Every year, a couple of the local Mercedes dealerships get together and rent out the Richmond International Speedway. They then spend a full day attempting to convince ‘VIPs’ to buy a new overpriced luxury car. They do this by letting you speed around in an assortment of Mercs on an assortment of courses specifically designed to make you want one right now. And being a VIP just means that they’ve sold you a car in the past or they’re pretty sure they’re gonna sell you one on the next week or so. Today, I was a VIP. So that there’s no suspense, I’ll jump to the end. I didn’t leave that day with a new Mercedes. I’m very happy with my Crown Vic, thank you very much. But I did leave with the knowledge of what it means to love driving.
Forza Motorsport 4 sells itself as a game for people who love cars. That’s accurate. With it’s gorgeous graphics and nearly 500 different vehicles to choose from, it’s a must buy simply to scroll through the specs. And the near pornographic Autovista mode that allows you to get up close and personal in the motoring version of a peep show, could be sold on it’s own. But what Forza has lacked in the the past is to ability to convey a love of not just cars, but of driving. While the physics model has continually improved, it has always been wrapped around a bland racing experience.
On the autocross course, each 'VIP' took a turn flinging an AMG sedan around a series of cones. The course was set up so that you never got up to any real speed but we all still immediately started keeping times. You can’t stop people from competing. Forza 4 realized this and corrected the mistake it made in it’s last version by letting players create their own public multiplayer games. What’s the point of having a collection of customized, painted cars if you cant show it off to strangers?
The finale of the day is a full lap around the Richmond Speedway’s NASCAR oval, chauffered by a professional racer. To be honest, by this point I was tired and the constant sales pitches had worn me out. I sat in the passenger seat of an SLK roadster with it's top down. I looked over at my driver and I could tell he was as bored with the day as I was. He was an older man who had spent the better part of his career on ovals like this driving cars with 3 times as much power as the convertible we were in. This must have been be hell for him. Driving a bunch of would be customers in a circle all day for a check. As I closed the door I said, ‘Two questions. How fast does this thing go, and how fast does it really go?’ He smiled and replied. ‘Let's find out.’
He pressed a series of buttons on the dash and the traction control light blinked off. Then he pressed even more buttons on the dash. Suddenly, the gauges flashed and an angry BEEP BEEP BEEP filled the cabin. ‘What was that?’ I asked. ‘There’s a secret sequence to turn all the computerized shit off..for real’, was the response I got.
The tires lit up and I was pressed back in my seat like an amusement park ride as the car blasted down the pit lane/parking lot. I pointed at the offender and spoke the only words I would say for the rest of the ride. ‘Can you catch him?’I thought we were taking off like a rocket, but as soon as the car reached the exit, a sleek AMG SL 65 walked by us, as if it was on a stroll. My driver was instantly annoyed by this, growling, ‘Guy thinks he’s hot shit because he’s in the 65. 600 horses and all of a sudden he’s a rockstar’.
I pointed at the offender and spoke the only words I would say for the rest of the ride. ‘Can you catch him?’
Forza 4’s biggest new addition isn’t the throwaway Kinect interface that you’ll use once and never visit again. It’s the Rivals mode. A seemingly simple way to compare your laptime against not only your friends, but against the entire world. But not all at once. Instead, a single person is matched against you. Just one. And that makes it personal. Now, it’s not a faceless mass of people with times and scores better than yours. It’s just one driver. And you know you can catch him.
A grin spread across the driver’s face. He shifted down and the car bolted forward. The black exotic that had committed the crime of passing us, loomed ahead, steadily growing larger as we chased it down. My driver didn’t lift his foot from the accelerator as we headed into the turn. The high banking held the car in place, almost. Even the laws of physics pressing it into the road couldn’t stop it from slowly creeping closer and closer to the wall. We were so close, going so fast, that I could actually hear the cracks in the white concrete. The buffeting of the wind following the texture of the barrier.
The enemy was directly ahead of us, now. And just like that, we’re in the draft. The wind noise drops and even though I’m not driving, I know that the car is lighter, less stable. It’s floating from side to side ever so slightly. I’m worried. But the driver’s foot never left the floor.
The black SL 65 must have felt the breath on the back of his neck. The car hunched down as more power was delivered and it started to slowly, quickly pull away.
‘Oh no you don’t’. My driver wasn’t going to give up. Our car was outmatched. But that’s no reason not to win. He dipped out of the draft and goes low into the next turn. I could tell by the constant scream of the engine that he still refused to lift his foot off the gas. Not an inch. Our little roadster shot out of the corner and with the added speed pulled up back behind the 65. Both cars hugged the wall, daring it to touch them. I don’t turn my head to look for fear that any shift in balance will push us into it.
The entrance to the pits was ahead, signalling the end of the run. I brace myself for the shift in momentum that’s coming when he hits the brakes to pull in. But it doesn’t come. His foot stays planted. The engine continues to wail. The black SL is reeled in a little closer.
‘Two more and I got ya. Two more, pretty boy.’ The driver explained his gameplan to me. ‘See, he’s got the power on us. But he doesn’t drive ovals. He’s scared of the wall. Power’s no good if you don’t use it’. He wasn’t trying to sell me a car. He wasn’t trying to show off. He wanted to win.
That’s what Forza has been missing. For a while it got lost in the allure of coveting automobiles, and trading decals like baseball cards. It had forgotten that in the end, the cars are simply a means to an end. That’s what the Rival’s mode brings back to Forza Motorsport 4 along with the return of a robust multiplayer setup. Not the drive to collect dozens of exotic vehicles. The drive to compete. Because when you get behind the wheel of a sports car, the most important question isn’t how much it costs or how powerful it is. The only question that matters is, ‘Can you catch him?'