Forza Motorsport 3 Review (Xbox 360)
When it comes to the car-collecting and car-upgrading games, you really only have two main players: Forza and Gran Turismo. So as a long-time racing fan, it was with great excitement that I cracked open the case of Forza Motorsport 3. The question is are you ready for Forza 3?
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Forza could be the biggest, most ambitious car-collecting game ever created -- I use my words carefully here. And Forza 3 is, without a doubt, first and foremost a garage-expanding, car-collecting beast of a game. The racing comes secondary, but if you’re looking forward to your next Forza fix, you already know this.
I have logged 123 races in my time allotted for review; I have 30 cars in the garage after various career rewards and purchases; I have driven over 600 miles in classes F all the way through R -- and I am only 6.2 percent of the way through the career mode at level 24.
It’s that big.
Yet at the same time, in this amount of time I have experienced almost everything that there is in the game -- at least at a base level. Confused yet? Don't be. Forza does a marvelous job giving you direction throughout your career (called Season Play in Forza 3), allowing you to bounce from one type of race to another and car class to car class with ease. You can spend the vast majority of your time just dabbling around if you want, yet you will still be progressing.
First Impressions and Gameplay
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When you first fire up Forza, you will be treated to the same cinematic that I’m guessing everybody who reads this review will have already seen in the demo by now.
You’re instantly greeted with an option to install the second game disc (yes, this game is so enormous that it comes on two discs), without which you’ll be unable to access all of the vehicles and locations in the title. The install took up 1.9 GB of hard-drive space and was completed in approximately five minutes. While it was a bit of an irritation, it certainly was not a lengthy delay.
Selecting whether you’re ready to race with Casual, Regular or Serious options automatically configures the settings to give you bonus credits every race. Just like the previous versions, increasing the difficulty gives you a bonus percentage of credits. My initial settings were providing me with an 85 percent boost on all credits won, which was a nice little bonus.
After selecting your options, you will be thrust into a quick race where you will be using the Audi R8, which is gorgeously modeled and rendered. Even after choosing "Serious" as my default starting settings, I was alarmed to find out that I blew away the competition by over eight seconds in a simple sprint race. Thankfully, there does not appear to be any AI difficulty settings in the test race, so those concerns were unwarranted.
Nevertheless, it’s during that first race that the first big thing about Forza jumps out at you, especially if you use a wheel -- the control. The control with a wheel (as many have no doubt noticed in the demo) is absolutely impeccable. If you move your hands a quarter inch on the wheel, the in-game steering wheel adjusts a quarter inch and the vehicle adjusts ever-so-slightly on the track.
That’s all fine and dandy, but what about the controller? After all, not everybody has a wheel. On its default settings, the controller feels quite twitchy, but a quick trip to the configuration settings will allow you to increase the steering inner dead zone a few notches, which makes it a much smoother experience. It’s every bit as precise as the wheel, but it’s not as easy to use out of the box. It will take some tweaking to fit your style.
Overall, though, the control is almost flawless. It feels so good, in fact, that someone who has never played a racing game before but knows how to drive -- in this case, my wife, for which the last point is debatable -- can fire up the game with a steering wheel and instantly win some races when the options are set to "Casual." That kind of flexibility will go a long way towards making the game more accessible to a much broader audience.
That’s not to say the experience has been watered down at all. While it is, without a doubt, easier to drive in Forza 3, it still feels as if you’re controlling a car simulation -- not something that feels so slippery that it’s outside the realm of reality. If you strapped yourself into a Honda Fit in real life and attempted to drive around a race track, chances are you would be successful. And I don't think that point should be overlooked. Many games attempt to make the simple act of pointing a car and steering an exercise in frustration.
That's simply not the case in Forza 3. While working with the lower tiers of cars, you can really focus on racing and applying good race craft; you don't have worry about keeping the rubber side down on the tarmac. But once again, it’s not a simplistic driving model. If you rise through the classes of vehicles without any assists on, you’ll encounter an amazing physics simulation under the hood.
By the time you’re racing vehicles in Class B or above, you’ll notice distinct differences in the handling of each drive-train type and each specific vehicle. Front-wheel drive vehicles will pull themselves around a corner, leading to a feeling of constant under-steer during acceleration. Rear-wheel drive vehicles will turn into a corner easier during application of the throttle, while all-wheel drive cars are a balance (and therefore the easiest to control).
This isn’t new to simulation racers, but rarely has it been paired with such sublime control. In Forza 2, rear-wheel drive (RWD) rides were notoriously difficult to control. In Forza 3, it just requires a bit of a technique change. You’ll be able to push a RWD vehicle a bit further into a corner and carry a bit more speed because you can use the inherent turn-in to power through a corner.
In a front-wheel drive (FWD) car, you can brake a little harder in a corner, using the strong grip under throttle to pull you out quicker upon exit. Simply put, the Forza 3 handling model has been refined to a level that has not been attained before on the Xbox 360.
You also don’t see the brake lockup that was so prevalent in Forza 2. In this iteration, you can breathe the pedal much more fluidly and effectively, allowing you to attain maximum stopping power without flying off into the kitty litter. Forza 2 veterans will appreciate this, as their first few races without assists on in that game were likely a frustrating experience at best.
So we know the handling model is fantastic, and the control is rock solid. What else is there?
AI, of course.
When you are racing against the AI in Forza 3, you will experience moments of brilliance and moments of extreme frustration. Thankfully, the brilliance far outweighs the number of times you will be left screaming at the TV.
For the most part, the Forza cars react realistically -- more so than the average gamer might expect. The AI won’t intentionally cut down on you (unless you do it to them first), but if you find yourself coming out of or into a corner in a AI driver's blind spot, the driver will act as if you are not there. This has come to feel very realistic to me since it’s a predictable pattern that would exist in real life.
If a driver can’t see you, he won’t react to you. You have to keep that in mind at all times in Forza 3 because the habit of pushing it just a bit further into a corner to get to the inside will only get you so far. If you get just under the AI car’s rear quarter panel, he’ll more than likely cut down onto you without warning.
While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s actually a step forward for the series. This leads to some extremely realistic races. While racing in an R3 class Porsche 911 GT3-RSR, I managed to go through a hairpin, a chicane and three sweeper corners side by side with an AI car, and we never touched doors. If you’ve played any racing game before, you know how impressive that is (the AI behavior, not my driving). The AI slowed appropriately for an upcoming corner to maintain its line, and accelerated enough to hold its ground. It was a moment of sheer brilliance, and it had me grinning from ear to ear.
Unfortunately, nothing’s perfect. A common problem for AI cars in any game is the method in which they are slowed down from one difficulty to the next. On hard difficulty, the AI drivers are peppy, but can still be burned by an experienced driver. It would be nice to get a slider with percentages like PC games have used for years now. Want AI that’s almost impossible to beat? Slide it up to 115 percent strength. You get the point.
When you start to slow the AI cars down, however, you’ll find another common problem with the Forza code -- where the AI loses ground. Frequently this is in the middle of a corner at the most inexplicable points. It wasn’t until I turned on the "driving line" assist that I noticed what the problem was.
The AI vehicles adhere to the driving line at a near-religious level. This means that if the driving line is saying to slow down a bit in the middle of a sweeping corner due to an elevation change, the AI is going to stab the brake immediately. A human would not do this, but the AI will frequently come to a much-slower-than-safe speed in the middle of a corner. In a heated battle, that can be rough.
But again, it’s not as big of a problem on hard because the AI drivers are much quicker and don’t slow down much for anything in the first place. However, you’ll find a bumper-car style of driving if you are a casual fan and want to just get in the car and fly around against novice AI. As an example, the front end of the cars my wife would drive literally became crumpled messes that resembled tinfoil at the end of every one of her races.
I could go on and on about how fun it is on the track, but that only comprises about a quarter of the game. So I’ll just say that the 400-plus cars and 100 tracks, all of which feel different depending upon which upgrades you install, lead to an amazing time on the track.
Graphics and Presentation
Aesthetically, the game is beautiful, but it's not quite up to the lofty standards set by Dirt 2. The cars are rendered exquisitely, and they can be tweaked and customized via dozens of aftermarket parts. Cockpits are rendered accurately -- though not as exquisitely as the cockpits in Need for Speed: Shift. In addition, the cockpit camera is somewhat zoomed in and restrictive -- if you’ve played the demo, you know what I mean. I never found any way to control the field of view or zoom level in the cockpit, so unless it’s buried under a bunch of menu options (highly unlikely), you will be using the same camera that was in the demo.
Damage effects are loosely portrayed, and the same damage system from previous games makes its way over to Forza 3. The damage is hardly simulation-style, even when set to the highest level. I could survive numerous collisions with a wall at high speed and lose just some chassis durability (depicted by the traditional gray/green/yellow/orange/red effect on the vehicle location in the HUD). Some of the wrecks I had should have crippled the car, but that was not the case.
Trackside objects and the tracks themselves look great, and some of the background vistas are gorgeous. The strange issue here is that it looks almost too perfect. The game never attains a photo-realistic appearance, but it still does look like very pretty. Honestly, considering how well it drives, it just needs to avoid looking like a warm turd to be a success. Forza 3 certainly does that. But I must say, what’s with the shower of sparks every time you make even the slightest contact with other cars?
In the audio department, things are less impressive. Some of the engines have a "drone-like" sound to them, creating a sort of mind-numbing buzz as you fly around the track. The impact sounds during collisions are serviceable, as are the tire screeches. The music is largely forgettable, but one of the first things most sim-racing fans will do is turn off any in-race music.
In the presentation department, the game has been considerably streamlined since Forza 2. Most of the actions in the game can be reached with (at most) two or three presses of the "A" button. Want to jump straight into some career races from the main menu? Press A to enter "Go Race," then again for "Season Play" and once more to actually go to the track and run.
This would be a good time to note that the loading times are fairly long, even with the game installed to the hard drive. You will find wait times of 20 to 30 seconds while an event loads. Multiply these times by hundreds of races and you will spend quite a bit of time staring at a loading screen.
Beyond the loading times, everything in the game is quickly and easily accessible. You’ll constantly be earning experience points while doing anything that relates to your driver profile. However, you earn offline levels separately from online ones -- each time I have tried to go into an online lobby it shows my levels as 0 (more on that later).
When playing offline, you can allow the game to decide your progression based on one of three choices: new tracks, current vehicle or new cars. If you decide you want to see new tracks, you just need to highlight the option and the next series on the career calendar will be one that uses tracks you haven’t raced on (or have raced on infrequently).
If you feel like taking your favorite car for a series, you can choose the highlighted option for current vehicle, and you will go run with your selected car in a series chosen by the CPU. New cars would obviously let the computer choose a new car class for you.
This gives the career a very structured feel to it, so you should never feel lost. If you are the type of gamer that feels restricted by this, however, you can choose an event from the event list instead. The event list breaks down the 220 available events via a handy color-coded grid. Events will be grayed out if you have no car available for that series or blue for a car in the garage that you can run. It’s a very easy list to navigate because the events are grouped vertically by type from left to right. Amateur races are on the left and the World Championship series races are on the far right.
You will spend time with circuit races, drag strips, point-to-point races and even some good ol’ stock-car action on ovals if you so desire.
The multiplayer options allow you to configure a race almost any way you see fit. The default options are pretty standard fare, but you can also set custom options to create your own entirely unique multiplayer events. If you want to set up online drift races (there are no offline career drift race events), you can do it. You can set up victory conditions for virtually anything -- clean laps, distance traveled (that’s a weird one), as well as adjusting everything from laps to allowed assists to specific car manufacturers or models. I haven’t been able to spend much time online, as not many people have the game yet, but there will be an extensive write up on it shortly after launch.
Another interesting type of quasi-multiplayer is leaderboard lap-time chasing, which creates a new dynamic in Forza 3. The leaderboards are now broken down into different groups within each event -- clean and dirty laps. If you run off the track, hit another car or otherwise make a mistake, your time is classified as a dirty lap and shuffled to the bottom of the list. Keep it clean and you will be with the "top" group.
What this does is create a sort of in-race accountability system. You will not want to push it through a corner quite as hard or tap that car to move it out of the way because your lap time will be considered inferior and you won’t be on the leaderboards. I can’t tell you how much that will get in your head after some time with the game, but my guess is that you will take a more cautious approach to each race.
Customization and Replays
I’m already nearly out of space, and there’s still so much to cover. Again, this game is massive.
In addition to the fantastic gameplay, Forza 3 allows an unprecedented level of customization. Like its predecessors, you can paint and customize everything on your rides, but Forza 3 also allows you to save up to 1,000 layers in individual vinyl groups for quick access on any car, regardless of class or manufacturer.
This means you can design a great-looking number and load it onto all of your cars. You simply save it as a vinyl group and apply it to any car in any class. It’s very handy indeed.
In general, the Paint Shop has been refined and tweaked, rather than completely overhauled. You still have the same options for painting, applying decals and vinyls, tinting windows, etc. What you’ll find that’s new is a built-in showcase for your work. In Forza 3, there will be artists that are just as famous as leaderboard-dominating racers.
You have a design catalog that you can populate with your work, as well as the storefront where you can set up an online store for other racers to purchase stuff from. At review time, the Forza 3 server was not up, so I couldn’t experience the online store personally, but it does not sound like anything that would be too tricky to figure out. Create your work, post it in your store and watch the credits roll in. Designers everywhere will certainly enjoy it.
Forza 3 also has an extensive replay and photo editor for the aspiring director. You can take any replay that you have saved and slice it up, creating a slow-motion sequence before uploading it to your storefront. The photo mode allows you to take snapshots from a free-roaming camera, adding effects like sepia tone, focus and shutter speed adjustments, contrast changes, etc.
In terms of performance upgrades, you have the requisite engine, suspension and aero upgrades across the entire vehicle. But something that upgrade newbies will appreciate is the "Auto Upgrade" system. If you want to upgrade (or even downgrade) your car without really knowing what to do, the Auto Upgrade will automatically optimize your car for the current class. All it does is cost you credits. It’s a very handy way to jump into a race in a hurry without messing with individual performance upgrades, but you can still see the individual parts being changed with the press of a button.
When you combine all of this, you end up with one of the largest, most ambitious racing games ever created. The driving model is among the best in the business, and it certainly has everything and the kitchen sink in terms of events, cars and tracks.
The game is now accessible for novices, yet it has still maintained the physics engine that hardcore fans need. Artists can spend more time in the incredible paint shop than they ever do on the track, and can actually earn in-game credits and online fame for doing so.
In the end, the question is what you’re looking for from Forza 3. If you’re looking for an entirely new experience, you probably won’t find it here. What you’ll find is the well-established formula of a hardcore physics engine merged with an unbelievable level of customization -- all polished to a shine.
It’s the closest any racing game has ever come to actually having "something for everybody." Other than a few AI quirks (which may irritate the occasional player), it’s one of the most impressive pieces of software I have played. The multiplayer suite and career mode alone will probably have you playing it for a year, at least. If you decide to get into the artistic side of things, it might last you until the Xbox 720.
On the Track: It's the best on the system. It's a bit easier to drive when compared to Forza 2, but you can use the subtlest of techniques on the various drive trains to alter the performance. It's much easier to push the limits of a car without losing the rear end on the lower levels. When using the upper-class vehicles, you'll be hanging on tight.
Graphics: The car models are extremely detailed. The replays and tracks are gorgeous, but they're still not quite up to photo-realism level. Everything looks like a beautifully rendered game, not reality. Doesn't quite keep up with Dirt 2's visuals. The streamlined and revamped menu presentation is impressive, however.
Audio: Too many of the engines sound similar and tend to drone on. The music is typically forgettable, but the squeal and impact sounds are solid. Since most of what you hear has to do with the engines, it's just serviceable. I like the British announcer, though.
Entertainment Value: Probably the best $60 a racing fan will ever spend. There's more content in here than you can experience in the first month alone. It's true that you don't have a hundred individual tracks (more like 20 with various layouts), but I never felt bored with a track. The layouts are good enough that you take completely different lines through 75 percent of a course most times. It kept me hooked.
Learning Curve: It's as easy as you want it to be, or it can be challenging. The level of assists and AI settings allows you to customize the game to your talent level. Spouses and small children can even win with the game set to easy, while the hardcore may struggle for the first few races with a default car on hard.
Online: I did not get nearly as much time as I would have liked to play online (there is a lack of players at this point, but come back after the game releases to get a more detailed report), but the amount of options in the online arena are staggering. If you like to race online and you can't find something that suits you in Forza 3, then you should really give it up. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Score: 9.5 (Instant Classic)