Version tested: Xbox 360
Is it na´ve to think you can judge the character of a racing game from its choice of cover star? Probably. Yet the Project Gotham Racing series' love affair with Ferrari was perfectly suited to its flamboyant character; Race Driver GRID's hulking Dodge Viper in race trim captured its brutish, high-octane track-day drama. And Forza Motorsport 3 couldn't be more aptly summarised by the car that adorns the box (and kicks the racing campaign off in the obligatory high-speed teaser, before you're relegated to buzzing around in superminis): the Audi R8.
It's not, frankly, the prettiest of supercars. It's not the most soulful or thrilling, or, as our American friends would say, the most storied. It is, however, a paragon of ruthless and meticulous engineering excellence, a perfectly balanced, impossibly capable, surprisingly easy-to-handle all-rounder that doesn't need a hardcore enthusiast at the wheel to simply drive around the competition. That's Forza Motorsport 3 all over.
Audi has clearly been more than a commercial influence on the third in Microsoft's exemplary series. The classy, clinical understatement of the presentation, with its blinding white menus and note of cultured authority from narrator Peter Egan, is pure vorsprung durch technik. Developer Turn 10 has admitted that it's heading in the opposite direction to the loud Americanism of Codemasters' Racing Studio, seeking to give its game a high-end, European feel. It's a success, even if it has you reaching for the contrast controls before you're able to see some of the light-grey-on-white type - so quiet in its refinement that you can't actually read it.
Turn 10 has also made much of its effort to improve the accessibility of the console car simulator genre - the expansive hybrid of glossy catalogue, on-track simulation, customisation and long-form RPG progression defined by format rival Gran Turismo. The game's easy setting now offers extreme assistance: Forza can be set up to do all the braking and even some of the steering for you, so that even a small child can enjoy a shallow blast around its otherwise rather technical and challenging tracks. That will certainly open the game up to a few new players, although as with previous Forzas, its handling is so neutered on easier settings that it's difficult to wring much involvement or enjoyment from it.
But Turn 10's accessibility drive really hits home elsewhere, and in ways that can easily be appreciated by players at all levels. One is its lift of GRID's rewind button, a spot of feature-plagiarism that would seem cheeky if every other racing game hadn't copied Turn 10's brilliant implementation of the racing line guide in the first Forza. Rewind allows you to unspool crashes and missed corners at any point in single-player, with no limit or penalty (except a mark on your time-trial leaderboard listing).
Some might think it dumbs down simulation racing by stripping out risk, but they're free not to use it; and for everyone else, rewind strips out frustration and actually encourages a fuller appreciation of the game's depth, since it frees you up to try the more rewarding and fun higher difficulty settings without stymieing progress in the campaign, or having to submit to endless restarts to get good results. This doesn't just apply to driver assists and damage, but particularly to the AI difficulty too, which is something of a pushover on Normal but a tense challenge on Hard that, without rewind, most would forgo in favour of an easy life.
Turn 10 has also revolutionised car tuning and customisation with its "quick upgrade" option, which will work out a set of upgrades for your car, optimised for a given class or even specific event, at the push of a button. For those with no affinity for mechanics or stat-crunching - or simply no time and patience for tooling around in menus - it effortlessly opens up a side of the game that would otherwise remain a closed book, and permits them to get further with fewer cars, which are better to drive, for less money. Seasoned modders can simply ignore it and find the familiar wealth of detail and choice to get lost in.
Turn 10's next avenue of attack on the genre's conventions is structure - always a problem in these games, bloated as they are with content, and unbalanced by upgrade options. Gran Turismos have become increasingly messy tangles of progression, while previous Forzas were simply a vast and featureless grid of samey events, and it was easy to lose your way in both. Forza 3 changes this with Season Play, which intersperses compulsory World Championship races with offered choices from three lesser events based on what car you're driving, or what cars and tracks you haven't tried yet.
It seems limited at first, until you realise that it means you can simply select a car you feel like driving and have the game suggest something appropriate, and tweak its performance via quick upgrade if necessary. This cleverly turns the emphasis around onto the game's stars, the cars themselves - but as with absolutely everything in Forza 3, it's no limitation, only an option. The event grid is still there if you would rather do it the old-fashioned way and pick the fight before the weapon. Neither is a perfect structure, but between them they offer the best solution to date for piling through these unwieldy games.
The final way in which Turn 10 has made Forza more approachable is the most subtle, but the most profound. It's the handling. Forza 2's handling model offered tremendous depth and satisfying heft, but on the surface, it was dry, a tad uninviting. With Forza 3, Turn 10 has managed something that not even GT creators Polyphony or simulation experts SimBin has done to date; loosen the handling, lighten it, add a flick of tail-happy PGR flair, a deliciously dynamic and supple relationship between car and road, and all without sacrificing one iota of sim credibility. In simple terms, it's kept the depth, but ladled on raw feel. It's a masterpiece.
That's superbly illustrated by the addition of drifting to the game. The implementation is basic: there are no single-player drift events, and there is no attempt to replicate complex real-world drift scoring - it's a simple time-based score ticker ripped straight from PGR. Nevertheless, drifting these cars - exploiting and manipulating the infinitely variable amount of grip - is simply so much fun in itself that it proves a huge draw as a score-attack multiplayer mode or a solo indulgence.
As for multiplayer, the word hardly covers what must be the most comprehensive online feature-set of any console game in history (bolstered, rivals take note, by an excellent, smooth-running, offline two-player split-screen mode). Match-making and match-finding is well-handled by the simple interface, and race rules can be set in ridiculous detail - but actual racing is only one facet of online interaction in Forza 3.
The series has been a quiet leader in community features and user-generated content ever since it first appeared, and Forza 3 takes huge strides forward in this area. The paint editor - incredibly flexible and only mildly unfriendly - and superb photo mode are as they ever were, as is the car auction house. But the Storefront is new. There you can browse replays, photos, full paint-jobs, vinyl groups (player-made logos and pictures to stamp on your car) and even tuning setups; you can rate them, and advertise your own.
It's extremely well put together and will be a huge boost to an already thriving community, providing them with a handsome showcase, and the average player with a great way to get the best from those parts of the game he doesn't want to delve into personally. Only the rather limited and poorly-integrated video editor fails to live up to the promises Turn 10 has made.
The Storefront is also supported by the brilliant scoreboards, which rank tuners, photographers and paint artists alongside track heroes according to their Storefront ratings. Scoreboards are where the sharp end of Forza competition will take place, and once again not a trick has been missed in the breadth and depth of their implementation, although the metrics used to calculate overall rankings are somewhat opaque. (It's also a shame that the terrific Time Trial challenges - hot laps with set combinations of car and track - are hidden away here, where offline players can't even reach them, rather than promoted as a main gameplay mode.)
Whatever feature you think you might want in a racing game, Forza Motorsport 3 has it - and if you don't want it, it doesn't matter, because you can ignore it in favour of something else you do want. We laughed at the overuse of the word "definitive" at the game's E3 debut this year, but it's absolutely deserved - this incredibly rounded piece of software has wiped the smirk off our face and replaced it with a warm, if humbled, grin.
But it is not perfect. Damage modelling is shallow and unconvincing. No-one has managed to put a predictable, bump-free difficulty curve into one of these sprawling sims, and Forza 3, despite a sterling effort, can't quite manage to smooth it out. Furthermore, despite the inclusion of drag racing and point-to-point tracks - including the magisterial Japanese mountain roads of Fujimi Kaido - and a few inventive race categories, the main career mode is still too short on variety relative to its extreme length.
More seriously perhaps, the boasts of lavish content - 400 cars and 100 tracks - ring a little hollow when you realise how much of it has been recycled from Forza 2. You will very often experience a strong sense of deja vu as you take the same car round the same track that you did two years ago. And while the circuit selection is hard to fault - fleshing out all the old favourites with some exciting and interesting new additions, both fictional and real - the car catalogue covers all the expected bases without ever stirring the imagination, the passion, or the amused smiles that Gran Turismo's eccentric, encyclopaedic collections always have. It's copybook car love.
Finally, and most controversially, there is the look of the game. You would expect Forza 3 to boast staggeringly faithful and detailed car models, and it does, no doubt. But despite that, it's graphically sterile and bland, with few effects, poor environmental detail, and a relatively basic in-car view. In a side-by-side comparison with GRID or the thrilling showboating of Need for Speed: SHIFT, Forza 3 will leave you cold.
There is, however, the best possible reason for that - and the longer you spend with the game, the less you care. Turn 10 has sacrificed flash for a faultless 60 frames a second, and understood that in simulation, what you feel is far more important than what you see. It has diverted all of the 360's resources to giving you the smoothest, most believable, most physically rewarding drive you've ever had. Who cares what the scenery or the tyre-smoke look like when your eyes are laser-focused on the next apex, when your fingers can feel the road surface? It was the right decision.
Forza Motorsport 3 is only you, the car, the rubber and the road, in a blissful, never-bettered harmony - until the race ends, you pull back, and you get the bigger picture. Then you realise that that experience was just the centre of a huge, welcoming, flexible and shockingly complete package, a racing game that genuinely has a corner somewhere in it for everyone who loves cars, and a world-beating online platform to share that love with thousands of others. For 2009 at least, consider the racing game defined.
9 / 10