Since its inception almost five years ago, the Forza Motorsport series has been Microsoft’s answer to Gran Turismo. With its extremely realistic driving physics and huge selection of real world vehicles and tracks, Forza has offered the best simulated driving experience gamers could find on a non-Sony console. As the series has progressed, it’s seen a shift of focus toward customization, and a huge community of talented designers has sprung up around the game. The newest entry, Forza Motorsport 3, further expands on the customization modes, but also makes great strides toward making the series a more inclusive experience. While the new changes may cause some of the hardcore players to scoff, most players will find a more robust, accessible, and exciting racing sim.
As a driving simulator, Forza 3 is just about perfect. More than 400 vehicles are available, including production cars, tuners, high-performance race cars, and, for the first time in the series, trucks, from 50 different manufacturers, and each vehicle feels unique. Guiding a Ford Focus or a Toyota Celica around a course isn’t terribly challenging, but as the game progresses, faster and better vehicles are unlocked, and taming some of the game’s more powerful offerings can be a daunting task. 100 different track variations are also included, giving players plenty of asphalt to familiarize themselves with. Whereas Forza 2 put a heavy focus on drift racing, this new iteration treats it as one of several race styles that can be utilized in normal races. There are many turns and sequences where drifiting may be the best path to take, but it’s never the only option. This is especially true since Forza 3 has removed the time penalties associated with going off the track. Instead, driving more than a few feet into grass or sand will slow players’ car to a crawl, creating a more natural penalty system.
Forza Motorsport 3 takes an interesting approach to its driving simulation, making the game’s realism scalable. Hardcore racing sim fans can jump right in with zero assistance and get as challenging a racing experience as one can imagine. Most players, though, will be overwhelmed by the difficulty of the game without any assistance, and will feel more comfortable with a few of the options turned on. Assists like Traction Control, Anti-Lock Brakes, and Stability Control will likely be the first to be turned on, but the real difference maker is the guideline, which tells players when to turn and brake. Even the guideline is scalable, with settings for it to appear at all times, or just on turns where speed management is crucial. Damage modeling has been improved, and now includes the ability to roll your car over, and the effect that damage has on your car is adjustable as well. For players who are seriously struggling, there’s even a mode that has the computer doing all your braking for you. To even out the system, utilizing these assists will decrease the amount of prize money each race awards. All these options allow for a driving experience that’s as challenging as you want it to be while still maintaining the realistic physics that make it a sim.
Easily the most controversial addition to Forza 3 is the rewind feature. At any point in any single player race, players can press the Back button and rewind their ace a few seconds. The rewind can be used as many times as players want, and there is no penalty for using it. The feature will likely upset hardcores who feel that it cheapens the game, but for the average player, it’ll be a frequently used aspect of the game that may make you feel like a cheater, but will be greatly appreciated the first time it saves you from having to restart a 30 minute race because of one blown turn. It does seem a little weak that there are zero repercussions for using the rewind over and over, but it’s still a welcome addition.
Players looking for a brief racing experience can choose quick race, put themselves behind the wheel of any car in the game, and have a one-off race against the computer or a friend. The main crux of the game, however, is the excellent career mode. Here, players will start off with a small amount of cash, choose a low-level car to start out with, and begin working their way through several seasons of European-style touring. Seasons consist of a series of weekend Championship races, broken up by smaller, weekday challenges. After completing a Championship race, the next week will start, and racers are asked to choose from three different challenges; usually with one for your current car, one for a new car (often one you’ve recently won), and one showcasing new tracks. Of course, players can go into their Event List and play any challenge from the entire year at any time, but the pace of progression found in the season is so engaging, many gamers will simply play whatever race is next on their list. The rhythm of winning a race, collecting your winnings, tuning your car, and repeating, becomes extremely addictive, and the game gives players excellent incentives for continuing the career mode. Winning races will occasionally net you a free car, but every race wins players money, and winning tournaments nets even bigger purses, with huge bonuses for winning every leg of a series. In addition, experience points are awarded after each race, and are applied to racers and individual vehicles. Players can level their characters up to level 50, and vehicles can go up to level 5, with each new level gaining discounts on car parts from a specific manufacturer.
Despite the fact that Forza 3 is a racing sim, many gamers will buy it solely for its customization engine. Much like in the previous games, players can paint their vehicles and add vinyl decals to create unique designs, but this time, everything has been improved. Small tweaks like the ability toedit paint and decal colors, new vinyl pieces, and a streamlined interface make designing much easier than before, and open up the door for designers with more aesthetic vision than artistic skill . There are a few hiccups, namely some weird alignment issues with oddly shaped cars like the Lotus Exige, but for the most part, it's an awesome system that allows players with enough patience and skill to create just about anything they can imagine and slap it on the hood of a car.
Once the outside of a ride is set up, players can use race money to purchase newer, faster, stronger, and more customizable parts for the inside. Everything from engines to transmissions to tires and rims to exhaust systems can be purchased and tweaked to get the absolute maximum out of a vehicle. For those who don't want to spend too much time setting up their gear ratios and camber angles, the game offers quick tuning, which will quickly configure a car to match up with any of the game's 9 racing classes; yet another feature that helps bring novices and experts into the fold without sacrificing the experience for either.
Online, Forza 3 features two impressive facets; online races and the innovative Storefront. Racing against online opponents is a great test of driving skills, and a largely lag-free experience. Newbies beware, though; the online community tends to be highly-skilled and somewhat ruthless, so be prepared to spend a good amount of time pinned to the wall or spinning out in the grass. Any car from your career mode garage can be used online, and can be custom-tuned before each race. The other major online aspect of Forza 3 is the Storefront. This excellent feature brings the game’s customization engine online, allowing creative players to put their creations up for sale in a searchable store. Vinyl designs, full paint jobs, tuning setups, and replays are all available for sale, with in-game money automatically deposited into players’ accounts when an item is sold. It’s a fantastic system with quick downloads and an astonishing amount of excellent user-created content, and provides great incentive for skilled designers and tuners to hone their crafts and share the results. Outside of the MMO genre, it may be the first system of its kind, and as customization becomes more and more of a focus for gamers and developers, one that is likely to have a lot of imitators.
Visually, Forza 3 is nearly flawless. Every car is lovingly detailed with ten times the polygon count of each car in Forza 2, and four times the texture resolution. Cars look incredibly realistic, especially in replays, and courses are just as impressive. Even with the blinding sense of speed that players experience with Forza 3’s more powerful cars, every track looks identical to its real-world counterpart, and is exquisitely detailed. Despite all the incredible models on screen and the insane speed at which they move, the game maintains a solid 60 frames per second at all times. Forza 3 sounds almost as good as it looks, with authentic sounds for each car’s acceleration, gear shifting, and braking. The soundtrack is largely composed of techno-inspired European pop, so depending on your personal taste, it may or may not be a good idea to use a custom soundtrack.
While I still have high hopes for Gran Turismo 5, and I believe that the racing aspect of the game will be just as good as Forza 3’s, it’s hard to see how Sony could produce a much better driving sim. Forza 3 may split its focus between simulation, accessibility, customization, visual splendor, and commercialism, but none of those aspects suffers or feels underserved. It’s an incredibly realistic racer with options that make the game fun for just about anyone, sublime pacing, a massively deep customization suite, spectacular visual presentation, and a groundbreaking online storefront that makes the game almost infinitely replayable. Those who have played the series since the beginning and know the ins and outs of every car and track are bound to call the new accessibility options cheap, especially the rewind, but hey; they can always turn them off and race with no help. Anyone with even a passing interest in racing games owes it to themselves to pick up the best four-wheeled experience on the Xbox 360.