For many racing sim fans, Gran Turismo is the benchmark for other driving games to beat, but developer Turn 10 has made excellent progress since Forza 2. While Forza 2 was all about being a proper simulation, it made it inaccessible to casual gamers that wanted to pick it up and race a few tracks.
The good news is that most of the problems have been fixed with Forza 3. It’s still a hardcore sim, but with all the driving aids turned on and with the auto-tune optimising your car’s setup before each race, even the most laid-back fans can enjoy it. Plus, anyone that wants to get down and dirty with brake bias and final drive ratios can tweak to their heart’s content and – thanks to the incredible physics realism – will notice those changes out on the track.
Most people will choose to start the game in Career mode, where you begin with a quick thrash in an Audi R8. Unless your surname is Schumacher, you’ll probably be slightly overwhelmed, so it’s actually a relief when you’re offered a range of basic superminis to choose from as your first car.
Every car is modelled with impeccable attention to detail, and it’s easy to sit for several minutes marvelling at their near-photographic realism. However, for our first few races, it felt like we were playing Forza 2, not least because many of the cars and tracks are identical.
Your outing in the Audi R8 determines which difficulty level is selected, although you can override this if you wish. Regardless of which you choose, smooth driving is rewarded, so there’s no point in steaming into a corner and hoping to brake impossibly late; your lap times will only increase.
Each car feels distinctive to drive, too, and in addition to the realistic engine noises for each model, it feels like the developers have spent a lot of time making sure there isn’t a generic front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive feel. Of course, you’ll only really feel this if you turn off all the driving aids. Forza 3 encourages you to do this by offering greater rewards at the end of each race, and also with the brilliant new rewind function. Simply press a button after things go pear-shaped and the race will immediately rewind. You then have a second chance to drive skilfully.
One of Forza 3’s other new features is the new experience points system, which rewards both car and driver. The number of points you receive after each race depends on the difficulty settings you’ve chosen, and the more you earn, the faster you can upgrade your car. Upgrading brings not just the benefits of better handling and power, but can step the car into the next category, allowing you to enter races previously unavailable.
Manufacturers give you new cars when you reach the next driver experience level, while increasing your car level offers discount prices on upgrades. Cars can only be upgraded a certain amount, prompting you to switch to other cars in higher categories, and giving Forza 3 a longer-lasting appeal.
We particularly like the Quick Upgrade option. This saves time by choosing a selection of upgrades that match your current bank balance. Naturally, you can buy new cars if you have enough credit, and there are over 400 to choose from, and almost all of them are desirable motors. Amazingly, they’re all unlocked from the start, so if you can somehow earn a million credits quickly, you can grab the keys to a Bugatti Veyron.
We like the way that Forza 3’s new category system means you can’t enter a car that’s much faster than others into a race to win it easily. Likewise, you can’t upgrade a car to ludicrous extremes as there’s a performance limit as well. This provides a greater challenge, and a more rewarding experience.
AI is one of the crucial aspects of any racing sim, but this appears to have improved little over Forza 2. AI drivers tended to stick to the racing line, even if you’d just nipped in front after a little late braking, and getting hit up the rear became a little infuriating after a while. We’re sure this didn’t happen as much in Project Gotham Racing 4.
Another gripe is that there’s only three AI difficulty settings, easy, medium and hard. Medium quickly becomes too easy, but hard can prove impossible at times. What did impress us was the new ‘pressure’ system which occasionally means AI drives make mistakes when they’re under pressure with your driving against their rear bumper. We saw cars spin out on corners and make other errors, which made it feel a lot more like driving against real people.
When you’re bored of driving on your own, you can take a break and race against real people in the multiplayer mode. It’s possible to customise races to an incredible level, including which car classes can be used, whether certain cars get a head start, and what the qualifications are for winning a race.
Overall, Forza Motorsport 3 is a superb racing game. It takes the somewhat lifeless Forza 2 and makes it thrilling and – dare we say – sexy and beautiful. The graphics aren’t a giant leap forward, but this is one great-looking game that will entertain for months. It’s challenging, but with the rewind button available in an instant, it’s forgiving too. It’s a must-buy for any racing sim fan.
Forza Motorsport 3 is out now.
Review discs were provided by Zavvi.com.