There aren't many surprises in our second chance to see Microsoft's flagship 360 racer, simulator, paint shop and all-round petrol-head playground, Forza Motorsport 3. We had already been given a definitive look at the self-appointed "definitive racing game of this generation" at E3, where we were thoroughly schooled in its philosophy of accessibility, flexibility, 400-car and 100-track comprehensiveness, obsessive technical detail, world-beating community features and general all-things-to-all-men definitiveness by an on-message phalanx of developers from Turn 10.
The message hasn't changed, and it hasn't been added to much either - as if it could be. Our Microsoft rep dutifully runs through his PowerPoint about "turning gamers into car lovers and car lovers into gamers", "epic scope and scale", and making this slightly dry simulation series more "thrilling and approachable", without shying away from the nerdy numbers: visuals running at 60 frames a second, a physics engine simulating tyre deformation, aero and damage at no less than 360 hertz, 10 times as many polygons per car.
He reveals that Silverstone will join the roster of tracks, and lets me try out two new cars on one other new circuit, a different configuration of the fictional alpine "Montserrat" course seen at E3. The E3 vehicles were a straight-up roster of contemporary production supercars - Audi R8, Murcielago and co. - plus a couple of standard-issue classics. The two cars we try today are slightly more extreme in character, being the race-tuned BMW M3 GT2 and the wild, insanely powerful and tail-happy Corvette C6 ZR1. Others announced today are the exotic 1993 SVT Cobra R, 1997 Skyline GT-R (always Gran Turismo's car, surely), Audi A4 Touring Car and Lamborghini Reventon. It's hardly a shock: game about car racing features really fast cars. No alarms, no surprises.
I tell a lie: there is one surprise. Oversteering wildly around Montserrat's curvaceous bends in the ridiculous Corvette, I hit the d-pad and uncover a drift scoring system that racks up points according to how long you can maintain slides, keeping a total score for the race and a best score for each lap, as an alternative to the stopwatch. Even though drifting was mentioned in passing at the E3 presentation, it's unexpected to find it embedded in regular play rather than a walled-off competitive mode in the style of Race Driver GRID.
This is all-new, and quite unlike Forza Motorsport. Forza is supposed to be a racing simulation, and in racing simulations, drifting means lost traction, therefore sub-optimal cornering, therefore lost time. In racing simulations, drifting is a Bad Thing and not to be encouraged, which is one reason why many people don't like racing simulations. Not so Forza 3, it seems.
When asked, the man from Microsoft candidly admits that this drift scoring is a simple steal of the Project Gotham Racing series' drift Kudos, nabbed on the sensible basis that it's fun, satisfying and works well. For the moment, he says, it's a totally peripheral addition for the developers' and players' own amusement, and he's not sure if there will be any formal gameplay systems or even leaderboards built around it at all.
But it's still a revealing little insight into how Forza's character has changed with this new instalment. Desperate to escape the oil-soaked pits, telemetry and time-sheets of the sim into a more glamorous world - where cars roll over when they crash, and drivers like going sideways in the sunshine because it looks cool - Turn 10 is loosening its overalls a little. It wants to give you what you want from a car game, and reward you for it. So, break into a powerslide like a cackling Top Gear presenter, and you get some nice big red numbers going up.
Forza is ultimately always going to be about driving real-world cars in some approximation of real-world conditions, of course. And it's not like you couldn't tailor the experience before - the series has always allowed you to tweak the level of assistance you get from ABS and traction control. But there are a few more options this time - auto braking, for one, or a halfway-house racing line that only shades in when you need to brake. Over and above this, there's a sense that the whole thing is more malleable.
Forza 2, with all the assists on, was a desperately dull drive. You'd have to take it most of the way to simulation settings to discover the immense physical involvement the handling model offered. Forza 3 feels more like you can shape it into whatever you want. With all the assists on, it's a stupid, pretty, fun game of dodgems. By tweaking the custom settings here and there - stability off, ABS on, traction on - I managed to get the Corvette to behave almost exactly as it would in a PGR, with sharp turn-in and deliciously controllable oversteer. Go to full sim, and you're in the rarefied world of a RACE Pro (and, probably, the gravel trap).
It's a livelier game then, and an initially friendlier one. Start a campaign, and the voice of English TV actor Peter Egan asks how familiar you are with racing games in tones that would only fail to soothe you if you were Richard Briers in Ever Decreasing Circles. Pick a car from the starting line-up - we're only given time to spot the Ford Fiesta Zetec S, but they all appear to be small hatchbacks - and hit Season Play, and the game immediately suggests three events (with bold, colourful posters) to choose from, suitable for the car you selected. Pick one and it feeds the races into a calendar, highlighting the Sunday finale as a double-credits, double-XP star event.
This is Forza 3's method of spoon-feeding its content to you. It might sound a little condescending, and in truth it doesn't change the structure of the game at all. At any point, you can switch out to a sober grid view, a veritable periodic table of motor racing covering the entire game, with events as tiny squares coloured according to whether you've unlocked them, and whether you're in or have a car suitable to take part.
Season Play might be superficial, but that doesn't mean it wasn't necessary. Forza's Achilles heel was always the structure and variety of its career mode, which lacked excitement, imagination or, frankly, any distinguishing features at all, and could get old fast. It was just an endless sea of races. Adding drag racing and ovals is only going to do so much to change that, but the rhythms and carefully selected short-term goals of Season Play will do plenty to help you get through it.
Getting through it earns you two things - credits and XP, both of which can also be racked up in multiplayer. XP levels you up, which unlocks new events, while credits buy cars and upgrades. Another nice piece of streamlining is the easy upgrade option, which hand-picks optimal packages of tyres, aero parts, turbos and so on according to your car class and budget, and presents them to you in simple terms: changes in weight, power, lateral Gs (cornering ability, in other words) and Forza's excellent numbered class system. Needless to say, you can ignore this and spend as much time making your own choices in as much detail as you'd like, and tuning will doubtless still be the preserve of the true car geek.
The least known - and perhaps, most interesting - aspect of Forza 3 at the moment is the community features. With its amazingly powerful paint shop, and Forza 2's auction-house culture which promoted a brisk virtual business in paint and tuning jobs for the talented few, the series was a quiet leading light for user content on consoles, long before LittleBigPlanet. Turn 10 is determined to build on this with the addition of a video editor, but hasn't said much yet about how it proposes to promote the content itself to the wider population of players - something which has been the stumbling block for all such games so far, including LBP. They'll only say that they have big plans for the auction house and leaderboards that will highlight the community's best creators, and will show more soon.
Frankly, if they said nothing, we wouldn't have to wait that much longer to find out. Forza Motorsport 3 is due on 23rd October - and "we'll hit our date", the Microsoft man says firmly, several times. It's odd that a game whose existence was only confirmed a couple of months ago will be real so soon, and in that circumstance it's also odd that there's not more to say about it. But it's really very simple. Forza was always great; this time, there's more of it - more stuff, more depth, bigger and better numbers - and it's easier to get into. You can't say fairer than that.
Forza Motorsport 3 is due out for Xbox 360 on 23rd October.