Forza Motorsport 3

It's got rubber, but does it have soul?

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.

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Turn 10 is intensely proud of Forza's graphics, and the 60 frames a second impress - it's not quite GT5, though.

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.

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Point-to-point races, a feature of the first game but absent from the second, will return.

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.

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