The first thing I did when I was handed an advance copy of Forza 4 was rush home and fire up the XBox (obviously) and headed to the Top Gear test track.  After the heart-breaking disappointment of Sony’s attempt to bring Top Gear to the world of virtual racing, I had to reassure myself that Turn 10 wouldn’t drop the ball.  Whilst sliding round the first corner and out onto the grass in an Aston Martin, giggling like a school boy, I knew then and there that Turn 10 had nailed it.  That horrible taste left by Gran Turismo forcing me to drive an old school VW Wagon around the test track, and then ending the race if I so much as touched the painted line that mapped out the track, instantly disappeared.  I was once again in motor-racing heaven.

Heading into the game proper was a bit of a minor shock after the free driving around the test track, as the first race has all the assists turned on, and obviously you don’t start out with an Aston Martin.  The up side of this, is that it forces you to head into the driving settings and carefully decide just what you want turned on and off.

A few things have been tweaked in how you collect points and level up, you can now collect a few extra points by making clean passes and taking the correct line through corners.  With each level up comes the natural reward of a new car, but as a nice little improvement, you get to choose from a handful of cars offered rather than being forced to take a certain car.  If it’s American muscle cars, then you’re still stuck with American Muscle, but you get to choose which one.  It’s a nice touch.

Leveling up also seems to be a little faster and getting a nice selection of cars in your garage is a breeze.  This gift of fresh cars every time you level up is like a drug that keeps you racing when you know you should be sleeping.  You just want to get to the next level to see what selection of cars you’re going to be offered.

Graphically Forza 4 has been tweaked.  Everything think looks just a little bit better when you first play it, but it’s not until later on that you start to realise exactly what has been improved.  It’s the little things that sometimes make the game, and Turn 10 have nailed lots of little things in Forza 4.  Race in the late afternoon and on some corners you’ll have to content with a visually impressive and vision inhibiting sun strike, forcing you to concentrate just that little bit harder.  Last night I relaised that on a clear sunny day, depending on the car, you get the sunlight reflecting some of the dials and such on the dash board causing a very real visual distraction.  It’s just awesome when you notice these little things and makes the immersion so much better.

But no matter how sweet the visuals look and how smooth everything flows, any driving game is only as good as how the cars handle.

And yes, Turn 10 have nailed this as well.  There is no other driving game that makes racing virtual cars such an immense pleasure.  Now I’m not talking about the fun you get from games like Burnout or Need For Speed, because those are both a blast to play.  No, I’m talking about a game that makes you feel like you are in control of a powerful beast, riding on four wheels.  A game that when you first take your just unlocked HSV into a race and power out of a corner you can feel the back end start to get away from you forcing you into the split second decision of easing off the gas and turning in, or ignoring the feeling and loosing control – and probably the race.  The feeling of being into control of a car, but only just, as you take the inside line and try and out break the guy on the outside, feeling the pain of the tires as they cry out in protest, and feeling your own pain if you leave it a fraction too late and the wheels lock up and your plan to get ahed puts you back in the pack.

The sounds, the visuals, the way the cars react to the subtle flick of the thumb-sticks or pressure on the triggers, it all adds up to allowing you to believe.

But Turn 10 don’t seem content with just making the car look good and handle great.  They’ve ramped up the AI in subtle ways.  The AI as in previous games will still make mistakes and run wide on corners and such like, but now, on the easier settings, the AI won’t hang back, they will just drive more cautiously.  You might find yourself in a slightly slower car, and struggle to keep up off the line, but the AI will take their corners a little more timidly, just like a new driver would, allowing you to use the corners to gain the upper hand.  But if you’re not careful, they’ll blast past you on the long straight.

And they’ll fight back.  They seem to adjust to how well you’re driving and can be quite aggressive at times.  I’ve been tapped a few times, and had races stolen from me because the AI has literally taken me out.  But that’s racing, and it keeps the races tight, the adrenaline flowing and more importantly it keeps you feeling like you’re racing and not just playing around.

The selection of cars is massive – as you’d expect – and there are enough tracks to keep things varied.  As with other Forza titles, there doesn’t seem to be as many tracks as some other racing games, but that’s a minor issue.  Most of the tracks are familiar, but you’ll notice that they too have been tweaked and had things added to them.

Outside of the standard career mode you have the option of having a detailed nose around some of the more exotic cars, or just jumping in a car, choosing a track and having a race.

You can of course manually (or automatically) upgrade you cars, give them paint jobs and apply vinyl designs, to make all the cars in your garage unique to you.

The online side of things has much more of a community focus, but die to getting the game early, and living in New Zealand, there is no one to race against or really checkout the community side of things.  I will however been checking them out when the game releases.

And then there’s Kinect.  There had been some worry that Microsoft’s instance of putting Kinect features into Forza 4 would mean that we’d be missing out in other areas.  I can’t see any area that has had to suffer just to allow Kinect to be introduced.

Kinect is of course optional, and I generally don’t use it.  There are two main ways to use Kinect in Forza 4.  You can the first, and most gimmicky way, but one that will make the game more kid friendly, is driving with Kinect, but this would be more aptly described as steering, because that’s all you do.  Holding an imaginary steering wheel in front of you, you get to steer the car, whilst the XBox handles the acceleration and breaking.  It works incredibly well, but no serious gamer would take it for more than just a curiosity spin.

The real genius with Kinect is in the head tracking.  This I’m told works amazingly well, but as with anything Kinect, it all depends on your set up.  Since moving house a couple of months back, I haven’t played any Kinect because we have a smaller lounge and I wasn’t sure if Kinect would be as much fun – or possible at all.  I’m going to have to look into my Kinect setup, because for me, the usually solid Kinect just couldn’t track my head consistently.  I have a couple of things I want to try out before passing judgement, one being the positioning of the Kinect sensor, and the other being the weird lighting setup my new lounge has.  But as it was, I wanted to play Forza rather that play with my Kinect setup, so I’ll have t get back to you on how that works out.

But the Kinect side of things is just an add-on and not an essential component.  A feature that could make the game just the little bit better, but a feature that if you don’t have it, won’t detract from the experience.

At the end of the day, there are things missing from Forza 4.  You only get to race in the day, and in the dry.  These are minor issues, but ones that would have ben nice to see implemented.

Minor niggles aside, it’s easy to say that Forza 4 is the single best driving experience on this current generation of consoles.  No other game comes close.

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