"I hate Top Gear, and I hate anyone that likes it." Comedian Stewart Lee may not be elbowing his way past the petrol-heads to pick up the latest iteration of Forza, but the all-new Top Gear endorsement may well pique the interest of frightened middle-aged men clad in supermarket denim. Thankfully, the bison-headed bigot and his charmless associates are kept off screen, although Clarkson does embark on a tiresome rant against the environment, hybrids, and what he hilariously refers to as “Lentil-matics.” How we laughed. The crux of his argument is that motoring enthusiasts are becoming a vilified endangered species, denied the basic human right to flaunt their inadequacies by driving irresponsibly in overpowered red cars while decimating the world’s finite resources. Boo hoo.
This is tempered somewhat by the disclaimer that the views expressed by Top Gear are not shared by Microsoft or developer Turn 10 - and that it’s simply a marketing exercise to attract non-gamers. Either way, Forza 4 enables you to drive as recklessly as you like around the Top Gear test track, either in a reasonably priced car or in one of the vast selection that stretches to a second disc. There’s even a mode where you knock down oversized skittles, one of the few moments of levity in what is an extremely po-faced affair. The other is when you get an achievement for travelling at 88mph in a DeLorean, which is of course a popular culture reference.
Otherwise, Forza 4 is deadly serious about cars to an extent that surpasses mere enthusiasm. Replace the word ‘car’ for ‘train’ and you might as well be standing at Crewe Station with a flask of weak lemon drink and a spiral notepad, cupping your balls over a glimpse of hitherto unseen rolling stock.
Forza 4 takes the ‘car porn’ concept to an extreme with the so-called Autovista mode, essentially an interactive showroom where you walk around a car and, er, look at it. Oh yeah, and get in it and look at the interior, with a fascinating voiceover (occasionally from Clarkson) telling you what the various knobs do. Sadly there’s no option to virtually kick the tyres, although Autovista is compatible with Kinect, enabling you get down on your knees and stick your head in close for the money shot.
In fact, Kinect has been shoehorned into the game in a number of ways, presumably at the behest of Microsoft in an attempt to extend its shelf life before it’s inevitably slung into the Gizmondo drawer to gather dust alongside the PSP Go and the OnLive micro-console.
When the game starts, you are offered the option to drive using Kinect. What you’re actually offered is the option to steer using Kinect. As it’s not quite up to detecting a pretend accelerator or brake, the speed is taken care of automatically. As such, you’re forced to sit there with your arms extended in front of you like a five-year-old driving an imaginary bus. In fact if you are a five-year-old it might be quite fun, but the lack of complete control makes it little more than a gimmick, albeit one that works perfectly well.
More subtle is the head-tracking mode, which works in conjunction with the joypad to enable you to look around while driving, or, in cockpit mode, even have a cheeky glance in the wing mirror. While it doesn’t necessarily make you a better driver, it’s a nice touch, albeit one that sadly requires you to sit up straight on the sofa so it can detect your swede.
And finally, in further Kinect-oriented fun, there’s the option to navigate the menus by shouting at the telly instead of pressing a button.
Elsewhere, the online aspect has had a revamp, enabling you to join car clubs and share motors with fellow enthusiasts. The Rivals Mode also gives it a more personal feel, enabling you to take on friends whether they’re online or not, thanks to the use of ghost cars. A neat idea, there’s a man I know who will be waking up to the news that I’ve shaved half a second off his Top Gear test track time.
The career mode is still the core experience, however, and it's a comprehensive affair that sees you tour the globe while accruing a swathe of vehicles, all of which can be customised, tweaked and decorated with garish decals to your heart’s content. Ultimately though, it’s all about the driving, which is tailored to all abilities, including a rewind button for the inevitable spillages. Whether you’re the kind of person who becomes aroused by a radiator grill, or even a non-driver, it’s a frequently gripping experience. And not even Clarkson can ruin that.
Four games into a near flawless franchise; you can’t blame Turn 10 for attempting to freshen things up with ‘innovative new features.’ But that which wasn’t broken hasn’t been fixed, and Forza is still the definitive driving experience of this generation. Newcomers might find the slightly spongy handling initially irksome, but with practice it’s as close as you can get to driving some of the world’s greatest cars, short of chucking a bin through the window of your local Ferrari showroom.