Everyone will have their own Forza Motorsport 4 story, and while many might have similar tales, much of my journey through Turn 10's fourth entry in its seminal racing series was in the 458 Italia, the luscious Ferrari that adorns the front cover.
It's an obvious choice of beautiful supercar, regardless of whether or not you paint it in its iconic red hues, and a modern signature piece from the legendary Italian manufacturer; the 458 is a guaranteed head-turner, an absolute joy to drive when blasting down wide straights, and a giddy feat of engineering that kicks like a mule and demands unwanted restraint of the throttle. The 4.5 litre V8 engine, rear-wheel drive sports car produces 562hp, goes from 0-60 in 3.4 seconds with a top speed of 201mph, and on my first race the crimson beauty ended up in even worse shape than Stefan Errikson's ill-fated Enzo.
Turn 10 will say Forza Motorsport 4 is a game about car passion, a slightly grandiose statement that only clicks when your attachment to a virtual automobile becomes prescient and tangible. Or, as happened to me, when you become absolutely convinced your Pagani Zonda is driving so erratically because it is actually trying to kill you.
This is a serious driving simulator, fashioned with the now-familiar breadcrumb trail of shiny new cars and an unravelling chain of events. At its core Forza Motorsport 4 is a blissful and earnest homage to the relationship between the wheel, engine, and the next apex, but the overall experience is something much larger, spiralling outwards with myriad customisation options, modes and features to make an overall package that's as hard to narrow down as it is to fully experience. This isn't just a po-faced simulator for devoted racers but a driving simulation for the everyman, a car game for all people, built on a foundation of Turn 10's wildly infectious obsession with the automobile.
At its easier difficulty levels the game still takes care of braking and handling for you, and now there's also support for steering with an imaginary wheel, via Kinect, to entrance players who find the minutiae of the Xbox 360 controller too daunting. Playing Forza 4 like this is functional but somewhat lacking, creating a competent way to ease players into the game while simultaneously stripping the driving of its most enjoyable intricacies.
But that's the whole point: Forza Motorsport 4 has some of the most rewarding and satisfying driving seen in the genre, yet it doesn't have to be a game that solely revolves around fiddling with your ABS and TCS. Dedicated petrolheads can switch all the driving assists off and play on a difficulty level that recommends real-life driving experience as well as a steering wheel peripheral, or just spend dozens of hours painting or tuning their vehicles, and some players will be more than happy to invest their time in producing and uploading photos and videos. It's a swiss army knife for car culture.
As with Forza Motorsport 3 before it, Turn 10 has once again balanced the demands of both ends of the player spectrum to create an accessible package out of daunting source material. It's an extraordinary accomplishment.
The game is also a complete joy to play. The new driving physics, developed partially by feeding reams of real-life data from wheel manufacturer Pirelli into an undoubtedly intelligent megacomputer, change the game in ways that can be hard to pinpoint but combine to make each corner more of a delight. The virtual recreation is almost entirely persuasive, from the sense of weight and momentum as the cars brake, to the growing apprehension as you feel yourself losing control of the back of the car after applying too much countersteer on a particularly tricky corner. The simulation feels slightly less authentic when compared to Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo 5, its closest peer, but the overall driving experience feels far more entertaining.
Many of the overall tweaks to the established formula are simple but effective. Forza 3's rewind system proved absolutely necessary for amateurs but was unwanted by some more fastidious professionals, so Forza Motorsport 4 now allows you to turn the feature off for a sizeable credit reward.
Another noticeable improvement over Forza Motorsport 3 is in its engine sounds, oddly obfuscated by an overbearing and ill-fitting soundtrack. Yank hard on the vroom vroom trigger in a powerful car and you'll be hit with a meaty, thunderous roar powerful enough to send ripples of delight down your spine, one that makes Gran Turismo 5's effort sound like a handful of aggravated bees in comparison.
The most likely destination for players will be the revamped season play, now dubbed World Tour, with Turn 10 hoping that its considered nips and tucks will make for a smoother user experience, banishing the lumpy and heavyset cycles of multi-stage events and forced championships that caused the third game to devolve into a weary grind by its fifth season. Now you only stop off for one event at each destination as you hop around the globe, consuming an entire world of automotive events like delicate courses of tapas rather than bloated Sunday roasts.
Instead of a chipping away at a sprawling event list, though that is still possible if you'd like, World Tour streamlines the experience by offering you up a choice of three events based on the cars you own. New to Forza 4, however, is an extra bit of spice from different event types, such as autocross, drift, track days, and traffic challenges, and the occasional trip to the Dunsfold Aerodrome to whizz around the Top Gear test track.
Does all this eliminate the dreaded grind inherent to the genre? Not entirely, but it tries - and it's certainly a massive improvement over the nightmarish user experience offered up by Gran Turismo 5. Turn 10 does occasionally make the game victim to unnecessary padding, stretching out its whopping event list with some notably poor choices and creating the numb agony of dawdling slow cars around the zippy Bernese Alps, or forcing brazen, monstrous vehicles around the narrow twists of Fujimi Kaido.
But the overall experience is less fussy, and subsequently more enjoyable to play, than ever before. Manufacturer Affinity, for instance, replaces individual car levels from Forza 3, taking experience gained from each event and pooling it in a manufacturer-specific level, offering significant part discounts (up to 100 per cent) and substantial credit windfalls for those who nurture the contents of their garage.
Forza 4 now offers you a choice of cars opposed to a prescribed vehicle as you level up, RPG-like, your Driver Level, though the implementation is still slightly messy - you're not allowed to inspect the details of your potential new cars, nor does the game highlight which of its massive roster will be available as Gifts. It is frustrating to spend hundreds of thousands of hard-earned credits (or a handful of Car Tokens, bought with Microsoft Points) on a new vehicle, only to see the car being offered for free minutes later. One level offered me a choice between the Ferrari F50 and the McLaren F1, but neglected to point out that the latter costs roughly five times as many in-game credits. I would have been absolutely livid had I picked the F50.
Turn 10 is also at the front of the pack when it comes to community features, leaving much of the storefront and auction house unchanged. The big push this time comes in the form of Rivals mode, a series of single-player races tracked on a multiplayer leaderboard - Turn 10 has clearly found inspiration from Criterion's Autolog. Some of these events are fixed and permanent, such as taking the Kia Cee'd (more recognised as the Reasonably Priced Car) around the Top Gear Test Track, whereas others are chopped and changed on a month-by-month basis.
Rivals is exactly the multiplayer mode Forza needed, especially when many of the other online events can (and do) prove so daunting for less experienced players. There's also the option to join Car Clubs, essentially Forza's take on clans, which offers both a shared garage and a more personable relationship with the game's busy online world. You can, for instance, invite your whole Club to a game of car football.
Many events, and much of the game's presentation, is inspired from past episodes of Top Gear, and Turn 10's creative partnership with the show, complete with an introduction and voiceover work from Jeremy Clarkson, allows the game to lighten its tone, layering personality and humour on top of a game that has been criticised for sterility in the past.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Autovista, a fascinating curio of car exploration that originally grew out of a much-derided Kinect demo from E3 2009. It's a gorgeous showpiece, peppered with precise nuggets of information, and the kind of high-class camera work that you'd expect to see on episodes of Top Gear itself.
There's an obvious whiff of car porn about the whole thing, but the 25 cars on offer form an intriguingly eclectic mix, including offbeat choices such as the DeLorean DMC-12, Bentley 8 Litre, and Hummer H1 Alpha alongside obvious inclusions like the Enzo Ferrari. Using either Kinect or your controller, you can view and interact with the vehicles, stunningly rendered using the game's new trick of image-based lighting, and pick up factual information alongside Clarkson's more colourful diatribes.
Consider Autovista in a traditional sense, as a mode you have to bash through in order to win the game, and it will be a failure, a flash little party trick that burns out after the first go. It's a shame that Turn 10 feels the need to bolt an arbitrary challenge onto most cars before they can be viewed, then, perhaps too worried of an audience that would rather play racer than curator to its spectacularly ornate museum piece.
While many, like me, will just plump for the 458 Italia, the game also revels in its left field choices, turning the game into a celebration of the eclectic unicorns to fan the flames of those with a genuine passion for unexpected automotive creations. There's lord knows how many cars spread across two discs and almost fifty manufacturers (though sadly lacking Porsche due to a licensing dispute with EA), and if the post-release DLC content for Forza Motorsport 3 was any indication we can expect to see plenty more offbeat vehicles added down the line.
Codemasters might offer a better damage model, Polyphony Digital can still champion itself when it comes to on-track authenticity, and it's a massive shame to see a lack of weather effects and different track conditions. But Forza 4 trumps the competition by creating an experience much more than the sum of its parts, one that comfortably cements its position as the king of racers.
Alongside manifold technical improvements, Forza 4 brings a noticeable spark of excitement to the series. Where former entries in the series took themselves a little too seriously, this game likes to humour, dazzle and entertain, losing none of its technical competence but swapping stoic sterility for fun. Forza Motorsport 4 is fiery, passionate and thrilling - much like the 458 Italia on the front cover.