

The audio is realistic, the engines sound great with surround enabled. The music is good but it’s all electronic and adds to the atmosphere when racing, although its more or less drowned out by the engine noise. Effects from the environment on the audio are there but are very subtle; when you drive into a tunnel, not much changes. I would have liked the reverberation and echo to be a bit more pronounced.

Into the nuts and bolts of the graphics

Graphically the game is very good. The rendering of the Autovista and the car selection menus is stunning and the car models are fantastic.

While in the game, the car models are lower resolution but still great, and you won’t have any problem identifying the vehicles. The world consists of a 3D model in the middle of a photographic environment that makes the backdrop.

The backdrop works well, the outdoor lighting is very nice and you can can race at different times during the day with the lighting changing accordingly. Everything is properly shadowed. The HDR reflections, road glare and bloom are all very well done, and for once they are not annoying or distracting. The racing is smooth, with a solid 60 hertz (hz) frame rate (it gives you a new screen of imagery 60 times a second).

The mirror views update at 30 hz, but you would never notice. The frame rate stays at 60 hz for split screen, and there is minimal, if any, reduction in quality. So head-to-head competitions are just as fluid. The cars have reasonable reflections, but to get the best reflections you need to play with the hood camera when your own hood gets an awesome reflection of the world. This reflection is very cleverly derived from the rendered frame buffer (the graphics memory with a rendered image), so you get awesome detail without much additional render overhead.

The default camera is the first person cockpit camera, but it’s not a favorite of mine because the car takes up too much screen real estate. The car interiors are better than previous versions, but they are not pretty enough to consume so much screen space. I prefer either the third-person view of the chase camera or the first-person view of the hood camera.

The hood camera gives an incredible perception of speed. Fortunately, the type of camera can be changed on the fly and per player, so everybody can play in the mode that suits them. One thing to mention with the hood camera is it doesn’t do some cars any justice, especially those with decals on the hood. In the Aston Martin image below, the 007 decal texture on the hood is incredibly low resolution, considering it is so close to the camera (click the image to see it at full resolution).

It’s a shame that Turn 10 didn’t spot these little details. Overall, it provided a nice rendering system; the graphics are a lot better than version 3. Personally, I would have really liked some atmospheric effects more advanced than basic fog, which appears to be all you get. But if there was only one feature on my wish list, it would be some form of anti-aliasing (which smooths out jagged lines in computer graphics) to reduce the sparkles.

The anti-aliasing is one reason Gran Turismo 5 on the PS3 looks so much better. Yes, it’s more difficult to do anti-aliasing on the 360 than the PS3 or PC, but it would have made a huge difference, especially in Autovista. With only a single model, Turn 10 could afford the rendering overhead. Car games are prone to aliasing issues because cars have lots of hard edges with small gaps between body panels, which are very unforgiving. The track and environment for a racing game don’t help either, because of the high contrast markings from a low camera angle.

The game has all the usual replay modes, and the camera work with the replays is great; it tracks your car very nicely. Within the game, you can live rewind a few seconds at a time and continue again. That is great when you screw up, although it does kind of feel like cheating. While in replay mode, you can make a movie and, if you have an Xbox Live Gold account, upload and share it. There is a photo mode you can enter at any point from the pause menu, and after a brief load you get a free camera with which to compose your shot. This mode uses the high-resolution models along with higher quality rendering to make some pretty convincing images.

Shooting your own photos

Photos take just a few seconds to generate and are all rendered with the graphics processing unit (GPU). Forza’s photos are not quite as photo realistic as the path-traced images you get from GT5’s photo mode, but they are a lot more convenient and much quicker. You can save photos and share them on social sites. Another social side to the game is the messages you receive from Turn 10 encouraging you do to things for prizes, such as “Take your favorite car to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and send us your best photo!”

One of the Autovista unlockable items is Halo’s Warthog vehicle. Unfortunately, it is only in Autovista, not in the main game, and it can’t be raced. There is a giant game of bowling on the Top Gear test track, multiplayer car soccer, games of tag and various other silly games that have been featured on Top Gear at some point.

For multiplayer, which supports 16 drivers in a race, you start in a typical lobby, which is very similar to the previous game’s. So if you are familiar with version 3, you’ll be right at home. You have to download an update from Xbox Live before you can play, but it’s small and installs promptly.

You can quickly get into a multiplayer game by using the Quick Match feature. But if you are more picky about your racing partners, you can use the search feature to select drivers for a particular track, skill set, car class etc. Clubs are new for version 4. This where a group of friends can own a collective garage and share cars and complete with other clubs.

A big oversight is that you can only join one club and moving between clubs doesn’t seem possible. Maybe Turn 10 has future plans for this, but at the moment you have to choose wisely. Rival mode is new too, and it’s awesome. In this mode, you get notifications when a friend has beat your lap time or did something you didn’t. You get the typical leaderboard showing the results, but you can download their lap as a ghost lap and compete against it. If you’re competitive, this mode will ensure you never put the controller down.

When it comes down to the pure fun of racing, Forza Motorsport 4 surpasses Gran Turismo 5, and other than a few small graphical issues, it’s just as pretty. I suspect there will be a fair amount of downloadable content in the coming weeks as the 2012 cars become available. Combine all this with the online community features and you have a game worthy of its price tag. I, for one, will be playing for a while.

Rating: 89 out of 100

Here is a few minutes of video around the fictitious Bernese Alps circuit, one of the new tracks for version 4.  Starting with the incredible rendering in the menus, progressing through a lap of the circuit and ending with the auto generated replay.  All the footage is captured in game.

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