It’s entirely wrong to say that playing Forza 4, or any racing game for that matter, is anything like driving a car. There is a real trap in feeling that getting behind the virtual wheel of a Ferrari F40, a Lamborghini Murcielago or even a souped-up Subaru Impreza is anything like putting foot to accelerator in the actual machine. The smell of vaporized rubber, the barely restrained power of a V12 surging from what feels like every direction, the push of g-forces as you try to tame the Newtonian forces pushing and pulling your body — none of this can be abstracted down to something conveyed through a controller with a little rumbly motor.
Yet, there is something thrilling about a well realized racing game, something contained within that seems like actual racing’s distant cousin from another land. Side by side, they seem like very different things, but they share the hint of some spark. In a strange way, it’s like hearing a song that transports you to a late fall weekend in your first year of college, or a familiar smell that evokes happy memories of childhood. A good racing game doesn’t just simulate a driving experience, it pokes around in your brain to trip the same chemistry that might be activated in the real experience.
And, if that’s the case, then the makers of Forza 4 are obviously experienced brain surgeons. Forza 3 was my 2009 pick for Game of the Year, which tells you all you need to know about the esteem with which I hold the series. My initial impression is that Forza 4 is better than Forza 3, which tells you all you need to know about what the rest of this article is going to look like. So if you struggle to care about racing games in general, you can stop here satisfied that you know the crux of my thoughts. But, what makes Forza 4 so great is entirely about the details.
People asked me in the run up to the launch of Forza 4 why I was excited when essentially the game seemed to be a re-release of Forza 3. It’s hard to talk about driving models and finely tuned improvements being a reason to be excited about a game, but as I suspect fans of any recurring simulation understand, sometimes it's all about refinement. Forza 3 had a phenomenal racing model, and the fourth edition promises and then manages to build on what has already worked.
What that means from a practical perspective is that Forza 4’s experience can be fine-tuned to feel exactly the way you think it should, whether you are looking for an arcade racer or a hyper-challenging simulation. Just as a mid-engine sports car can feel very different depending on what traction settings or driving mode you have engaged, so Forza 4 can switch easily from deadly wild beast to tamed kitty-cat with a few intuitive button-presses.
But, all that twiddly fine-tuning is only the first layer of the highly adaptable gameplay. The real beauty of Forza 4 is how genuinely different every single car feels. In too many racing games, the farther up the food chain you go, the more homogonized the experience becomes. Things are happening so fast when you are pressing a Zonda around the thin, forested corners of Nürburgring or playing chicken with the hairpins on Tsukuba in an SLS AMG that these ultra fast cars, virtually realized, can start to seem like they are losing their identities at exactly the moment that they should feel most distinct. I’ve played far too many racing games where cars are different primarily in skin alone.
What impressed me here is how distinct every car sounds and feels. The more you play your favorite cars, the more you learn the particulars of driving specifically that car, and just because you have mastered Leguna Seca in a Bugatti Veyron doesn’t for a moment mean that you will be automatically equipped to set lap records at Silverstone in a Reventon or perfect the Hammerhead on the Top Gear Test Track in an Aston Martin DBS.
But you will want to, because all of those things are entirely different experiences conveyed in very different ways. The deeper you dive in, the more you learn that any single circuit on any single track can be a thousand different experiences depending on what car and settings you choose. I could potentially spend all day racing toward the Corkscrew at Leguna Seca, perfecting it on my fifteen favorite cars and never growing tired or feel like I'm doing the same thing. Turn off traction control. Turn on manual transmission. Then hop in a TVR and try to find just the right tolerances and angles that keep wheels on the road at the fastest possible speed. Suddenly it feels like a new game all over again.
If you are the sort of person who could spend hours working the lap over and over again to find just the right approach, the perfect line that slingshots you out of impossible corners already accelerating and popping gears into a too-brief straightaway, then there is a lot to love about Forza. And the beauty of it all is that the game constantly rewards you, regardless of how you want to play.
Spend your days trying to stay king of the hill among your friends (read: rivals), and you get as much if not more cash to spend on new cars or upgrades as you would battling it out with the admittedly tepid AI in career mode. Every few minutes the game seems to just throw some new cars at you like an ultra-rich sugar daddy, never leaving you without something new to try or some sense of progress.
The more you play, the more cash you accumulate, and the more clearly you understand that this is not a racing game that’s obsessed with hiding the best cars behind artificial barriers. The reason for that is entirely unexpected: It’s because there is no such thing as the best car. There is no singular ultimate experience you are chasing. The best race experience you may have is just as likely to involve some Euro hatchback as it is some unattainable super car.
And so, here it is, the big reason that I think Forza 4 might be the best racing game I’ve ever played. After hours filling up my garage with prestige cars, this is the first game that’s ever made me want to go back and jump in some of my old C– and D-class cars. In its own ways, a Citroen C1 or Kia Cee’d is every bit as much fun as a Ferarri or Lambo. Plenty of games before have conveyed speed or the terror of a corner approaching far too fast. This is the first one that has made me appreciate the personality of the represented cars across the spectrum. The first that has really made me feel like I understand why someone can fall as much in love with a sporty hatchback as a mid-engine beast.
All the other things — the Autovista mode, the car clubs, the multiplayer, the AI, the rivals mode — are great fodder for every other Forza 4 review on the planet. I don’t know about you, but that stuff is all only worth talking about if the game in question can make me fall in love with my pretend garage of cars. And as for this game and this collection of cars, this is a love story for the ages.