Forza Motorsport 4 launches on 14 October and we were lucky enough to get in some game time prior to launch, as well as sit down for a chat with Dan Greenawalt, Creative Director at Turn 10 Studios.

Let’s get something clear from the start: Forza Motorsport 3 is one of our top titles on the Xbox 360. It has longevity that other driving games have lacked. The sheer beauty of the game, the thrill of the driving experience and everything wrapped up in the Forza world just keeps calling to us, long after other driving games have tailed off.

Updating a game like Forza 3 and convincing fans that they need to head out and buy a new version of Forza could be a hard sell. Can the graphics be drastically improved? Can the handling, or the selection of cars really be improved to justify parting with your hard cash? Can you add more features to a game that doesn’t seem to be obviously lacking?

We were unsure until we sat down in front of Forza Motorsport 4 for some undisturbed playtime. There is no question about it, whether you are an existing Forza fan or not, if you love cars, you’ll want Forza Motorsport 4.

One of the big new features of Forza Motorsport 4 is the collaboration with Top Gear, which we’ll visit at various points as we go along. However, as soon as you start the game, you are welcomed with a short intro narrative from Jeremy Clarkson. If you’re a Top Gear fan, this will draw you into the game like no other opening sequence: it’s spin-tingling stuff.

If you find Clarkson’s monotonous drone unbearable, then it’s soon over and you can get down to the serious business of driving. The opening race takes you into the Swiss Alps behind the wheel of a Ferrari, so you get a taste for things to come. But then, launching into the career you’ll find yourself presented with a selection of small cars.

We picked the Toyota Aygo. Why? Because driving a type of car earns you loyalty with that manufacturer and we figured that somewhere along the line we’d get discounts on Toyota upgrades. The logic doesn’t quite follow through in practise, but we did progress to another Toyota soon after: the mighty Yaris S. 

To be fair, moving from the Ferrari to the Aygo is a bit of a shock. It feels as though you aren’t really getting anywhere as you hit your first few races, but progress is fairly quick through your Forza 4 career. Before long we’d found ourselves behind the wheel of a VW Golf GTi Mk II, which is where things started to get interesting.

Forza is well known for its system of upgrades and race categories. As you race you earn credits, which in turn can be traded for upgrades as you move along. With each race designed for a specific category of car, you can upgrade your car to make sure you are competitive in the races you are offered. It’s perfectly possible to improve your car too much and jump up a category and this is where some of the passion comes into Forza.

We made good progress during the 90 minutes or so we spent playing our new career, upgrading the Golf GTi from the class D car it was, through class C to class B. Why? Because a close friend owns and races exactly that model of car and it seemed like a fun thing to do. Along the way we acquired better cars by winning races and cruising through levels, but this is the thing about Forza Motorsport 4: it’s about finding the cars you want to drive and then getting on with the action.

Skipping out of the career mode you get free racing, of course (along with a whole host of other options in multiplayer which we didn’t explore and a Rivals mode) where you will get the chance to select from the huge array of cars on offer in Forza, but ultimately, for us, it felt more rewarding to see how far we could get with our Golf GTi.

The Amateur division came and went and we were well into the Clubman division before our time ran out and by that stage driving a Class B car, it feels like the racing game you want it to be. The speed and the acceleration are all evident, stamping on the brakes, lifting off the gas, the car rocks and wobbles as you’d expect it to. Sure, taking out an R3 car is much more severe, but there is a huge amount of fun to be had in Forza 4 driving whatever car you want.

In terms of the actual driving experience, it’s very similar to Forza Motorsport 3, and that’s a good thing. The handling of the cars feels right and you notice the difference in power between cars, or the grip in the corners. Driving a new car is more than just a different shape and colour, each car is a completely different driving experience. 

Adding to this experience will be the new Kinect features. The most significant gesture-based feature is likely to be head tracking, which will subtly change the view as you move your head. It’s designed to complement driving experience, rather than be a gimmick. We’ll have to give it a good testing before we pass any verdict, and unfortunately in our extended play, we didn’t get to use Kinect.

If you’ve played Forza 3 (and we’re guessing you have) then you’ll be familiar with the run of assists you are offered. On easy mode progress is exactly that and it doesn’t take much to win races. But that’s no fun, tweak the assists and it’s not only more rewarding, but you have the chance to develop and grow as a driver. 

The AI has been tweaked and the most obvious place we noticed this was on the straights. The aim has been to improve the wheel-to-wheel driving experience, Greenawalt tells us. We noticed that outpacing opponents on a straight was less common than in Forza 3; instead, we found that we were working the corners more, which is an AI tweak by design.

Of course we didn’t have that long (in the life of a Forza driver) to really play the game, but we had long enough to appreciate the immersive environment you are offered: the graphics are jaw-droppingly beautiful rattling past at 60 frames a second, the sound of the cars is sensational. Paired, as we were, with a gaming headset and a huge TV, Forza Motorsport 4 is a game that completely absorbs you into its environment. This is the sort of game that will eat your weekend at breakneck speed.

But Forza Motorsport 4 isn’t just about racing: it’s about a passion for cars. One of the new elements to Forza Motorsport 4 is something called Auto Vista. As the name suggests, it’s all about checking-out cars. Dan Greenawalt, suggested that Auto Vista is like a gallery where every car is an exhibit. To us, it is like unadulterated car porn.

In Auto Vista you can explore cars, get right into the detail under the bonnet, sit in the driving seat and start the engine to listen to it purr. And this isn’t just like walking into a car showroom and poking around, because you also get a little Top Gear thrown into the mix.

Jeremy Clarkson will give you a voiceover on the cars. We listened to a couple of examples and it’s littered with Clarkson comedy, so Top Gear fans will feel right at home. It’s in Auto Vista you’ll find the Halo Warthog and other Easter eggs, with new, rare, cars appearing for your delectation as you explore. Greenawalt went as far as to point out that the Bentley 8 Litre was the one from Jay Leno’s garage and the level of detail is astonishing. 

Back to our racing career and we hit our first Top Gear level. To be honest, we’re not sure how we feel about it at the moment. From completing a series of races, the Top Gear Challenge seems surprisingly light hearted, especially if racing is what you want Forza for. It’s over fairly quickly, but you end up driving around the Top Gear test track knocking over bowling pins. For some, it might be too much like Mario Kart.

In the gaming time we had, this was the only Top Gear level we saw, so we don’t know how often they’ll appear - something we’ll have to look at when we get to our Forza Motorsport 4 review in the coming weeks.

First Impressions

Forza Motorsport 4 is a massive game and we’ve barely been able to scratch the surface from the gaming time we’ve had so far - not touching multiplayer at all in our latest gaming session.

More cars, more tracks to race, a redesigned and more sophisticated interface and menu system, Kinect integration, a glorious gallery of motorcars in Auto Vista and a dash of Top Gear character are amongst the headline features you get with this latest version of Forza Motorsport. All that is layered on what is still a fantastic driving experience that appeals to the hardcore and the casual gamer alike.

Forza Motorsport 4 will be available on 14 October, the demo is available on Xbox Live on 3 October.