Sony's Gran Turismo may still sit in the pole position among racing sims for many, but Microsoft is making a hard charge with Forza Motorsport 3. Developer Turn 10 has adopted a new philosophy for Forza 3: Make it accessible. The result is a hardcore simulation racing title that can also be enjoyed by the most casual of fans. The career mode is easy to get into but offers an immense challenge; you can auto-tune every car or dive into a rich set of tuning options; and driving can be toggled between a simple point-and-go system and the most physics-driven sim every created.
Simply put, Forza 3 is one of the best racers ever made.
It starts with the cars, of course. Forza 3 has more than 400 vehicles you can take for a spin and the crazy part is, they're all unlocked from the outset. That's right, with the exception of a few cars available only to those who pre-order Forza 3, every car on the disc can be driven from the get-go. Sure, you'll need to earn some credits to make your purchases, but if you can drum up a million creds, you can take the Bugatti Veyron for a spin. If you've played racing games your entire life, this fact alone may just blow your stack. It goes against everything we've ever thought about racing games. You're supposed to start with crappy cars, suffer through a few hours of slow-paced driving, then graduate to a sleeker class of vehicle. Well, Forza 3 is throwing racing conventions out the window. Hallelujah.
Even if you were stuck with the lower-end cars for the first few hours, that wouldn't be as much of an issue with Forza 3. This game is fun from the outset. Though I've played dozens of hours with Forza 3, I still go back to the E and D class cars for some races, because there are so many good cars. This is largely due to the enhanced physics of Forza 3, which add a level of nuance not experienced in most racing games.
The tire physics are so greatly improved (and include real-time deformation), that you get a true understanding of how your car is reacting at every turn. With all of the driving assists turned off, you can feel the difference from one car to the next. And though you'll race the same tracks quite often, the experience changes from one car to the next.
I've always felt that you couldn't properly drive a car in a racing game with the assists off if you didn't have a racing wheel. While Forza 3 controls brilliantly with a wheel, I can assure you that you can play a hundred hours with just a controller and have no issues. Turn 10 has finally mastered the subtleties of the controller, allowing for better responsiveness.
If you're a novice or just like to take things easy, Forza 3 can satisfy your racing needs as well. Turn the different assists (such as traction control) on and you can still have a good time. The cars won't feel as unique, other than the speed, but you'll have no troubles being competitive. You can even go so far as to turn on auto-braking, which allows you to hold down the gas the entire race and let the AI brake for you whenever necessary. You can't throw green turtle shells at the other drivers, but it's pretty much Mario Kart at that point.
The great thing about Forza 3 is that it encourages even the novice to take off the training wheels and drive freely with the assists off. A rewind function allows you to instantly skip backwards in five-second intervals during a race. Misjudge your speed on a tight corner? Rewind. Get tapped from behind and spin out? Rewind. Your cat jumps on your face causing you to crash into a wall? Rewind. There's no penalty for using the rewind and no limit. Some might call this a "win" button, but I think the rewind is a crucial addition to Forza 3. It can become a crutch at times, but it also frees you to kick the difficulty up to a higher level and get a true appreciation for your car.
Nothing bolsters that appreciation more than the visuals. Forza 3 runs laps around its predecessor. The car models have an incredible level of detail, including unique interiors for each car. I will admit that the interiors could look a little better, but overall the car models are spectacular. There's also full damage modeling on every car. You'll see dings and dents, fender benders -- you'll even see cars flip in the air. Those with a sharp eye will catch damage decals flipping on as the car makes contact with something. When you're in the cockpit view and you tap someone with the left corner of your bumper and, like magic, paint scrape decals appear across the entire hood, it can be a little disconcerting.
Each car in Forza 3 has its own sounds, so that sitting behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 is a much different auditory experience than being in a Mustang Boss. And you'll give thanks for the roar of an engine when it drowns out the mediocre music selection.
I felt Forza 2 was lifeless and without spirit. That is not an issue with Forza 3. This is a game that showcases speed and beauty. The cars are sexy, the tracks look great, and the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. The lighting isn't always perfect -- you can often see shadows dancing around the car in some odd ways -- and a few times textures didn't load on the track. Despite these issues, Forza 3 is one hot looking game.
Adding some extra personality is the advanced livery editor. As a novice designer, I can't quite see what is new about the livery editor from Forza 2, but those who are experts should find it easier to make high-end art. The good news for the many of us without artistic talent is that the Monets of the Forza community can post their designs on the new online Storefront.
In the Storefront, you can purchase designs for specific cars or decals usable on any vehicle you own. Prices are set by the designers, as are the number of copies for sale. If someone wants to make a unique piece of art and sell it for 30 million credits, they can. And if someone wants to sell a limitless supply of Autobot decals on the cheap, that is also their choice. A ratings system helps create a leaderboard for designers, which you can search to find the biggest stars in the community. You can flag anyone as a favorite so you can easily browse their store for the latest designs.
Tuning is just like art design in Forza 3. Can I get a "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis?" Seriously, tuning has been transformed into an artform and has similar functionality to liveries. Great tuners can create tuning sets and sell them on the Storefront. For those used to doing their own tuning, a word of warning. It is possible (even easy) to manually upgrade and tune your car in a way that actually worsens its performance. Basic tuning is easy to do, but delve deeper and you better know a lot about cars. That also means great tuners can help you maximize your car's performance better than you could ever manage.
And if all of that is too intimidating, you always have the option to auto-upgrade before a race. These upgrades will tune and upgrade your car to fit the track and race parameters. A great tuner can do even better by manually adjusting everything, but most gamers will find the auto-tune option good enough. The point of all of this is that the hardcore have a ton of ways to bury themselves in Forza 3 and the rest of us can click a few buttons and race. After all, isn't that why you bought a racing game?
The focal point of racing is the career mode. Forza's career mode is a series of seasons, each one longer than the last. The core career lasts six seasons, though you can continue on long after that. Each season has a bi-weekly championship race. These races are set for each season and are waiting for you every other Sunday. The rest of your career is completely dynamic.
For the two weeks between each championship race, you'll choose one event. Each event is broken up into a series of races. Some as few as three, others can be around a half-dozen races long. You are always given three event choices, but these change based on a number of factors: The cars you own, the car you're currently driving, and the race types you play the most. No two careers are alike. Having played deep into two different careers, I've seen firsthand how much seasons can change. Through six seasons, you'll race 55 events. There are more than 200 events in total. After powering through about 50 hours of gameplay to "beat" the career mode, you still have well over 150 more events to beat if you want to master Forza 3. It's insane. Because there are so many events (and a great variety at that), it's very easy to have two seasons turn out quite differently.
Completing races earns your driver experience points. For each level you're gifted a car. Free. No strings attached. The idea is to reward you for playing and encourage you to try new cars. Unlike the seasonal calendar, the car gifting is not dynamic. That means everyone who plays Forza 3 gets the same cars. You're free to buy any other cars you want (remember, nothing is locked), but certainly you will get behind the wheel of many of your gifted vehicles.
Each season gets exponentially longer. Season 2 is about twice the length of the first season and season 3 is the length of the first two put together. By the time you get to season 6, you'll be spending hours upon hours to beat each event. For me, this began to become a bit of a drag. As much as I enjoy Forza 3, I found the final season to be a real struggle to complete. What was joyous and new in the earlier seasons felt tedious by the end. Granted, many will never play long enough to reach this point and some will be thrilled at the endurance races that await, but for me, it wasn't as rewarding as the earlier seasons.
Of course, you won't be driving alone. Up to seven AI drivers will challenge you on the tracks. Forza 3 uses Turn 10's Drivatar system, which basically teaches the AI based on a player's driving style. It creates a dynamic AI that learns from you. That was in Forza 2. What is new is the AI pressure system. Get behind an AI car and, depending on the driver, they might make mistakes. You may see the AI spin-out on a turn, take a bad line, or make other noticeable errors. There are times when I play Forza 3 and forget that the AI is controlled by a computer. Often it feels like I am racing against real people, which I appreciate immensely.
The AI elements aren't perfect, however. One of Forza's biggest drawbacks is in its AI settings. There are numerous assists to alter how your car performs, but there are just three AI difficulty options: Easy, medium, and hard. Even for average drivers, medium will quickly prove too easy. But, for me, hard can be really
hard at times. It leads to too many races that are either far too easy to win or seem almost impossible to compete in. If Forza 3 had one more setting between medium and hard, it would be perfect. But it doesn't and, for me, it hurts the balance over the course of the career mode.
If, while playing through a season, you long for the company of other gamers, you can give the multiplayer a shot. Turn 10 went out of its way to offer a staggering level of customization. Multiplayer may be Forza 3's crowning achievement. This is the most robust multiplayer offering ever for a sim racing game. You can customize every aspect of a race, allowing you to easily create your own game types.
You can determine if cars get a head start, which car classes can be used for a certain team, and the qualifications for winning a race. This makes it very easy to set up a great game of cat and mouse, where the mice are trying to get to the finish line and the cats are out to take them down.
You can check out my recent look at Forza 3 multiplayer
if you want more details on the customization options.
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