The root of all good drama is conflict. So I sit here trying to think of things I really hate about Forza Motorsport 3. This shouldn't be difficult, I'm a cynical old cove and I hate plenty of things even in my favourite games. But here I'm struggling. The best I can come up with is this: just before you begin each race there's a view of your car from the front quarter, the engine revs and the car shudders as though it's about to fall apart. This is a cheap and nasty effect and belongs in something that has the involvement of Travis Pastrana or Ken Block.
So I guess that's something I do hate, but I can hardly mark a game down for something that occurs for two seconds. I'll try to think of some other annoyances. Hmmm. The cockpit views lack glass windscreen effects. The replays are of a finite length, no replays when using the car test drive option, shadows look a bit too deep er...I'm really clutching at straws here. We'll just have to face it, Forza Motorsport 3 is by far the best racing game available for consoles right now and more than likely the best you'll see on Microsoft hardware until the inevitable Forza 4. Initial impressions are understated though. If we view such CarPG titles as essentially a glorified database, there's not a huge change from the stack of data that shipped with Forza Motorsport 2.
Many of the tracks and cars are the same, albeit with a few notable additions. All the polish in the world isn't going to give this game a ten via our scoring policy if there isn't innovation. However what makes Forza Motorsport 3 such a success is twofold, firstly the way we interact with this database and secondly the handling model. We'll talk physics in a moment, but first let's talk about the way you can interact with Forza 3. If all you want to do is pick any track or car and race or drive hotlaps then you can right from the front of the game. There's no nonsense about unlocking content, it's there, go play with it.
Venture into the career mode and there's the traditional big long list of dry events for you to work through - buying and upgrading cars as you go along. I'd suggest trying the new Season Mode though, which guides your through these tournaments, mixing and matching based on your car choices. At every stage you're offered choice, but guided choice that aims to show you all the game has to offer. Weekly events are interspersed with weekend world championship races, making for a more varied experience. Gone are the restrictive menus that we're used to in a CarPG. You can change car at almost any point. Hit a button to quickly auto-tune a car to make it competitive - the AI will select the appropriate parts. Even more welcome, is the option to auto-downgrade, stripping off too powerful parts when you need to enter your vehicle in a lower spec race.
The whole front end of Forza 3, unlike the previous game, seems designed to be unobtrusive, useful, powerful and enable you to play with the cars and tracks you want to, when you want to, with as little fuss as possible. Handy features such as choosing to display just the cars you can afford make pre-race preparation swift and painless. This elegant front end is enhanced by the dulcet tones of British actor Peter Egan, who lends an air of authority to a peerless front end. Don't worry, at no point will you be called "dude", hear cars described as "rides" or read the word "gnarly". All this would be for nothing if the driving experience was poor - but it most certainly is not. While very accurate there's some mileage in saying that the handling in Forza 2 was a little too safe.
Here in the sequel extra elements in the physics model such as tyre deformation have reaped dividends. The true beauty in the handling model won't be appreciated by all immediately. Starting the career with a small economy car the handling is anything but exciting - rather it is safe, easy and tame. But that's how these cars are designed - they are for getting your children to school, not sliding around the twisting corners of the Nordschleife. Move up to more thrilling cars and the game begins to feel like a love letter to the automobile. The handling model is very deep and eschews the cheap path followed by many developers of trying to show power by making cars difficult to control. Yes Dodge Vipers are scary - but the awesomely powerful Bugatti Veyron feels like a family car with a dragon hidden in it, just waiting to be unleashed.
There's so much depth in the car handling that each vehicle feels like a whole new gaming experience in itself. Cars can now be flipped over - even better travelling sideways at speed on grass will have the wheels dig in and flip the car. There's more - for the hardcore there's a chance to use the clutch - even on the pad. I found it worked best with the clutch on the A button with gear up on B and down on X, but there are plenty of ways for you to alter the controls to find your own favourite method. For novices and younger players there are driver aids aplenty to allow almost anyone to enjoy the game's content. The cheeky re-invention of Codemasters' rewind feature works very well - it rewards the player with the chance to take more risks, use fewer driver aids and enjoy longer races without worrying that an hour's driving could be wiped out in a moment of lost concentration.
Following the release of the Forza 3 demo we saw plenty of argument about the game's graphics. Turn 10 decided that a constant 60 frames per second were more important than raw visual splendour. This was the correct decision, such a smooth update combined with the hugely impressive physics model makes for the best driving feel you can experience on a console. However graphics whores may be a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong - this is a beautiful game. But you won't see the kind of flashy particle and post-processing effects enjoyed in Race Driver: Grid or Need for Speed: Shift. Some of the scenery models and techniques can appear a little old-hat, but much of the time the game looks very good indeed. The new lighting model makes the cars look much better than Forza 2, which was a good looking game that sometimes looked ugly.
Nitpickers with LCD screens set to higher sharpness levels are going to see a few jaggies, but the overall visual side of the game is very strong. This is a game to enjoy moving, not via static bullshots. You can also have your say on how good the game looks. The car painting options are even deeper this time around, including a way of creating vinyl layers on a flat surface, before exporting them to your cars. Like everything else in Forza 3, it's deeper and better than the previous game. There's the temptation to waffle for 3000 words when dealing with a game as deep as Forza Motorsport 3. Do you really need to know every nuance and option in the game though - go an explore them yourself.
The aim of Forza 3 is simple, it's a game that lets you buy cars, enjoy driving, win races and then buy better cars with the winnings. Turn 10 has buried all the complexity in an elegant game that let's you just play, explore and enjoy. Forza 3 isn't perfect - there are plenty of boxes to be ticked in the next release - the major one being the visual depiction of damage modelling, Race Driver: Grid shows Forza still has a long way to go here. When you play the game I'm sure you'll find plenty of elements you know can be improved next time around. Where's the night racing, where are the weather effects? And we definitely need more control over AI drivers - perhaps a difficulty slider rather than discrete options as it often feels like one falls between two settings, with one setting seeming too easy, the one above too hard.
Amazingly though there are no show stoppers. You can pick almost anything from Forza 2 that annoyed and you'll find it fixed here. Not only that, Forza 3 wraps it all up in a wonderful front end that shows how car games should be created. If hotlapping is your thing, this is your game, if you want entertaining races against AI opponents this is your game, if you're a beginner to the genre this is your game and if you want to race online this is your game. The games market is currently going through a miserly phase. Some publishers are hiking up the prices of their big releases, others are releasing their game with hardly any content - so we can pay again via DLC.
Here we have a release from a major publisher that showers us with content, so much so we get a second disk full of cars and tracks with the promise of more free content on release day. Xbox 360 owners can be assured that this is one of the finest, if not the finest, releases for the console so far. It is a celebration of the car, but even more a celebration of the joy to be had in driving. We can only hope that early 2010 brings us an equally strong celebration for PlayStation 3 in Gran Turismo 5. For now Forza Motorsport 3 is the best racing game available for a console platform and I'd argue very strongly that it's the best driving game ever (though there's my inner nerd screaming - no that's Grand Prix Legends). While the Xbox 360 is spoilt for choice in racing games Forza 3 really is in a different class altogether.