When the original Forza Motorsport arrived on the Xbox in spring 2005, it was met with plenty of skepticism from gamers and press alike. Up to that point, no one else had plans for a racing simulation game on that console because the new Xbox 360 was coming later that year, and most of the serious gearheads had already stuck to Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2. Others had tried before Polyphony Digital's game hit the scene, and they were rewarded with lukewarm sales for their efforts. No one expected Microsoft's rookie effort to do much better.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the company still pressed on. While Forza Motorsport didn't make many converts out of the GT4 faithful, it did make them and others sit up and take notice that this was a contender to watch. By the time Forza Motorsport 2 hit the Xbox 360, it was not just the only choice for racing simulation on the current-generation consoles, but it had also evolved to embrace several different facets of its online environment. Years later, after several racing simulators have hit the scene and before Gran Turismo 5 debuts in a few months, Microsoft Game Studios and Turn 10 have released the third game in their racing simulation series. As the old saying goes, the third time is definitely the charm with Forza Motorsport 3.
The first thing you'll notice about Forza Motorsport 3 is the fact that it comes on two discs. You will not play the game on both discs, though. The second disc is an optional install disc so users can place 1.9 GB of race track and car data on the HDD, where the game treats it like downloaded content from the marketplace. You can install it all or install the packs separately, depending on your preferences and amount of free HDD space. While it is labeled as "optional," at least the tracks would be necessary if you really want to experience everything that the game has to offer.
You'll start the game in the same manner that Need for Speed: Shift did. You'll be given an Audi to race with on the same track that was available in the game demo. It's going to be a three-lap race with equally classed cars that will serve as your own tutorial and introduction to how the game handles with your selected difficulty. Once the race completes, you get enough money to purchase your first car, and everything else the game has to offer opens up to you.
Career mode is a much longer experience than what was offered in the previous titles. This time around, your career will be centered on six racing seasons that span a different championship series for six different car classes. The events comprising each series take place every two weeks, and between those races, you can participate in smaller racing events. Unlike the previous title, where your events depended on where you had set up your base of operations, events made available to you will be dependent on the cars in your garage. For example, having a Scion xD in your possession will open up hatchback-themed events and front-wheel drive events, but not events reserved for French cars.
There are over 400 cars available in the game, and almost all of them are available for purchase when you begin the game, giving you almost no restrictions on how you want to tackle your career. The few cars that are locked can be unlocked though the game's leveling system. Finishing races gets you driver experience, which opens up specific cars for your garage, and car experience, which gives you discounts on after-market tuning parts for several different car manufacturers. All of this will be needed for the 100 track variations that make up the 220 racing events in the game. Unless you step out of the main career to take on the events individually, you'll never get through all of the events in one career.
In a way, this Career mode has you less focused on grinding for cars and more focused on trying to win races. That focus will be needed because the AI is much sharper than before; cars will know how to take turns and how to follow the driving line perfectly. The AI isn't flawless, though. More often than not, you'll see them stray from the driving line, playing defensively by blocking you, aggressive speeding by, knocking each other out of the way and spinning out of control on bad turns. This makes them more human-like and much more fun to race against since you have no idea what kind of competitors you'll face, much like an online match.
Free mode will be visited for two specific purposes: test drives and local multiplayer. Like Career mode, every car is available here for immediate selection, but this time, you don't have to go unlock them in the single-player mode to race with them. All tracks are also open in every possible configuration, giving you the time to check out which cars would be right for you when you get back to Career mode. You can also practice sharp turns and fine-tune your driving skills for when it really counts. You can also play local split-screen multiplayer with another opponent, and it's handled so well that no performance hit can be seen.
One of the issues that racing simulations have is that they are very tough for veteran drivers but are too tough for those just getting into the genre. This has often been cited as the major reason why few new players enter the genre when a new game enters the scene. Forza Motorsport 3 seems to have solved this problem with a custom difficulty system. You still have your standard three difficulty levels, which change AI behaviors and whether the assists are on or off, but this time around, you can mix and match. For example, you can turn the AI difficulty all the way up but keep on the driving lines and anti-lock brakes. You can also leave the AI at medium but turn off all assists. Couple this with an always-present rewind system that lets you replay a piece of the track if you mess up, and you have something that should please everyone. While some may say this makes the game too easy, keep in mind that each difficulty level has its own leaderboard, and anyone using the rewind system will have his times marked as such.
The racing has been the main crux of the game since its inception, but one thing that makes the title stand out among the competition is the car customization and personalization. The car-tuning features are as detailed as before, giving you control over just about every aspect of the engine that can help or harm your vehicle. If you really wanted to, you can transform an F-class car into an A-class one, thanks to the plethora of parts available from almost all car manufacturers. Like the features that make driving easier for rookies, there's also a one-step process to improve your car in case you don't know anything about engines, aside from the fact that they help cars run.
When it comes to personalization, the main story has to be the livery. Truthfully, not much has changed here, but you can now create livery decals independent of the car. You're taken to a grid field to start your creation, which gives you better control over how the decals look.
Personalization also comes through during the replay modes. Photo mode is pretty deep since you can choose angles, focus and filters for the photograph. Every spot is a prime target for photography, and you don't always have to make your car the subject of your photos. Replays can also be saved and, like the photos, multiple angles are available and you can focus on your competition for replays if you wish. There still isn't a time line to help players get to a specific scene faster or know how far along the replay they are, but it's fairly easy to figure out after some time with the replay system. New to the series is the ability to create mini-movies of specific parts of your replays. Every option from the replay controls is available here, with the added option of choosing replay length (5-30 seconds) and movie resolution (480p or 720p). While you have every indication that these movies will be posted online, the official Web site wasn't ready at the time of this review, so no one will be able to determine just how good this feature can be until the game officially releases to the public.
Forza Motorsport 2 introduced the concept of sharing user-created content with others, and Forza Motorsport 3 ups the ante. The auction house is still available, and it's a great way to earn money and obtain awesome cars. However, not everyone is interested in getting the complete package and may want only certain parts of a car. Those people will be glad to know that the vinyl decals, car designs and tuning setups can be sold separately. While the designs and tuning setups are specific to the cars for which they were designed, the decals are not and can be placed on any car. Players can earn money by selling these items in their marketplace or, if they're feeling generous, give them away for free. Players not interested in any of this can still browse the marketplace for user snapshots and race replays. Combine all of this with an extensive search feature, and you have one of the more compelling reasons yet to have a community formed around the game.
Online multiplayer is not only smooth but also much more varied than one could ever expect for a racing title. Just about any option can be tweaked and set for an almost limitless amount of game variations. You can choose which track you want, the number of laps, car types, classes and other criteria to make a custom multiplayer session. Just as in Free Race mode, every car is available for racing online, and your cars from Career mode are also eligible. Races are good for up to eight players, and while there weren't too many matches online, the ones that were available felt smooth and had little to no lag. Though you will be spending a good chunk of time online once you've completed your career, one thing you won't be able to do is take your career online. That option, present in the previous version of the game, is nowhere to be found here. As good as the AI is now, it's a little disappointing that you won't be playing your career with other people this time around.
The controls are as good as the earlier games in the series. Everything, from the steering on the car to the amount of gas given, feels responsive. Situations such as taking a turn too fast or too late give you just the right amount of resistance to make you feel like you're struggling to get yourself out of a mistake. Even with all of the driving assists turned off, you'll never feel like the car will fishtail at the slightest mistake, which helps rookie players feel less overwhelmed.
One would expect the graphics of such a high-profile title to be nothing less than perfect. For the most part, the graphics are up there with some of the more recently released racing greats. The environments on the tracks look magnificent. Lakes look wonderful, crowds have giant flags waving and cameras flashing, and the foliage looks better than ever. The little details like stray car parts and tire skids on the track stay put from the beginning of the race to the end, which is something you don't see too often. The cars are rendered nicely and sport real-time environment reflections that are better done than the previous game in the series. Coat all of this with a soft filter and have it move at a solid 60fps during gameplay, and you have the formula for graphical greatness.
However, as good as all of this sounds, there are certainly a number of things that make this area far from perfect. For starters, there doesn't seem to be too much anti-aliasing happening in Forza Motorsport 3. The 400-plus vehicles may have enough detail to read the tiny letters on the given decals, but they also sport a few jaggies on the curved roofs and car grills. There's plenty of detail on the car exteriors, but the interiors feel like they're lacking, mostly because of the drivers. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what's wrong there, but they don't feel as responsive to the car and environment as the drivers in Need for Speed: Shift and DiRT 2.
The comparison to those two titles also extends to the damage system. It still hurts to damage the car, and you can damage it enough to make the car feel terrible, but you don't see much on the car's exterior to indicate that. There are scratches, a bit of deformation, car flips and bumper rips to be had, but glass is somehow invulnerable to damage. Finally, weather seems to be static here. It's not just the fault of this game since most of the other simulators seem to omit weather from their selectable options, but when Microsoft's other racing series, Project Gotham Racing 4, can have weather, one has to wonder why Forza Motorsport 3 doesn't do the same thing.
Sound has been both a source of strength and weakness in the past for the Forza franchise. This time around, the weaknesses in this department can seem trivial to some: the music selection. It's much better than the soundtracks from the first two games, but it rarely makes you want to slam on the gas and race fast. The rest of the sound is fantastic, though. The sound effects really are the star in this category, and the programming team proves that it knows cars. Having distinct engine sounds for all 400-plus cars sounds like an impossible feat, but it's pulled off nicely, and even car amateurs will begin to recognize cars based only on their engine sounds.
Things like tire screeches and car bumps sound as good as before, but what really stands out is the use of surround sound. Other racing games have features Dolby Digital surround before, but this is one of the few in recent memory that uses it to the fullest. You'll hear cars creeping up on you as well as the crashing behind you, and that's something rarely heard in other racing games. As for the voice work, there isn't much here, but the narrator for the menu prompts is calming and fits well enough with the rest of the menu style. Unless you really hate the music and have to put in your own soundtrack to get through the game, you should turn up the volume while you play.
This has proven to be a banner year for racing simulation fans, with some of the best games of the genre arriving in the last two months. Out of the three that have arrived during that time period for home consoles, Forza Motorsport 3 stands out as the absolute best of the bunch. It isn't a perfect game by any means, as there are a few things that it could improve on, specifically in the graphics and damage departments. Nevertheless, all of the title's new features and positive traits outweigh the few negatives and make this the racing game to have. Until Gran Turismo 5 shows up and can prove that it is still the king of racing simulators, consider Forza Motorsport 3 to be the current holder of the crown.
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