Games 10/11/11: Forza Motorsport 4, Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel, X-Men Destiny

Forza Motorsport 4
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $60

Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel
For: Xbox 360
From: Microsoft
Price: $60

If you’ve ignored “Forza” out of apprehension that the world’s deepest driving sim is too imposing to enjoy, here’s the shocking truth about “Forza Motorsport 4:” It’s as accessible as any racing game this side of “Mario Kart.”

If the preceding paragraph bothers you, “Forza” fanatics, fret not: “FM4” is as dedicated to its craft as ever, and if you test its generosity on the hardest setting with assists deactivated, it will punish you swiftly and unkindly.

That both statements ring true about the same game is testament to Turn 10’s successful effort to make “FM4” a breeze to learn on its easiest setting, a beast to master on its hardest, and a joy to operate on any level because of an interface that outdoes itself in terms of polish, organization and a willingness to help players get around and leave them to mold their own experience whenever the desire arises.

As perhaps is no surprise by now, “FM4’s” 500 cars (up from “FM3’s” 400) collectively look incredible and drive like a dream regardless of difficulty. Incremental improvements creep into both the handling and the visual presentation — new lighting effects work with some nice camera tricks to create a greater sense of speed, particularly in dash cam view — but considering how polished “FM3” already was, there’s no room for “FM4” to completely blow it away.

Rather, “FM4” bounds forward in the features department, and those who compete online (16 players, up from eight) or engage in “Forza’s” amazing community features stand to benefit most.

Clan support comes to “FM4” in the form of Car Clubs, allowing you to assemble a team of racers and designers, share a garage, and compete against other clubs on the track and in the marketplace. (The ridiculous array of car customization tools returns, and Turn 10 hasn’t broken what needed no fixing.)

Rivals Mode, conversely, will please fans of EA’s Autolog interface. Like Autolog, it lets you challenge friends to beat track times or special event scores — and collect in-game money for beating their challenges — whether they’re available to play that moment or not. “FM4’s” exquisite interface makes it easy to set up and manage challenges, and if you set up rivalries with friends or club members, the game handles all communication duties for you.

On the single-player side, “FM4’s” improvements are subtle but still significant. The track count grows only by five, but one of those is the “Top Gear” Test Track. “FM4” puts it to exponentially better use than “Gran Turismo 5” did by mining it for amusing special events and integrating it into the World Tour mode that comprises its reconfigured (and absolutely massive) single-player centerpiece. (Support for 16-player Car Soccer, in which teams of eight cars push around a novelty soccer ball, ensures some online Test Track exposure as well.)

Kinect support is the only area where “FM4” wobbles. Driving with Kinect works adequately, but there’s too much guesswork in pedal management for it compete with traditional controls. Head tracking’s usefulness doesn’t compensate for the potential trouble that arises from turning away from the screen even momentarily. Navigating menus via motion is too squirrelly, and walking around in the new Autovista mode — where you can examine 24 cars in educational and insanely pretty detail, with “Top Gear’s” Jeremy Clarkson narrating — is novel with Kinect but far less cumbersome with a controller.

The one place Kinect provides a tangible advantage — with controller or without — is with the ability to jump around modes via voice commands. That works exactly as advertised.

Microsoft’s new Wireless Speed Wheel, meanwhile, works better than advertised by magnificently bridging a longstanding gap for those who like the idea of a racing wheel but don’t like the price or bulk those accessories carry. The U-shaped Speed Wheel is small enough to hold like a standard controller, and it uses traditional triggers for its pedals instead of actual pedals like a full-sized racing wheel.

But while it looks no more advanced than the dinky wheel that accompanied “Mario Kart Wii,” the Speed Wheel’s sensitivity easily matches that of a full-sized racing wheel. It blows the Kinect controls away, and requires no tuning or setup to use. It works so intuitively well, in fact, that it already supports the racing games you have in your Xbox 360 library. How’s that for backward compatibility?


X-Men Destiny
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii and Nintendo DS
From: Silicon Knights/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

Bad news, X-Men: It appears your destiny is to appear in what very likely might be the year’s lamest full-priced game.

The bad vibes rush in almost instantly, too, during the breakdown of what should be a good idea. “X-Men Destiny’s” premise drops you into the shoes of your own custom-designed mutant — except it doesn’t, because outside of a few choices regarding attack strategy, you’re not allowed to design your character at all. “Destiny” provides three rather bland character designs from which to choose, quickly punting away whatever point there was to playing as an unknown mutant instead of the powered-up X-Men who adorn the box. Even a pitifully rudimentary character creator would have done wonders for this game getting off on the right foot.

Then again, once the action commences, those issues start feeling small compared to what follows.

“Destiny’s” quest structure is pretty straightforward: Numerous recognizable X-Men show up to poke fun at your inexperience and hand out objectives during an attack by an anti-mutant force known as The Purifiers, and a stock morality system allows you to fight alongside or turn against the X-Men.

This might make for a cool story if “Destiny” didn’t continually distill down to a rote series of “Defeat X number of enemies” missions. It doesn’t even matter which side you pick: The mission remains the same whether you’re good or bad, and all that changes is the 12-pack of clones whose faces you wail on en route to encountering another 20 enemies and doing the exact same thing.

“Destiny” flashes a flicker of inspiration with its X-Genes, Suits and X-Mode systems, which let you upgrade and alter your mutant’s look and abilities as you accrue experience in combat. In contrast to how simplistic everything else is, these systems are almost overdesigned, with needlessly complicated menus and formulas masking a system that, beneath the clutter, offers a lot of combat options for your mutant to explore.

But again, it doesn’t matter, because again, “Destiny” does little with it when the action plods along. The game’s combat is insultingly easy and mindlessly simple even with a multitude of powers at the ready, and the excessive animation attached to every attack bogs it down even further. Throw in some unintended graphical slowdown — a baffling problem given how little “Destiny’s” obsolete graphics appear to challenge either systems’ horsepower — and the tedium reaches critical levels. A simple combat repertoire might have sufficed if there was a sense of speed and elegance to mixing moves together, but “Destiny” never even comes close.

The best and worst news about the full-priced “Destiny” is that it’s over quickly — four hours and change if you don’t poke around to find collectables.

The short length would seem to fly in the face of the upgrade and morality systems, but by the time you get a glimpse of the finish line and face a final boss whose attack philosophy is no more complicated than the hundreds of grunts you already took down, it’s beyond clear the game has nothing better to do than just end. “Destiny” has ideas, but no idea how follow through on them, and its conceptual and technical deficiencies — from design to variety to artificial intelligence to the control issues detailed above — are too numerous to qualify as acceptable, much less forgivable.