On the track

16 Oct 2011

For a while now I’ve been looking for a good car racing game for the Xbox 360 to replace Project Gotham Racing 3. PGR3, was a good mix of fun, challenging, and great visuals. Since finishing that I’ve been bereft of such a game: PGR4 traded fun for realism; the Gran Turismo equivalent for the Xbox, Forza Motorsport, seemed all realism and no fun; and anything with “Need For Speed” in the title was generally not my cup of tea. So I gave up and just played yet more Halo instead.

That changed however when my good friend Dave visited last month. Knowing he was a car enthusiast, and a big player of Gran Turismo 4 on the Playstation, I popped on the Forza Motorsport 3 demo to let him have a play. What we did during that session was turn off most the assists that are on by default, and suddenly the game came alive. It was more realistic and more fun at the same time, which was an epiphany for me in this sort of game. So I duly went down to my local Game and pre-ordered a copy for Forza Motorsport 4, which was then due out in a month.

A month later and a couple of days playing, and I can say I’ve not been disappointed with the full Forza experience – it does a top job of blending realism and fun.

A screenshot from Forza showing a red classic Alfa Romeo racing along the start/finish straight of a track set in the mountains.

I was initially surprised to see there was next to no manual with Forza 4, but instead the mode eases you in with a simple tutorial (with all the car assists on) before giving you the main menu. It’s a nice approach, and reminiscent of the approach mobile apps, which of course have no manual, have to approach. Lots of games have tutorial progression, but this was done much more seamlessly. Nice to see console games learning a trick from mobile apps.

The game itself is just beautiful (all the pics in this post are of me tootling around the game), and the breadth of tracks and cars amazing to someone like me that’s not partaken in such a game for several years. What is nice is that the developers, Turn 10, have taken a somewhat inclusive approach – trying to reach out to people like me that enjoyed the less serious PRG series (with autocross, and car bowling and silly games) and the serious Gran Turismo style fan. It’s not often that a game has something for everyone, but I think Forza does (assuming you like cars at all).

From a geek point of view, there’s some nice technical innovations in the game that I like, mostly around Kinect integration. First up is head tracking. If you watch most people play games they weave around in their seat as they play, trying to physically will the game to respond. Forza 4 takes advantage of this to try and solve the problem that always besets car games, which is limited field of view. As you twist and turn in your seat, Forza will pick up on that and look left or right appropriately. It not only opens up the road a bit, but makes the whole game feel a bit less static and more immersive. It’s not perfect, I’m still trying to tweak the setting for it to have it consistently pick my movements up, but when it does work it’s awesome, and when it’s not there I miss it.

The other interesting using of Kinect is the quick play options, where you (and optionally a second player) can do away with the controller and stick your hands out and pretend to drive, just like kids have (I assume :) done since cars were first invented. Pretend to steer left or right and the car does that. It’s clearly not practical for a heavy simulation game, but it’s a fun addition that lightens up the game, and lets you just dive into having fun.

A metallic brown family car races through the trees.

Not being a car nerd (I’m a nerd in lots of other fields, just not cars, sorry) I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the simulation, but it feels very good. Your car will slide over the track, late breaking leaves you going off the track rather than round the corner, etc. It certainly feels right. I’ve love at some point to try it with a wheel and pedal combination rather than a controller to see how that feels, but even with a controller it does convey a nice sense of hurtling in a large metal box (mostly) attached to the road by some small patches of rubber.

Another nice innovation is asynchronous multiplayer. Like most game, Forza has synchronous multiplayer, where you and your friends (or total strangers) can race each other, which is all well and good if you have lots of free and/or flexible time, but if you have to work or do other such things, such time can be limited.

So in Forza 4 is a new mode called Rivals, where you compete against the recording of your friends playing the same game type on the same track. So I could set a hot lap on Laguna Seca, and then you could come along and plat against a recorded ghost of my hot lap, trying to best it. If you do, then I can get to see your hot lap and try and beat it again. I think it’s a fantastic way to make the game play more sociable for those of us with otherwise busy schedules.

A Mclaren races along the straight at Leguna Seca Raceway

Anyway, if you at all like car games, be they serious or silly, I can highly recommend Forza 4. It isn’t perfect – I felt it was a bit too easy to unlock the insanely powerful cars, and the head tracking isn’t just pick-up-and-play ready, but all in all I’m having lots of fun with it, and I can see it keeping me entertained for a good while to come. And given the new Rivals mode, I hope to see at least some of you on the track – I’m currently to be spotted whizzing about in the Digital Flapjack Racing MX-5 :)