Whilst not featuring quite so many vehicles, lacking the 60 fps of its rival, and definitely wanting a better soundtrack, Forza beats GT4 in several important areas: solid AI, online racing, a decent damage model and itís fun. Say no to tedious licence tests. Say no to driving the same race over and over just to get another type of car to compete in another event. Forza leads the player in, and opens the game in a most sensible way: by providing you with useful cars as prizes when completing the game events. Driving hasnít been this pleasurable on a console since, well, ever.
The game modes will be familiar to any would-be race driver. Arcade, Career, Time Trial, Free Run and Multiplayer all make an appearance, and give access, once unlocked, to over 200 cars. It's an impressive list, ranging from the humble Mini Cooper to the legendary Ferrari Enzo, with its completely mental engine: itís possible when racing to distinguish just what car is where from the excellent use of 5.1 and distinctive engine noise. Whatís more, all can be modified - custom paint scheme and decals, sir? Certainly, sir. Itís quite easy to come up with some very artistic styling, given the flexibility and number of layers to play with. This is absolutely top if customisation is your thing, especially as racing online allows others to see the creation.
The shiny motors would be pretty pointless were there not any decent tracks to race on, in Forza this fear can be dismissed. Circuits range from the point-to-point jaunts through shipyards and hill climbs, the narrow and claustrophobic street circuits through New York and Tokyo and real-life racetracks such as Silverstone and Laguna Seca. In all there are around thirty different raceways, including what seems to be the now-obligatory Nurburgring, to test the limits of the tyre rubber on, tyres which will noticeably diminish in performance if wear is enabled. Whilst some of these locations, such as Silverstone, may seem a little spartan (because the aforesaid is), most have a lot of detail in the background, aided greatly by the real-time lighting and shadows. Many have a lot of undulations, leading to blind crests and apexes, making getting the lines right and shaving off those extra few tenths all the more fun.
What makes Forza really stand out is the way it welcomes virtual drivers of any ability. With all the driver aids turned on (antilock brakes, stability control, traction control), even the most timid of Sunday drivers can control the raw horsepower kicking out the back wheels of a Zonda. Turn these off, ramp up the AI ability, turn on simulated damage and itís as challenging as taking on the Schumacher brothers. Cleverly, Forza rewards higher risks with more prize money, allowing the player to rise through the rankings more quickly.
The player-ranking controls the access to events that can be raced, the more money you earn, the higher the ranking gets. Initially in Career Mode the novice circuit-races at rank zero, and a number of point-to-point tracks are available. Starting off with little restriction to the type and power of car that can be entered, these first few challenges will be completed quite quickly. As the ranking increases, the races that open up become a lot more testing, as the restrictions become far more stringent.
As with most driving games, the experience is considerably enhanced with the use of a wheel. Sadly a Driving Force Pro equivalent doesnít exist for Forza, but using a Mad Catz wheel is a sizable upgrade from a pad, allowing for more accurate input from the controls. This is particularly important when racing the more twitchy cars, such as the Porsches, which can be a handful without careful cosseting, whereas the rock-solid NSX will happily let you abuse it without getting too much out of shape.
The dynamics of the game engine give a heavy feel to acceleration and braking, meaning some people might think the game feels a little slow, especially in the lower-class cars. It quickly becomes apparent that the game plays like that because the cars behave like that in the real world. Learning the circuits and getting the braking and turn-in points right in these slower cars pays dividends when moving up to the mind-bogglingly quick GT cars. Get one of these on the tight street circuits and then claim Forza feels sluggish. Fortunately this is made easier by a very clever driver aid: the suggested line.
Turned on by default, the suggested line acts like a driving instructor, showing when to accelerate, when to brake and when to turn. More importantly itís dynamic, changing colour from green to yellow to red depending on how fast the player is travelling, how worn the tyres are and what type of car is being driven. It isnít perfect, but then it is there as a guide to a circuit rather than the definitive perfect line. Once the driver has more experience of the tracks in Forza, its advice can often be ignored about slowing up through certain types of bend, particularly in the high down-force vehicles. What it does provide is a very useful tool for learning new tracks, the only downside of which would be becoming forever reliant on it. It can also be difficult to see when driving certain cars.
Forza provides two outside viewpoints and two inside viewpoints. Cars that are in reality lower to the ground give the player a lower viewpoint of the track in the game. For most cars this isnít a huge problem, but it would have been useful to be able to adjust the first-person view and the inclusion of a bonnet or dashboard view would have been appreciated.
Many people were disappointed when it was announced that online racing was to be dropped from GT4. Well those people can rejoice, for Forzaís online racing mode is to be praised like a house broken puppy. Up to eight players can compete against each other using any of the circuits and any of the cars, even those modified by the players. It integrates into Live just as broadband owners have come to expect. The engine appears to be running at 30 fps, which will disappoint some, but without lag or frame drops racing real people is as entertaining as the traffic light grand prix at the local high street.
If racing online isnít of interest, the AI will put up some tough challenges, and depending on how the player drives, will play nice or dirty. Continually use the opponents' car panels as additional braking force, and the AI will tap the player into a spin given the opportunity. Play nice and the AI will be a gentleman, well up to a point. The computer-controlled opponents will block overtakes and brake test those who approach too quickly, appearing to be spatially aware. With the damage turned on to Simulation, smashing into opponents is something best avoided. The more damage sustained, the more difficult it is to control the cars, plus the cost of repairs is taken out of the prize money.
With so much on offer in an approachable and sensible way, anyone who likes racing simulators is sure to enjoy Forza Motorsport. In fact, those people with GT4 and a PS2 should consider trading them for an Xbox and this game, it really is that good. Decent physics, clever AI, online racing: this is everything GT4 should have been and wasnít, and itís allowed Forza to take the GT trophy away from Polyphony, at least for the time being. Buy it.