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Turn 10 revs up its engine for the third Forza instalment while TVG sits back and enjoys the ride...
With the exception of MMOs, we're finding it hard to think of a game other than Forza that's formed its own virtual economy around a community of players. And by forming its own economy, we don't just mean spending in-game cash on generic in-game items (like pretty much every game does these days), or allowing players to sample user-generated content. Instead, Forza 2 and now Forza 3 have provided tools that allow players to fulfil the essential principle of capitalism: the ownership of goods, and the right to alter and sell those goods on to others for a profit.
Of course, the economy is merely represented by in-game credits that are awarded for completing the game's many events and championships. These credits can then be spent buying cars, car designs, vinyl groups (i.e. decals), or tuning setups via an auction house and new Storefront interface that's got more I common with Amazon or eBay than it does a videogame. Any user can create designs and decals in the vinyl group editor, but a limited few have the sort of exceptional talent (and we do mean exceptional) required to create images like the one shown right. The ability to build up this picture from tiny pixels in a limited editor defies belief, so we can understand why Forza players will part with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of their hard earned credits just to virtually own these cars.
Turn 10 has run with the success of this feature in Forza 2 and added a new Storefront feature to the stable for Forza 3. It essentially allows players to purchase separate vinyl groups, car designs, and tuning setups for their vehicles, rather than be limited to purchasing a whole vehicle to get hold of a specific design. In short, this opens up more customisation options to those players without the required artistic talent. We managed to doll up our Ferrari F50 GT with various vinyl groups of retro videogame characters (via a simple search in the Storefront) and create a design that was unique to us, albeit drawn directly from other players' hard work.
But while this feature may have been the key to Forza 2's impressive online longevity and appeal - which Forza 3 will undoubtedly enjoy as well thanks to the many improvements in the system - it means very little without some solid gameplay behind it to actually make these cars worth driving. Forza 3 has taken a peculiar change in direction this year by attempting to take the casual player into account. Features such as a time rewind function (allowing you to erase mistakes) and the ability to drive around the track while using a "one button control" method are confusing to say the least, particularly in a genre which is so tuned to the hardcore.
There's nothing wrong with Turn 10 and Microsoft deciding to expand their audience though, as long as that doesn't come at the expense of the core gamers that made Forza what it is today. And, unfortunately, the AI difficulty settings (ranging from easy, to normal, and finally hard) do appear to lessen the experience for seasoned drivers. Easy and medium settings will be nothing short of a walk in the park for most players, although the hard difficulty setting does manage to put up a decent fight thankfully. Being able to compete with the hard AI does require a topflight vehicle in any given event's class (otherwise you'll just get burned down the straights), so as long as you can get the balance right with car upgrades, then you're in for a hearty challenge. AI that's noticeably more aggressive than its Gran Turismo counterpart also helps in this sense.
Forza 3's time rewind function is also a little out of place and, while we can appreciate why Turn 10 has put it in the game, it does unbalance the experience a bit. The ability to rewind a race after you've just screwed it up with an almighty spin is so tempting to use that we'd challenge even the most ardent realism purists not to resort to it at some point. The problem with the system is that you're not penalised for using it and there's also no limit to its use, which makes it feel like a blatant cheat. Some equivalent gaming behaviour would be quitting out of Champ Man (without saving) after you've just lost so that you can play that game again.
The rest of Forza 3's driver aid settings are nothing short of superb though, particularly when you decide not to use them. Without traction control and ABS being set to on, Forza 3 translates the sensation of throttle and brake pedals to the trigger buttons better than any driving sim we've played. Slamming on the brakes or flooring the accelerator simply won't cut the mustard (you will end up crumbled in a barrier), while the fidelity of easing between both triggers to remain on the straight and narrow is a refined skill to say the least. The well varied handling of Forza's many cars also brings life to these controls, ensuring that an F50 is as twitchy as it should be and muscle cars corner like mammoth on ice skates. We also appreciate Turn 10's decision to downplay the excessive drifting of Forza 2 and opt for a more balanced approach to handling in this sequel.
Forza 3's driving aids are then cohesively tied into the game's credit points system, which gives players bonuses for higher difficulty settings, turning the driver aids to off, or opting for manual gears etc. This does encourage players to master their craft, offering a similar incentive to GT's gold, silver, and bronze awards but from a completely different perspective. All-new dashboard views are also worthy of gamers' applause. Although not quite as detailed as those we've seen in GT and NFS: Shift, the dashboard cam was the viewpoint of choice throughout our play-through and adds to the experience significantly.
These sorts of advancements in Forza 3's visuals can be seen throughout, with car models that are considerably sleeker and environments that exhibit finer details all-round. Damage modelling has improved over Forza 2 as well, although this is mostly cosmetic. Textures now look crispier and less muddy when deformed, although the actual system of damage remains largely intact. The headlining new damage feature in Forza 3 is the ability to roll cars during a crash. As is the case with many racing games that attempt this though (notable exceptions include Criterion's Burnout series), the physics governing these collisions will leave you more baffled than amazed.
Returning features to the Forza fold include Drivatar technology and the impressive telemetry displays on-hand via the d-pad, which fans of the series will no doubt be glad to welcome back. Turn 10 has decided to do-away with the penalty system though, which used to add the amount of seconds spent off the race track to your lap time. This effectively rewarded clean driving lines while also punishing corner cutting. The feature has been withdrawn in Forza 3 and the only penalty system replacing it is not entirely obvious at first. Turn 10 has essentially made the trackside areas of cutable corners as sticky as Super Glue to stop players from benefitting by slowing them to a snail's pace. We might point out, though, that the developer has missed one or two corners that will be ripe for exploitation in the online game.
As far as content is concerned, there are more than enough events and championships in Forza 3 to keep gamers happy for in excess of 30 hours if they want to win them all on a decent difficulty setting. And then there's the impressive online component that adds an overflowing side-portion of additional longevity as well. Forza 3 isn't lacking in terms of vehicles either (so much so that the game ships with an additional DVD of them), with over 400 to chose from. It's still not as extensive as the list you'll find in GT, although it's considerably more than pretty much any other racing game out there. Although the marketing spiel touts over 100 tracks in the final game, you can bet a fair portion of these are variants of the same circuit. Nonetheless, the new fictional circuits based on real-world locations are a refreshing change of pace.
And finally the sound, which really is top drawer. The effects of locked up brakes and screeching tyres add a lot to the impressive handling system mentioned above, while the engine noises for each car model have clearly been obsessively crafted. Backing this is a well chosen score of music that keeps the action pumping out at a frantic pace.
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