Once upon a time, the only console racing game serious car nuts would even consider playing was Gran Turismo. But then, just six years ago, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport blew the market wide open.
Forza Motorsport 4 (Microsoft)
Now Forza 4 is ready for the public, tearing its way towards store shelves as you read this -- and it's already off to an incredible start. Set to capitalize on the rather muted reception of the latest Gran Turismo, numerous reviewers are already calling it the greatest simulation racer of its generation. Yowza.
Official Xbox Magazine scribe Ryan McCaffrey is one such fan -- and, like many writers, he picked out Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson's voice work as one of the highlights. (The game also includes the show's iconic test track, Gambon and all.)/
"Clarkson narrates a tone-setting opening cinematic that establishes the sequel as a digital haven for the world's most exotic and historically unique whips — over 500 of them, actually," writes McCaffrey. "In fact, about the only ride missing from Forza 4 is a clown car."
"No other car game on Xbox — and we'd dare say any other platform — even approaches Forza 4's depth, versatility, beauty, and community support. It's so comprehensive that there's probably nowhere for the series to go from here — except onto the inevitable Xbox 720. Until then, enjoy every minute of this ride," he concludes, with words that are echoed by many other critics.
Forza's strong, believable AI drivers, sumptuously detailed car models and feature-packed online play are also singled out for particular praise by many. But it's the game's individuality that resonates with Destructoid's Dale North.
"Turn 10 already had a fantastic racer with Forza 3," he gushes, "but they somehow managed to add more even features and polish to this sequel, and the end result is a game that seems to have covered every base perfectly. They've also managed to add something else that you'll never see as a bulletpoint on a box: personality....The game practically shines with signature touches that show that the developers truly loved making it. I'm sure that's probably why I love playing it so much."
So, a unanimous vote of confidence, then? Not completely. Giant Bomb, while rating the game a still-excellent four stars, sounds a note of warning for regular Forza buyers.
"A lot of Forza 4's changes feel incremental at best," says writer Jeff Gerstmann. "The game includes many of the same tracks found in previous installments, and I found myself getting a very "annual sports game update" vibe off of it. With that in mind, it seems like the game's most die-hard fans and people who didn't play the previous Forza will get the most out of Forza 4."
Those criticisms aren't shared by many others, however. With an overall average score well into the 90s, it's as close to a must-have racer as they come.
Also new this week:
Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster (Xbox 360)
A Kinect game based on the beloved children's TV show? Yep, but don't expect the usual rushed, cheaply made cash-in. Instead, Once Upon a Monster oozes with geek cred: for one thing, it comes from Double Fine Studios, famed for Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. And for another, it spent much of its design process as a non-licensed game. Sesame Street came on board later -- but from the look of the game, an imaginative minigame-focused romp developed alongside Sesame Workshop's education specialists, it was a serendipitous match-up.
Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (Xbox 360, PS3)
Forza isn't the only game featuring high-horsepower, high-priced transportation devices hitting the streets this week. Well, OK, it is. But only because Ace Combat is hitting the skies instead. The latest in the long-running air combat series, it features a plot penned by high-flying author Jim DeFelice, and a host of accurately rendered cities to fight over and through. Most critics are still kicking its tires and lighting their fires, but word is the game's cinematic storyline is stratospheric. So to speak.
Red Dead Redemption: Game of the Year Edition (Xbox 360, PS3)
Word to the wise: not every Game of the Year Edition release contains a genuine game of the year. But here's one that unquestionably does. Bundling together last year's Western opus Red Dead Redemption together with all its downloadable content released to date, it's the definitive way to experience what's easily one of the best games of modern times. If for some reason you've been holding out (is there something wrong with you?), consider it essential.
Mafia Wars 2 (PC, Mac)
Get your clicker-finger ready: the sequel to Zynga's sociable mob game is here, and this time, it's packing, well, graphics. Fancier ones, at least, giving the game more of a Cityville vibe than its text-heavy godfather. Appearing on both Facebook and Google Plus, it's an offer your social gaming life can't refuse.
Hulk Hogan's Main Event (Xbox 360)
Hulk Hogan's Main Event is a Kinect-controlled wrestling game that'll let you recreate over 50 of the Hulkster's iconic moves by jumping about like a maniac in front of your TV. It's either going to be absolutely hilarious, or -- wait, no, it's definitely going to be absolutely hilarious. How could it not be? Good, bad, indifferent, it's hard to go too far off the rails with a concept like that.