I'm not what you'd call a "car guy." I've been driving the same set of wheels for more than 10 years. The only maintenance chore I can handle myself is refilling the gas tank. I don't need to go from zero to 60 in 6 seconds; I'd rather have a good stereo.
And yet, I'm a sucker for racing games like Microsoft's "Forza Motorsport 4" (for the Xbox 360, $59.99). Sure, it's built to satisfy the most demanding gearhead, but it's accessible enough for even the most fainthearted Sunday driver.
At its easiest level, "Forza 4" practically drives the car for you, adjusting your braking and steering so you don't hurtle off curves. You start off the World Tour solo campaign with a low-horsepower vehicle (in my case it was a Volkswagen Fox), but once you start winning events you earn faster rides. If you turn off the computerized assistance you earn more experience points, which gets you behind the wheel of high-performance Ferraris and Lamborghinis faster.
World Tour bounces giddily around the globe, presenting a nice variety of tracks from America, Europe and Asia. One race may be on a high-speed Japanese oval; the next may be on a twisting path across Spain's Montserrat. There are a few gimmicky events — knocking down bowling pins or slaloming through traffic cones — but most of the time you'll be testing your mettle (and metal) against a dozen or so other cars in your vehicle class.
Truly hardcore speed freaks will want to get on Xbox Live and challenge other humans, and "Forza 4" offers as robust an assortment of online modes as one could ask for. Naturally, you can race against up to 15 other drivers in relatively straightforward events. A new "Rivals" mode lets you challenge your friends' best times even if they're not online. And you can indulge in sillier, "tag"-like games where you're just trying to avoid — or create — contact with other cars.
There are hundreds of cars from more than 80 manufacturers. If you're the type who drools over car magazines, you'll spend hours in the Autovista showroom, where you can walk around a vehicle, open the door and take a seat in the cockpit. Jeremy Clarkson from the BBC's "Top Gear" talks you through the highlights, and his enthusiasm for everything on four wheels is infectious.
Even the most mundane cars look pretty in Autovista, but the graphics really shine when you hit the road; if Switzerland's Bernese Alps are this breathtaking in real life, I need to reschedule my next vacation. And while the music is bland, the overall audio design is terrific. Every motor sounds different, and the racket produced by 12 race cars jockeying for position will rattle your speakers.
"Forza 4" is compatible with Microsoft's controller-free Kinect system, but it's tiring to use for more than a few minutes. Besides, you need a controller to appreciate the game's use of force feedback, which delivers an impressive sensation of having massive amounts of horsepower at your command.
And that's what this franchise is all about: simulating the kind of automotive thrills you cannot get on your daily commute. "Forza 4" fully delivers on that promise. Four stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten
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