Forza Motorsport 3
Reviewed by Rebecca Wigandt
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-11-22 Xbox 360 Racing E (Everyone) Turn 10 / Microsoft Game Studios

A while ago, I discussed the "Holy Crap Factor" in the response of healthy human adults to video games: a phenomenon in which cognitively normal subjects, when presented with a composition of ultra-high polygon graphics on a high-performance platform, will exclaim "holy crap" and proceed to declare this game the Best Game They Have Ever Played In Their Entire Life. In environments such as conventions and industry trade shows, this can cause an individual to declare as many as 10 games The Best Game They Have Ever Played In Their Entire Life in a 6-hour period, which is so mathematically improbable that entire convention centers have been ripped apart by the space-time continuum, only to reform as yet another Denny's on the New Jersey Turnpike.

It's really, really easy to get wowed by a big budget, graphics, and slick presentation- if this were not an immutable law of human nature, the United States would have burned to the ground, become a lifeless uninhabited wasteland, and sank into the ocean about 300 years ago. Pretty pictures get people excited and unable to think clearly. Fortunately, I am unable to experience excitement, awe, joy, or pain like other people, and am only able to simulate these experiences through a strict and constant physician-balanced regimen of chemicals and violent physical activity. Therefore, with blinders off, I give you Forza Motorsport 3.

Cars belong to a special category of concepts, one shared by such diverse topics as wines, firearms, haute couture, foreign films, World of Warcraft and personal computer hardware- a category of concepts that once a sufficient level of familiarity and experience have been gained transform said acolyte into an almost incomprehensible douche. It's possible that someone exists who has all of these things as equally invested hobbies, which could lead to the following absolutely alluring statement:

"I can drop that leet aggro mob like Kurosawa in a Versace original drifting a GT3 with the new VarioCam while blasting away on an 870 TAC Recon with the bouquet of chocolate, sandalwood and leather."

Now imagine the T-shirt he's wearing. And how much closer he's standing to you than you'd really like.

Racing simulators, or "car games" if you prefer, often end up doing a very awkward dance around the "niche nerd" pit. Sometimes they push very hard to be accessible to an enormous audience, even the people who have museums where cavemen ride dinosaurs, and you get most of the Need For Speed titles of the past 10 years. Other times, they decide that car and racing enthusiasts are a sufficiently passionate and well-heeled market that a title with sufficiently exhausting detail to validate their consumers' knowledge of trivia ("this year's edition has the ashtray in the old model GTi!") will be enough to scrape 50 bucks out of their pockets, and you get stuff like Gran Turismo, Project Gotham and, to some people, Forza Motorsports.

I'm going to plead the case for Forza 3 in the aforementioned context. If you aren't at all interested in cars and are more inclined to categorize a racing game as "action" rather than "simulation," you won't be interested in Forza, but you probably haven't read this far either. Because of the polar divides in game design discussed previously, though, Forza has an undeserved bad rap as being inaccessible, technically dense, and too cool to make an effort to be fun. Forza 3 does a lot to open its doors a lot wider, and I might as well get in on the "big tent" metaphor that pretty much every journalist has been using since Obama was elected - there's room for more people, including those who are even a little curious about driving, racing, and playing with cars, under Forza 3's tent.

First, now that I've droned on long enough to glaze your eyes over, let me get it out of the way: holy crap. Forza 3 is beautiful. Absolutely no detail has been spared, and it was put together with as much of an eye for raw aesthetics as for technical precision. Can I say it's beautiful again? It is. I'm not just talking about the cars- though a friend of mine has used the phrase "car porn"- I'm talking about racing through Monument Valley National Park under a blood-red sunset with sculpted living rock just over your head, but I'm also talking about the miles and miles of Fujimi Kaido, starting in a small town of traditional Japanese row houses and modern-day architecture before twisting up into mountain roads with climbing wildflowers exploding out of the cliff wall to your side and a gushing, spraying, misting waterfall.

I said I wasn't JUST talking about the cars. I didn't say I WASN'T talking about the cars. I picked up an in-game 2003 Mitsubishi Eclipse GTS, got it in the same manufacturer's color as the one I own in real life, and went over it with a fine-tooth comb (and camera). Every last detail was there- dashboard layout, steering wheel, gas cap, side skirts, rear window heater and wiper panel. Someone wandering through the room thought I was actually selling my car. That GTS, and the many other cars I've sampled in Forza 3, not only look, move, and handle just like their real-life counterparts, they sound like them- Turn 10 did exhaustive field sampling of engines and road noise for their models- you can hear the intercooler for your turbo engine blow, you can hear your brakes aspirate when you ease off them, you can hear the body vibrate when you move across textured surfaces.

Now that I've wiped the rabid foam from my mouth, I acknowledge that I did mention earlier that Forza 3 was inclusive and inviting. There are a number of "driver assists" - traction control, antilock brakes, racing lines (stripes superimposed over your view of the road showing you the position and angle to take turns and when to accelerate and brake), and the rewind feature that's become so fashionable in racing games of late. Crash up, take a turn horribly, hit the wall, end up in New Jersey, and you can reverse time up to about 15 seconds back and get a "do over," without having to restart the entire race or drop into last place and make a pathetic attempt to crawl back up in the last lap. The assists are more than enough to help even a player new to the genre get her feet wet, and you can leave them on throughout your racing career, or turn them on and off at your whim. There's three levels of driver difficulty that are, for once, very well scaled. The group I race with are all Forza veterans- some of them to the point of mumbling "Koenigsegg CCG!" into the phone if you call them in the middle of the night- and while we can consistently outpace Medium opponents we can only overcome Hard about half the time.

Speaking of other players, Forza has fantastic multiplayer facility- and don't worry, it by no means overshadows the single-player career experience. There's a big and rather friendly community already out there, and a bunch of different multiplayer game options, including team racing, "tag" games, even demolition derbies. I've had the pleasure of playing in meets with a wide range of player ability, and while driving skill, good vehicle tuning, and track experience clearly count for everything, the rookies have a ton of fun, there's a clear culture of etiquette, and the assists let everyone at least hold their own.

Additionally, EVERY race you complete - regardless of your standing - earns you driver experience, vehicle reputation and cash, which all leads to awarded cars, better performance parts, and unlocked vehicles. Every player has their own storefront where you can sell and auction cars, share photos and videos, and buy and sell literally thousands of custom-built vinyl designs for your car (with in-game credits).

There's lots of stuff that doesn't even require driving. Forza has an astonishingly versatile and easy system for creating movies, photos, and general visual art from in-game content. After you finish a race, go ahead and watch the full replay- from the perspective of ANY car in the race, from about 20 different camera angles. Cut sections of film to put together a movie or video short. Stop the replay anywhere along the way and take still pictures from any angle with an array of camera effects- take a super-classy sepia-toned still of one of the old classics, like a 1969 Nissan Fairlady at rest beside the historic seashore of a coastal Italian town, and watch me swoon. You can build premium performance parts into your car, try various tuning settings, and hire a driver to race them, and play the entire game as a manager if you like.

After foregoing a lot of sleep to progress far into career mode and a lot of dignity to learn at the feet of some serious racing masters, I've come up with two glaring complaints, which is not bad when one considers that most things in life are either crushing disappointments, cruel heartaches, or diabolically mind-numbing tedium before a painful plummet into the abyss. Firstly, you CAN'T TEST DRIVE CARS BEFORE YOU BUY THEM, ONLY AFTER. Let's place this arrangement in a real-life context:

Car Dealer 1: Hey there, miss, got your eye on that Evo 9, I see?
Me: Yeah, I'm just trying to decide between the RS (rallisport) and MR (mid-rear engine) models. There's a pretty big price difference and I'd like to see how it feels. Can I test it?
Car Dealer 1: Whoa, sorry, Speed Racer. I can't let you experience the car in any way until you pay for it. In fact, please stop looking at the floor model. Um, why are you shining the steel toes of those boots?
Me: ...no reason.

Car Dealer 2: Congratulations on buying your new Mini Cooper S! All the paperwork's done. Want to take it for a test drive?
Me: But I've already paid for the car in full. What exactly would I be testing?
Car Dealer 2: Well, um, you could test whether you want to drive it again. You know, after that. When it wouldn't be a test. ...what is that you're holding? Are you going to fillet a fish or something?
Me: ...yes.

This is not a trivial detail even in Forza's simulated world, where many of the higher-end vehicles require hundreds of thousands or even millions of credits to purchase (great effort was made to make relative vehicle prices correspond as closely as possible to real-life sticker prices) and therefore require hours or days worth of play to earn. The logic of this is sufficiently ass-backwards as to demand a patch- you listening, Take 10?

My second complaint is comparatively light, as it isn't crippling from a gameplay perspective. Car visuals are important to a lot of people in racing games - you'll quickly decide on a "favorite" few cars as you try out dozens of them for one that feels right, fits your style, looks cool, or just seems to give you a good track record for no discernible reason. Just like in real life, there's a lot you can do to pimp your favorite car - in addition to upgrade parts for just about every category of your car's performance, there's an infinity of custom paint jobs, a selection of custom body parts and rims, and vinyls - overlay "stickers" that can be put on your car like manufacturer logos, numbers, pictures, patterns, stripes, etc. In Forza just as reality, vinyl design is an art form, and there are thousands of user-designed vinyls ranging from re-creations of real-life brands (check out my user-created Djarum Blacks "sponsored" Subaru WRX in the photo gallery) to full-body images of anime characters and landscapes. A lot of these are very impressive and look great on your favorite car, so naturally, if you're of a creative mind like me, you might eventually try your hand at making your own.

Welcome to your nightmare. The vinyl design utility is fundamentally unchanged from previous titles and is slightly less user-friendly than MS Paint. See that gorgeous vinyl someone made of Noriko on the storefront? No, they didn't draw out the body shape and fill it in or something. They had to make the entire image with dots. Hundreds upon hundreds (up to 1000, in fact) of dots and shapes improvised from a handful of primitive geometric shapes. You can export finished art to the Forza website to use on your PC in any number of ways, but you can't just scan in a good hand-drawn image or cutout or image file you made on a much better art program. The official Gamer's Intuition expo car's body art took me close to 5 hours, most of it just trying to re-create the font of our logo's lettering with blobs and squares.

I consider it an indication that something is seriously wrong when, upon seeing a good piece of art, the extent to which I'm impressed with the artist's ability to carry out their intended vision despite having to improvise with the poorest tools available surpasses my appreciation of the actual success of the piece. Lots of people clearly like creating and sharing vinyl art in these games, or at least getting them from other people and sticking them on their cars. It would take very little to make these design programs a hundred times more useful and user-friendly- virtually everyone with a 360 also has access to a PC and would welcome the opportunity to use more easily-accessible images in their game.

Those are my biggest complaints; not bad, eh? Forza isn't cheap: about $50 USD for the regular edition, and another $20 for the Limited Edition, which includes a few little toys (a USB drive, a keychain) and more importantly redeemable codes for a collection of VIP-only vehicles and courses, as well as completely free "car of the week" gifts from Take 10 as you continue to play. One of my many fans gifted me with a copy of the Limited Edition, like worshipful villagers laying their freshest meat before the beautiful savagery of a wild beast, and I can strongly endorse paying the extra $20 if you're already a serious genre aficionada. If not, don't worry- you can always buy the regular edition and purchase VIP codes later on.

The price point is really the main hammer to the support poles of my "big tent" speech earlier- for a lot of us (like me), $50 is around the highest end of what I'm willing to pay for a game, and I'm not generally in the habit of making big ticket purchases unless I feel at least 75% likely to be fully satisfied. Someone who has never played any driving game of any kind, sim or action title, would understandably balk at the price tag, but I'd urge anyone else with preexisting enthusiasm or at least serious curiosity to pick it up- at the very least, go ahead and pick up Forza 2 as test drive: you can buy it new for $10 now, and many of the essentials of what Forza does right (and wrong) are also there.

See you in my rearview!