First off I would like to say I do not understand why every game that tries to be excellent has to be a "something" killer. Has to be a GTA killer, has to be a Halo killer, has to be a GT killer... In my book to be a "___" killer you must fully own the competition in each and every way, not just be better, and not be separate but equal. Given that and given the superb quality of GT4 on so many fronts I dismiss Forza as a GT4 killer right off the bat and hopefully that lets me be a little more fair in my review.
Now as much as I would like to not even bring GT4 into this picture, it pretty much has to be brought up as the creators of Forza openly acknowledge their admiration of the GT series and hence it's more than safe to assume that Forza and GT4 stem from similar roots; making it all but impossible to mention one without the other. So with minimal bashing and maximum open-mindedness here are my thoughts on Forza:
Get this one out of the way first. Forza has the kind of graphics that are technically excellent and grow on you, but right off the bat disappointed me. Something about the modeling, the choice of color palette and item design (trees and bushes mostly) feels stale and dead.
I honestly can't quite pinpoint what it is about the graphics in Forza, but like so may Dreamcast games which really should have looked incredible but just didn't quite, Forzas opening impressions were very good but not grandiose...
Until you really get into it and get to notice the details that is.
Upon hitting my first night race all this talk about multiple lighting sources and real time particle effects became startlingly clear... multiple street lamps cast overlapping and interfering shadows, opponent headlights wash against other cars and add to the dizzyingly dynamic light show and when you finally get comfortable enough with your car to start looking at more than just the road you notice the great details that must be what's taking the muscle that forces the game to 30fps instead of 60.
It's these subtle details that more than make up for what I feel was a poor and sanitized artistic style chosen to represent the game.
For me Forzas graphics are like a simple but finely crafted Italian suite. At first glance it looks nice. But wear it and the care and attention paid to each little thing slowly makes itself known. GT4 feels more to me like a sporty track outfit, which easily catches your eye at a distance, offers lots of flash and initial wow, but which eventually reveals small flaws in workmanship that become noticeably annoying. Neither game has it down 100% if you ask me and neither is bad at all, they are just going to be enjoyed differently by people who enjoy different aspects of the category.
Outside of the racing in the menu system and garage/tuning etc the graphics are clean but simple and somehow feel lacking. While not as flashy as I would like the menus do a good job in a utilitarian way of presenting the information you need when you need it. Neither a plus nor a minus overall. In the end I feel the stylish menus in many other games (the GT series included) are a nice flare, but I can't give much credit here because it's not he menus that I bought the game for.
For me, Forza is my choice because I am in this game for a sim, and realism in all it's facets is important, I think those 30fps traded for some of this attention to detail is a fair tradeoff.
First off when doing serious racing I prefer to have no music going. I like to hear the car, hear the motor, hear the wheels on the road and the clutch. I somehow don't think that pro racers crank their stereos during a race and I think it adds to the effect to turn off in game music.
That said I did sample the in game music for Forza and something is very wrong here. All I can say is I hope that to make budget to license damage on those snazzy top end cars, they cut way back on music licensing and handed us some cheapo crap on purpose, because if someone thought this was a good soundtrack, someone was sorely wrong.
Fortunately this is made up for by what is touted to be a very polished use of the custom soundtrack (I say touted because while I did try it and it worked well, again I turned off music pretty early on so I can't judge too much). I think custom soundtracks are one of the best ideas to hit video gaming because lets face it, even in a game like Midnight Club 3 which has an awesome soundtrack which is pretty much tailored to the demographic most likely to enjoy that game, no soundtrack works for everyone. Some songs you are not going to like and some you are going to wish were there.
You certainly have a CD of the music you like, toss that on your Xbox and you have the perfect soundtrack. How many games can you say have the absolutely perfect soundtrack? For me it's only the ones with custom soundtrack options.
Menu sounds and the such are about on par, nothing stood out as particularly exciting outside the actual races so I kind of give those a nice job since they don't get in the way and don't bog down load time with lots of big fancy sound files.
But the important part: in game sounds. Here some serious work was done and it's much appreciated. Actually off the bat I didn't like the car sounds or tire sounds all too much, until I realized I had my stereo setup wrong for the type of sound I was trying to playback.
Once setup right the car sounds were very lively and like everyone else says you can indeed hear almost every upgrade made to your car changing the audio feedback you get from your engine.
Outside your car opponents are pretty well separated in the surround sound and the audio is definitely well done enough that you don't ever feel the game is letting you down or failing to give you useful audio information.
Tire squeals and crashing into walls or other cars still doesn't sound quite lifelike to me (but I have not been in many real life crash situations so....) but they do sound believable and certainly have no major flaws in quality or implementation.
Within a few minutes I was easily able to gauge my shifts without having to so much as glance at the tach, and when the course put a particular strain on your car I could always hear the engine reacting properly, straining, revving and winding down so naturally that I almost don't notice it.
That's just how I like it, realistic but not intrusive. A little tweaking to the sound separation in 5.1 would have been nice but overall I give very high marks for sound all around.
I also like the sounds of GT4 but notice subtle nuances in Forza that I fail to in GT4 (and these are ones I am looking for and fail to notice). GT4 does have a better soundtrack but again, custom soundtrack.
In the sound category I have to say that neither game fails enough to get dinged munch in marks, but I think Forza gets the slight edge as the sounds I am concerned about are in game sounds and Forza just feels a little more in depth and solid in that category.
As a very important part of the game I will be delving a little more into GT4 comparison here. For one thing in driving games where controllers are almost always going to be sub par to wheels I am going to give a review on the input method as well as the games internal controls.
This one is a toughie because it's hard to think anyone serious about gaming wouldn't splurge spend the extra $100 or so bucks for the DFP wheel on PS2, and some kind of wheel on Xbox but then it's not a given.
So overall I have to say I have always found the Xbox controller to be superior to the PS2 for driving games. Analog triggers and tight responsive sticks are a hands down winner and a game has to control pretty poorly to compensate for the huge hardware advantage the Xbox has to make them even. So in almost every racing game, the Xbox controller tits control in favor of the Xbox, and in this case Forza is just easier to play than GT4 with standard controllers.
When it comes to wheels sadly the Xbox does not support Force Feedback and everything I hear about the Fanatec wheel points to it being not worth the money.
I have tried the DFP and I am torn on it. For me the DFP is the perfect mate for GT4. Why? Because it does exactly what I feel GT4 does: Achieves near perfection in the areas it accels at, and completely leaves out the other areas.
DFP has AWESOME force feedback that makes controlling the game so much better. Feeling the road, the bumps and the different driving conditions is awesome.
DFP has NO self centering effect. Why this was left out completely confuses me. I thought everyone knew by now steering wheels have to self center to some extent. What gives?
So in much the same way that GT4 pays incredible attention to graphical polish and a solid game engine, but completely ignores important features like collisions and damage, the DFP is a dream come true in force feedback that lacks the most basic element of self centering. That and when you try to rotate 900 degrees you pretty much punch yourself in the nuts twice.
This leaves me with the MadCatzs MC2 for Xbox (which bTW comes in a multi format version that works on PS2, Xbox and GC for the same price so... duh get that one) which I find to be the absolute best value wheel because not only does it self center, has an easily reachable stick shift and a (somewhat) working tach.. it has the only pedals I have ever driven with that feel like real car pedals!! No more pushing in some forced arch away from your body, just step down and go!
Since I so hate the lack of self centering in the DFP, I have to give both wheel and controller support to Forza on the Xbox as being the best feeling way to control a game.
In game control:
Both GT4 and Forza are top notch racers and respond quite well. Again this is where I point out that neither is a killer of the other, and at best one is marginally better.
To be honest I like how GT4 controls a lot, and I don't find fault with it even if it's got a technically less sophisticated physics engine.
However Forzas in game control does seem to offer a bit more detail, if you will, in the nuances of how the cars control. After racing some Forza with a few different cars with different mods, then going back to GT4 I noticed a distinct lack of fine detail in some of the controls between significantly different cars. While nothing was glaring to me, it sort of felt like GT4 grouped cars and gave each group a similar control feel while Forza really did figure out each car individually.
Not to say GT4 has poor differentiation in control between cars, just that Forza feels a hair more intricate.
Technically I would probably have to give this category to Forza also, but really it doesn't matter a lot because both games control VERY well and it's really picking nits if you ask me to find flaws in control for either of them (I am sure that will be shot down by the hardcore gear heads).
And this is obviously the most important one (is anyone still reading this far in?).
I am going to come right out and say it on this one Forza is hands down the best racing simulator I have played on a console ever.
All graphics, sound and control quips aside, the meat of the game; the real reason we all bought this, is that it provides an immense level of pure satisfaction in achievement because it's so well rounded and solid that you never feel you won or lost due to anything but skill (and maybe a little luck).
I can't begin to describe how much of a thorn in my side it is when games do not punish you for driving poorly. I don't mean send you off track for a bit or point you in the wrong directly, I mean when your car does not suffer because you chose to be too brazen or just foolish it does not make sense to me and completely cancels out any chance of me really considering it a sim.
Being punished is awesome but ONLY if you deserve to be punished which is the other major gripe I (and pretty much everyone that bothers to have a gripe with the standard slew of games) have, which is rail driving AI.
A racing simulator should simulate racing, not just driving. Racing includes the interaction with the other racers and it bothers me no end that in almost every other game out there computer drivers show little to no acknowledgement of your existence.
In the first 30 minutes of Forza I witnessed more intelligent AI racing than I can recall seeing in any other console racer to date. Whether it's opponents slowing down behind you when you screw up to try and not hit you, choosing opportune times to draft and pass, knowing when to be aggressive and when not to, and even responding to your driving style everything in Forzas AI screams "Why wasn't this done years ago!!!? It SOO makes the game!".
Forza is the first time I have been able to race and feel like I should drive how I feel I should drive and let the opponents worry about themselves. No more "must brake this corner this way so I don't get hit by the rail driving opponents" and no more "idiot opponent driver running me off the road when he has no reason to other than I am in his line".
In real life you have to defend your position, but you do not do so at the cost of damaging your car or risking an accident. Finally Forza provides AI that for the most part realizes that and tryís to beat you using real racing strategy rather than some preset actions it is going to do whether you are in the way or not.
The best way I can think to explain this is the AI for the most part plays like you would want real human competitors to play, and very rarely makes you wonder "WTF was he doing!?"
I have to note that at times the AI does bump you into a spin when there is no reason to, and does get a little fluky at times. But it is the exception by far and not the rule and tends to happen mostly off the line when cars are bunched together and vying for early position. Because you can restart easily at any time in the race I find it easy to overlook this problem because 9/10 when the computer screws me it's off the line, I restart and usually have a clean start next race. I don't view this as cheating, I view it as fixing a small glitch in an AI otherwise far ahead of the competition.
In game racing aside, game play from a details standpoint is awesome. I am glad there are no licensing issues (if you can't drive well, turn on SL and it will help dramatically, no need to suffer through hours of slow ass driving) and it's about time some of the menu actions were streamlined like they are in Forza.
Tokyo Extreme Racer on Dreamcast epitomized my hatred for the tuning process as it was always over a full minute between a tune and getting to test-drive it. Forza has now put live tuning in place and its a MIRACLE!! It's like the difference between digital cameras and film. No more trying to remember what you did and how it effected stuff, it's now all streamlined and you can immediately see your results. This greatly reduces the frustrating time trying hit or miss changes to my car and it feels ever bit as good to find the perfect setup.
Add to that the fact that you can save different setups for your car and load them at the beginning of the race, even restart the race and load a different setup and that's just buttah.
Another huge leap in menu navigation is that not only does the game tell you right when you are choosing races whether or not you have cars that can participate in that race, it tells you how many (so you know if you should check your garage pre race) and if you go into the race you can just grab another car without having to back out of the menus! This seems like a small thing but man did it feel good having it there.
I am not going to touch on the Driveatar or LIVE because I don't like Driveatar type stuff (didn't like spec
and so don' use it enough to comment. If I do take to it I may update this review at a later date (because its not long enough now) and sadly I do not have LIVE, but this game may well be what forces me to shell out the bux for a live account as competing the career mode against real people... I can almost taste it.
So how do I say Forza is hands down the best racing game but also say it's not a GT4 killer? Because like I said before, Forza does not fully own GT4. Forza is like my Steak but GT4 is like my pizza. Don't ask me to give up either one, but given the option it's gonna be steak 90% of the time.
I think Forza could use a little more graphical polish, maybe a change in art style, but most importantly more content. I appreciate that the tracks Forza has are all fun to race, and almost all the cars are truly interesting to drive and in that light GT4s extra content feels like fluff filling as some of the tracks are just not fun and a lot of the cars are novelty collector items but not really desirable drivers; but I think they could have packed some more cars and more tracks into Forza and I suspect it's $$$ that held that part back.
If that is all and we can see more tracks and cars via download or at least Forza 2 has a little bit bigger a stable I would consider Forza almost perfect, and possibly a GT killer.
But for now I am very happy to say Forza is excellent all around, and if you truly are looking for a fun, reachable driving simulator Forza Motorsport is the cream of the crop. If you only have a PS2 and you are happy with your GT4, then good. But if you are on the line or have a few extra bucks to burn, pick up Forza and a MadCatz wheel and you will not be disappointed.