Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in racing titles, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Forza Motorsport 3 over the past few years. Microsoft’s exclusive racer became a smash-hit by its third incarnation, having sold over 5 million copies worldwide. With a long series of DLC packages, the Xbox 360 had finally managed to establish a racing franchise in the absence of Gran Turismo. But that was way back in October of 2009, and 2 years have since passed. Either way you look at it, that’s a lot of time to sit in pit lane.

Now it’s time to see if the series can outdo itself once again as the Forza Motorsport 4 demo is now available on Xbox Live for gold subscribers – and available to everyone on October 7th. After a short time spent with the demo, do we think the Xbox 360 once again has a leading edge racer to call its own? Read on to find out.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much pressure Forza 4 has riding on it, regardless of how well its predecessor performed. Since then we’ve seen dozens of new racers, from simulation to arcade.

Whether they feature legendary titles like Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit or Gran Turismo 5, or focus their attention on gorgeous visuals or white-knuckled racing, no single franchise has been able to step up and and dethrone Forza Motorsport on the Xbox 360.

Turn 10 Studios wastes no time in throwing players into the action to show what they’ve done with their time in development. With an opening cinematic that would turn Gran Turismo 5 green with envy, the game’s impressive car models and pack-racing will likely be enough to get fans hyperventilating. It may just be the opening sequence, but make sure you don’t get too excited and skip it – as it is definitely worth checking out.

Forza 4 Cockpit Interior

One small change that may go unnoticed by casual fans is the much improved layout and style of the game’s opening menus. The new interface is much easier to navigate than both Forza 3 and some of the competition, with subtle touches adding to the showroom atmosphere. Some may think that such a small change is meaningless, but it could be a sign of just how many issues Turn 10 has taken time to improve.

Although the demo only includes the ‘Quick Race’ and ‘Rival’ game modes, the selection of races and top of the line vehicles won’t disappoint. Whether you prefer the AWD B-Class 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX STi, or the unruly S-Class 2010 Ferrari 458 Italia, the ability to tune a ride to your own style doesn’t end there. While the offerings in the demo aren’t as extensive as some will wish (particularly Halo fans), the ability to adjust the assists, difficulty, and controller settings show that the developers have retained a wide array of options that made FM3 so widely popular.

Before leaving the starting line it’s obvious just how much the graphics have been updated. Using a much talked about image based lighting system for both the track and the car, we see the two in a far more realistic way than ever before. The lighting is better than ever, the cars reflect and shine like the real thing, and the view of the track from the cockpit is extremely smooth, right down to the ‘head tilting’ under hard braking  and acceleration.

Forza Motorsport 4 Track

The realism of the track itself is worth noting, as Turn 10 spent hundreds of man hours in real world locations taking thousands upon thousands of pictures and videos. Even though the demo contains one track, it definitely feels like the team has captured the small nuances of rumble strips, worn apexes on fast corners and the gravel on the shoulders of tight turns. If you enjoyed the visuals of FM3, but wanted something with less vibrant colors in favor of vastly improved detail, you’ll be pleased.

While shiny cars and pretty tracks are great, a simulation racing title will live and die on the track itself. But with no shortage of racing games catering to the hardcore, one of the things that made Forza 3 stand out was its approachability for novices. The most recent incarnation seems to do just the same, giving a great experience for those who jump right into the game with all assists turned on. But for returning fans, their first instinct will be to turn off all assists, crank up the difficulty and see if the game can keep up – and that’s exactly what Turn 10 is hoping.

The game feels very similar to the previous title, with an increased focus on tire performance as well as car handling. With every driving assist except ABS turned off, each car behaves much more realistically. The all-wheel drive Subaru stays well-planted through turns and is well balanced, yet continues to feel as heavy as an AWD should.

The Ferrari 458 handles like a dream at high speed through tight but long chicanes, starting to feel light and slightly slippery, just as it would if it hit the same turn at 170 mph in the real world. A slight improvement over Forza 3 in that respect, as the previous game’s cars were much easier to keep in a straight line, even when the power was on.

Forza 4 Top Gear Track

Forza 3 didn’t have many aspects that needed to be revolutionized or reinvented, and Turn 10 doesn’t look to have attempted to redefine the wheel. With several subtle changes that will likely be overlooked by newcomers merely enjoying the view, it’s safe to say that the demo will be a fitting appetizer for most fans. From this small glimpse of the improved physics and what looks to be an even broader range of difficulty, Forza Motorsport fans have every reason to expect this is a game that will live up to expectation.

The Forza Motorsport 4 free demo is currently available on Xbox Live for gold subscribers, and on October 7 for silver subscribers. A full retail release arrives on October 11.

Article written by Brian Dyce.