Simulation is a difficult to master. Turn 10 needed attempts to approach that level with its Forza Motorsport franchise, and it would be easy to take the 5 million sales and critical adoration heaped upon Forza 3 as evidence that the hard work was officially out of the way. However, with simulation in particular, that's not necessarily how it works.
Improving on a poor or even good racing simulation is one thing; improving on what is widely held to be the finest racing simulation released on this generation of consoles is quite another. Once you have crafted a compelling and convincing simulacrum of the actual racing, where do you go from there? Gran Turismo 5 boldly went down a winding rabbit hole of hundreds upon hundreds of cars, and barely justified the effort. According to Eurogamer's Martin Robinson, however, Turn 10 has taken a different approach.
"It's all about passion," Robinson declares in his 9 out of 10 review, driving home the point with prose that brims with his own enthusiasm for burning rubber and throbbing engines.
"Beyond the lists of torque ratings and wheel dimensions lies the simple love between man and machine, as pure and innocent as that between a eight year old boy and the Ferrari GTO poster haphazardly blu-tacked to his wall. It's that very passion that Forza Motorsport 4 endeavours to evoke."
Turn 10's previous games, while excellent, had a clinical sheen that belied the the boy/poster interface that Robinson describes. A beautiful, powerful car can inspire a range of different feelings, yet Forza has been curiously reluctant to embrace that as part of its design philosophy. Forza 4 is different, most of the time.
"There are times when that stony glare returns in Forza Motorsport 4, but there are many, many others when it feels as if Turn 10 has learnt to love a little, where it has softened its approach and brought a little tenderness to a formula that the developer has whittled towards something approaching perfection."
The tone is similarly florid over at The Telegraph, where Tom Hoggins' 4.5 out of 5 review portrays Forza 4 as the most seductive game in the series: the car interiors are realised in "astonishing detail"; the environments are "the prettiest and most characterful they've ever been"; and, in AutoVista, a Kinect controlled viewing mode that lets the player explore exquisitely rendered 3D models, the seduction reaches it's logical extreme.
"There hasn't yet been a driving game so flagrantly obvious in its desires," Hoggins writes. "It's unabashed car-porn, and Turn 10 embraces it wholesale."
But I found my level. And once I did, Forza 4 became -simply- the most enjoyable racing sim I've ever playedTom Hoggins, Daily Telegraph
There are minor gripes - no weather effects, and "erratic" opponent AI chief among them - but Hoggins is unrestrained in his enthusiasm for the Forza 4 driving experience. A plethora of options allow the player to precisely tailor the difficulty to their individual needs, making this the most accessible racing simulation in existence by a comfortable margin.
"The easiest mode even takes away the needs for braking and gives you assistance on steering. But there's a level for everyone here, right up to a new full simulation mode. Which I tried once, and was gobbled up so dramatically I was too afraid to try again."
"But I found my level. And once I did, Forza 4 became -simply- the most enjoyable racing sim I've ever played. There's a delightful connection between the car and the road in Forza's handling that make it a sheer pleasure to just ... drive."
Compared to such gushing praise, Giantbomb's Jeff Gerstmann simply exudes gen-X disinterest. Forza 4 is replete with refinements, he argues, but whether they add up to a mind-blowing package will be influenced by how many hours the player poured into Forza 3.
"Some new features have slid into place around its periphery, but this is still the same accessible, configurable, and wonderful driving game that it was in 2009. How that bit of info strikes you will largely depend on your feelings about the previous game. The quality and depth offered is practically indisputable--but if you left Forza 3 feeling like you've had your fill, Forza 4's new additions probably aren't going to be enough to make it all feel fresh and exciting."
In a 4 out of 5 review largely composed of dry descriptions of the game's modes and features, and noticeably short on persuasive criticism one way or the other, Gerstmann proclaims Forza 4 the best-in-class seemingly through gritted teeth.
"It's still a beautiful game and it's probably the world's best driving simulator, at least for consoles, but a lot of Forza 4's changes feel incremental at best. The game includes many of the same tracks found in previous instalments, and I found myself getting a very 'annual sports game update' vibe off of it."
As backhanded compliments go, we'll give that a perfect 10.