Reviewed: Forza Motorsport 4

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Don’t put the DVD for Forza Motorsport 4 in your Xbox 360 unless you’re ready to play. Less than five minutes after loading the game, you’re at the helm of a Ferrari 458 Italia battling half a dozen supercars on a stunning track through the snowy Swiss Alps. After that, you’re quickly immersed in the virtual career of amateur racer, traveling to dozens of race tracks around the world and racing everything from subcompacts to drift cars. Next thing you know, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re still playing.

Forza 4 is the latest version of the pre-eminent racing video game for the Xbox 360. The newest version has even more tracks (22), more car choices (over 500), more cars in each race (up to 16), and improved graphics. Plus, a new licensing deal with the BBC’s Top Gear means you can drive the show’s Dunsfold, U.K. test track and listen to host Jeremy Clarkson’s trademark monologues.

How do I play?

Gamers who have played the prior Forza Motorsport 3 will find most of Forza 4’s gameplay familiar. In Career mode, drivers start with a plebian city car (we opted for the Ford Ka) and compete in a variety of races at tracks around the world. Winning races lets you collect money with which to purchase new cars. Each car can be upgraded with parts like wings and turbochargers, and truly dedicated players can tweak things like alignment, gear ratios, and tire pressures.

Free Play is the best option for the casual gamer. It allows you to race any car on any circuit, with opponents or against the clock. It’s ideal for the player who simply wants a chance to pilot a Bugatti Veyron on the Nürburgring Nordschleife without having to save up for the quad-turbo exotic in Career mode. As with most modern video games, you can play also online via Xbox Live.

Forza 4 comes with a variable level of driving assistance to make the game accessible to everyone. By default, stability and traction control are enabled on every car, as is a braking assistant which automatically slows the car if you’re approaching a corner too quickly. This makes it easier for beginners to acclimate to the game, but we think serious enthusiasts will quickly turn off those features.

Is it realistic?

Forza 4 has enough cars to keep even the most ardent enthusiast satisfied, with everything from race cars and historic muscle cars, to modern-day hot hatchbacks and luxury SUVs represented. (For some reason, Forza also includes the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf electric cars, as well as the Toyota Prius.) As always, cars can be purchased or traded online, and Forza’s makers promise new batches of downloadable cars every few months.

Each car is rendered in exquisite detail, with elements like door handles and brake calipers appearing exactly as on the real-life vehicle. With fantastic reflections and shiny paintwork, the cars look almost photo realistic. The interior view of each vehicle is likewise finished with working gauges and precisely recreated switchgear. You can even see the spoiler on the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG raise at speed, and shift lights illuminate in a Ferrari 458 Italia.

The tracks are likewise thoroughly immersive, whether one of Forza’s fictional circuits or a real-world location like Laguna Seca, the Nürburgring, Silverstone, and Road Atlanta. Each track appears like a gorgeous postcard of the locale, with glistening snow in the Alps and thick forests along the Nordschleife. The stunning lighting effects make dawn or evening races even more spectacular.

The same goes for the in-game sound effects, which are so good that we strongly recommend turning off the in-game music. A 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 429 lopes and rumbles, a Ferrari F40 snarls and crackles, and an Acura Integra Type-R buzzes angrily.

As for the actual driving experience, Forza developers Turn 10 worked with Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli to accurately model the grip levels and dynamics of various tires. As a result, driving Forza cars fast is both difficult and immensely rewarding. You have to drive with the same respect required in a real car, respecting the handling and grip limits of cars in order to achieve quick lap times without crashing.

In this sense, Forza 4 feels far more realistic than other racing games. Brake too late in a Volkswagen GTI and it will understeer toward the outside of the track; apply full throttle too early in a BMW M3 and the car will spin into the closest gravel trap. If you do crash, a special “rewind” mode allows you to skip a couple of seconds backward in the race, ideally giving you enough time to brake or otherwise avert a mishap.

Unlike some racing games, where computer racers stick doggedly to the perfect racing line, Forza’s virtual opponents are decidedly more human. Computer-driven cars will occasionally slide off the track or cause a mid-corner collision.

What about Top Gear?

The BBC TV show has a multi-year deal with the makers of Forza 4, so there are multiple TG-themed game modes. They include the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car challenge behind the digital wheel of a Kia Cee’d, automotive bowling, and special modes allowing players to relive moments of the show’s past, like driving a Ferrari F40 around Italy’s Mugello Circuit.

Top Gear also plays a key role in the game’s new Autovista mode, wherein Jeremy Clarkson provides colorful narration on the history and significance of the various cars on display. Autovista allows players to walk around, look at, and zoom in on details of several rare and exotic cars. Some, like the Ford GT, are available immediately, while others must be unlocked by completing driving challenges.

Should I buy it?

Yes -- Forza 4 is easily one of the best racing games we’ve ever played. If you love driving fast, beautiful cars on the world’s most stunning, challenging tracks, Forza 4 is the best way to indulge your automotive fantasies without incurring crushing debt. The scenery and graphics are stunning, the driving experience is truly enthralling, and there are enough cars and challenges to keep even the most attention-starved gamer playing for months on end. Whether you want to test your mettle with race cars, modify a sport compact for spec racing, or just race Lamborghinis against your friends online, Forza 4 is sure to satisfy.

Forza Motorsport 4 goes on sale Tuesday, October 11 for $59.99.

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