reagent's Forza Motorsport 4 (Xbox 360) review

Forza 4 proves racing sims should be fun

Gran Turismo gives racing simulators a bad name. Gran Turismo 5 made car sims seem like stuffy and cumbersome beasts. Don't get me wrong; it's a good game, but it isn't a great one.

Gran Turismo 5 simply isn't fun. It is too bogged down by precision and realism for the average gamer to embrace it -- and that's totally OK. A lot of gearheads are into being as detailed as possible. They build racing seat setups in their living rooms and likely have an old sports car that they drive to the store once a week. And for those people, I present this picture:

Meet Jeremy Clarkson. He's a presenter on BBC's Top Gear and he's nothing like the people I've described. He's loud and brash, and doesn't claim to know the first thing about correctly timing an engine. He's the antithesis of precision and "realism."

Top Gear's philosophy is that cars are meant to be enjoyed. They test and review vehicles anyone would salivate over and their coverage is never stale. Cars are fun and should be judged on how well they serve that purpose.

The Forza series embraces this same idea. Racing should be a manic, knuckle-whitening affair. Your heart should pound and every vehicle should come with its own set of complications and demands. Like Top Gear, Forza is all about the thrill and danger involved in driving expensive cars very quickly. It makes sense, then, thatForza 4 would join forces with Top Gear to save the world from laboriously precise racing sims.

Jeremy Clarkson is a very moving speaker. His voice commands you to listen, and even if you don't agree with his politics or his actions, you can feel the passion in his words. Forza 4 opens with him delivering a stirring monologue about how loving cars isn't wrong. Environmental pressures and economic concerns are taking a terrible toll on the automotive industry and people who enjoy driving. Games like Forza exist to capture the essence of being in a fast car and preserve it.

Forza 4 is all about being behind the wheel. In fact, after Clarkson stops talking about how wonderful cars are, you're instantly thrown into a race. You don't select your track or what you're driving. Where Gran Turismo 5 greets its players with endless menus and an agonizing clock-syncing feature, Forza tosses out all the complication and gets right down to the reason you bought the game in the first place: driving.

One of the most frustrating design choices in GT5 was the feeling that you were driving a giant marshmallow. No amount of contact during a race seemed to disturb the car's trajectory or condition. Cars were simply too gorgeous and expensive to ever be seen in a damaged state. Hell, even trying to flip in GT5 is a Herculean task, one I accomplished by turning absolutely every limiting setting off and driving a Zonda F as fast as possible into a guard rail. It really wasn't worth the hassle.

Forza takes a shockingly more realistic approach, at least in terms of car physics. Gran Turismo is all about the motion and the function of cars without satisfying curiosity. What if I want to see what happens if I skid against a guard rail at 200 miles per hour? In Forza, the result is catastrophic and full of chipped bodywork, tire smoke, and a potential multi-car spinout. Even though the race is decidedly over for me at that point, crashing was really damned entertaining. GT is too concerned with actual race realism to bother with how spectacular a mistake can be.

Forza 4 also embraces Top Gear's over-the-top format by including the show's full test track and a series of interesting challenges. You won't be driving across the spine of Africa in an Opel, but the tasks are still ridiculous. For example, you can take every car class for a spin around the Top Gear track while knocking down as many gigantic bowling pins as possible. Getting a high score depends on how well you've mastered your selected car.

Everything that's good about Forza 4 is drenched in surprising blend of cheekiness and passion. You get the feeling that the people making this game love cars for completely different reasons than the man who meticulously polishes his Aston Martin DB9. A love of speed, recklessness, and good-natured buffoonery shines through a beautiful racing sim. If you want precision Forza 4 will gladly give it to you, but that's not the emphasis. Even the Autovista mode that lets you take a 3D tour of several cars in the game balances its intense geekery with humor.

Overbearing racing realism isn't fun for most people, but no one's denying that someone, somewhere, really enjoys it. Forza 4 is the balance between serious racing and the unbridled love of cars. Bringing Top Gear into the mix marks the line between Forza and Gran Turismo. It's Microsoft boldly declaring that, hey, some people want to be entertained by their cars, not fulfill a bizarre racing fantasy. Gran Turismo exists for those who do want to live that dream, but for me, being able to drive a Peugeot 908 sideways through a glass tunnel only to have it end in a terrible crash is pure, unadulterated fun.

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