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DRIVING FORCE


Just how accurately can Forza 4 replicate the character and handling traits of a car like the Subaru WRX STi?

It's actually a struggle to begin playing Forza Motorsport 4. Not on account of any menu-based confusion, but because the digital rendering sof the cars that populate the introductory screens, as the game loads, are so spellbinding in their crispness and accuracy that you lose yourself for a few minutes and stare as the camera pansaround the steroidal front arches of the latest Subaru WRX STi. Surely it's an HD video? You sit, mesmerised by the quality.


Forza 4 closes the tangible differences between real and digital to a point at which the naked eye struggles to decipher what is metal and what is rendered. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the same attention to accuracy present in the obsessive details of these renderings - the way the light swoops and pings from the WRX's mixture of soft shapes and sudden geometric outcrops - is also present in the driving dynamics of the cars themselves. Choose an WRX STi, and you are delivered not only that car's accurate form, but precisely the way it drives as well.


Really? I mean can you really glean any meaningful similarities between a computer game and a car with 297bhp? Given that all F1 teams now consider the simulator to be the most important development tool during the F1 season, it would seem that we need to keep an open mind on the subject. And an open wallet. The WRX STi, on a Welsh B-road, likes a drink. These latest 2.5-litreboxermotorsarequitedifferent in character to the McRae-era versions. Equal length intakes make them much smoother, less burbly and lumpy. Of course some of the character has been lost, but the upside is gratifying mechanical smoothness and a very particular sound: one that is uncannily replicated in the game.


Not being entirely sure how to conduct a test between something belonging to the material world and something which doesn't, I have settled on a simple plan. Accurately define how the, er, real WRX drives - what its basic characteristics are interms of power delivery and chassis response, and also what specific control inputs those behaviours require from the driver. Then go back to Forza 4 and seeif the same inputs generate the same response from the vehicle. Which isn't real. But which looks more real than the real thing. Think I might need a re-boot myself once this is finished.


The WRX is a front-engined, four- wheel-drive saloon car according, in the most part, to the traditional fast-Scooby script. The car has masses of mechanical grip, but it does want to understeer at all speeds. The only exception here on the latest version is that the car is more responsive to big throttle inputs early in a turn, and will throw more torque to the rear wheel than before. In short, it's a WRX that feels a bit like a Mitsubishi Evo. Unusually for a turbo flat-four, it's much happier to rev than expected, but it still suffers that frustrating torque-hole below 2500rpm. You have to keep it spinning above 3500 to feel even remotely bullish - the way nearly 300bhp should make you feel - and then between 4500 and 6000rpm the thing really flies. Relaxing, it is not.


It encourages a pretty brutal driving style - pushing into a turn with as much speed as the tyre grip will allow, then punching the throttle to take advantage of th ecar's new-found propensity to at least try to oversteer. The result is a kind of four-wheel drift as you exit a turn,but one you rarely have to correct with any steering lock.


Foolishly, back at Microsoft HQ , playing Forza 4, I don't give the WRX enough revs off the line and, just like the version that requires petrol, it bogs down. I should be celebrating this perfect demonstration of the simulator's art, but am instead livid at having been dusted by the entire grid. Chasing the fast-disappearing backsides of my competitors, and a little distracted by the level of detail in the background scenery (is that a wooden hut up there?) on the Alps Circuit, I pile into Turn 1 way too fast. In true WRX style, the front axle refuses to hit the apex, so I slow the car as fast as possible and then attempt to turn again. We don't crash; but we do learn that the circle-of-friction is rigorously obeyed on Forza 4: a hard-braking tyre cannot change direction at the same time.


The distractions continue: light pings from the snowy hills around the Impreza as it warbles up through each gear. Watch the rev-counter needle and in 2nd and 3rd gears it moves a little quicker between 4500rpm and 6000rpm, just like the street car. Into a tight second-gear turn, the entry speed is more reasonable, the car sweeps in, flat-on-the-gas and the understeer disappears and you enjoy that samefleetingsensationof allfourwheels dragging, not pushing, but hauling you from the apex.


It's hard not to get carried away with this cod-reality; it's infectious because its accuracy panders to the need in allof us to explore areas of dynamics otherwise denied by factors such as cost and lack of skill. Or wanting to stay alive. By way of example: we all know a Scooby deliberately tormented with a trailing throttle will pull big drifts, and you will be glad to hear that the same is true in the parallel universe of the Alps Circuit on Forza 4.


The only difference is that you will not attract the attention of the law, or enrich the owner of your local body-shop. Is it accurate? Yes, dangerously so.