Thursday, October 06, 2011

30 Minute Playtest: Forza 4

After last week’s adventure with Deus Ex, it’s nice to be doing a 30 minute playtest on something that can reasonably be assessed in that time. Sure, it’s not long enough to check out all 500 cars, 80 tracks or the myriad customisation options, but in a driving game those are all icing. The cake is how does it look, how does it feel, and how does it play?

Forza 4 instantly delivers something that Forza 3 made you wait for: a sensation of speed. Normally I’m all for heightened anticipation and delayed gratification, but in a racing game I feel that speed should be an integral part of the experience, not a reward for slogging. Consequently I warmed to Forza 4 instantly, and it continued to reward me, albeit in occasionally unexpected ways.

Talk to anyone who puts go-faster stickers on their Golf GTI and they’ll tell you Forza is a realistic driving experience. Talk to anyone who drives for a living and they’ll tell you that Forza is the best driving game, but only real driving is a realistic driving experience. Nevertheless, the Forza series has always had a slightly unforgiving nature: sure, you can rewind your cock ups, but it has never pretended that propelling 2 tonnes of steel around a track is easy. It may not be real driving, but it has always been hard. Well, not any more.

Even an absolute newbie to driving games won’t play Forza in Easy mode. It’s so insubstantial there’s nothing to it. Even in Medium, where the racing is a lot more aggressive and you have car damage to deal with, Forza 4 still doesn’t cross the dividing line that usually separates a dedicated sim from a fun racer: brakes. You can win races on the Medium setting without touching your brakes, simply by feathering the gas and being a daredevil in the corners. It’s not until you stick the game on the hardest setting that you’ll actually find yourself needing to use all the controls.

Between the comparative ease of driving, the ‘granny button’ that lets you rewind your crashes and the option of displaying a racing line to guide you round, there will no doubt be complaints that Forza 4 has dumbed down and become too easy. It’s a good line, until you consider what Forza 4 is really all about: racing online. Working your way through the cars and tracks alone will be fun, but this is a game where the challenge is intended to come from living, breathing rivals, people who’ll grit their teeth and stake everything on their ability to outbrake you, people who’ll gamble that they can pressure you off your line without crashing in the process. The challenge in Forza 4 will be organic.

The fine detail, however, is pre-programmed. Graphically, you’re treated to authentic, shiny cars racing against highly detailed backdrops. The contrast between the cars and scenery and the track furniture itself is one of the few things that can remind you that it’s real time: if it weren’t for the occasionally lifeless-looking track you could easily convince a spectator that they’re watching pre-rendered cutscenes.

The cars themselves are distinctive and highly customisable, and our 30 minutes saw us driving touring cars, muscle cars and out and out sports cars, and we were pleased to find that they genuinely handle differently. Often in racing games there’s a feeling that the animation for various car types is different, but the underlying physics is the same. Not here. In Forza 4 muscle cars wallow and weave, their high centres of gravity and extensive suspension play struggling to restrain the excesses of their engines. Sports cars skim along the road almost effortlessly, and can often be powered out of trouble in the flicker of an eye, while touring cars tear up the track like angry animals, but can be felled instantly by just a momentary lapse of concentration, their raw speed so far in excess of the muscle cars but their handling just short of the grace of the sports cars. The handling of each class and each car is so distinctive that an enormous part of the fun in Forza will be had in simply mixing and matching cars and tracks to see what happens.

Now I’m not known for my love of driving games. I’m a curmudgeon who refuses to be pleased. I find arcade racers insulting in both their ease and their usual ‘xtreme’ presentation. I find serious driving sims dull in concept, stodgy in play and tedious in all their suspension-tuning, sparkplug-picking minutiae. Despite all that, however, I’m loving Forza 4 to the point where I’ve abandoned Deus Ex, shelved Dead Rising 2, and even switched off the HD remakes of my beloved Resident Evils. Forza 4 is a winner, and half an hour is not enough.