The distance between casual and hardcore gamers can be longer than twenty laps of the NÃ¼rburgring. It's a divide that many developers simply don't attempt to cross, aiming their titles at either one end or the other. To attempt to appeal to both markets simultaneously is like locking a dog and a cat in a cage together and hoping they'll be best friends. No genre is spared from this difficult balancing act, but it's a particular challenge for racers, with motorsport an endless well of technical depth that developers can either choose to embrace or ignore. If they don't choose a side, they run the risk of alienating both camps. But those cheeky lads at Turn 10, they want to have things both ways. They've told dog and cat to play nice in Forza Motorsport 3, and amazingly it's worked, resulting in a game that caters equally and unsparingly to both casual and hardcore players.
Sure, Forza 3 has some impressive numbers: 400 cars, 100 circuits, 50 manufacturers and over 200 career events. But numbers are meaningless without gameplay to give them significance, so it's fortunate that Forza 3's gameplay is rock solid. There are no spectacular innovations or gimmicks to be found, just a racing engine that handles realistically, smoothly, and most importantly makes the simple activity of driving around a track a lot of fun. Visually, Forza 3 doesn't quite have the eyeball-numbing sheen of its recent genre companions Shift and Dirt 2, but it still holds its own in motion, running at a silky 60 frames-per-second. The cars look superb, and each sports a reasonably detailed interior view that players aren't likely to use frequently, but is fun to check out now and then. The main drawback of Forza 3 is the painfully slow load times for races. Even with the game installed to the hard drive, your typical load time can reach and sometimes exceed twenty seconds. Interesting car trivia helps the time pass, but it's still way too long.
The handling feels great, and whether you're pottering around corners with a Volkswagen or powering down a straight with a high-powered V8 you'll get that all important sense of control. If you treat the car right, it's going to do exactly as you ask. Handling can also be tweaked to your preference and ability. If you're less confident of your driving skills you can use the range of auto-assists to get you around the track, while experienced players will want to take everything off and go commando, so to speak. In the game's career mode, which we'll get to in more detail shortly, the game sensibly tweaks the rewards you'll get according to the handling settings you have. Options like switching car damage from cosmetic to full will give you a percentage boost to your race winnings, as will turning off driving assists or upping your opponent's AI.
Another option you can choose to have on or off is the game's rewind function, which is shamelessly lifted from Grid, and more recently Dirt 2. Forza 3's take on rewind is a little different to its use in those games though, both to its benefit and its detriment. For example, in Forza 3 you can wind back as far in the race as you want, as opposed to Dirt 2's thirty second window. However, while in Dirt 2 you could wind back to a precise moment within that window to resume from, Forza 3 backtracks in automatic increments with no input from the player. Exactly how far back you rewind each time seems to vary, and while it is in general faster to use than Dirt 2's rewind, you'll often find yourself rewound far further back than was necessary for you to try a different approach to that tricky corner. Additionally, because it's automatic, it can sometimes place you in difficult moments like the middle of a turn, making it hard to resume without losing your momentum and driving line. Some more flexibility in this mechanic would have been nice, but it's still a welcome addition to the game that, while making things much easier, spares a lot of frustration and time-consuming retries.
Forza 3's Career mode is gargantuan. We mention again that there are over two hundred events to completeâ€¦ that's not over two hundred races, but over two hundred multiple-race events. It will keep you going for quite a while. Don't feel disheartened when after several hours of play you check your 'percentage complete' statistic and find that it hasn't even hit double figures yet. It's just a really big game. You'll start off with one free basic low-range car and be thrown into the game's event calendar. The pattern you settle into is completing one multiple-race event in the course of one or two weeks, alongside completing a separate event at the race of one race per weekend. Completing the weekend event determines the end of the racing season, which runs for six years and gets longer every year. You'll always be given a choice as to which weekly event you complete, and Forza 3 intelligently offers up events that are based on a range of criteria. It might offer you the choice of one event because it shows off some tracks you haven't tried, another because you can use the vehicle you're currently in, or another because you'd get to try out a new vehicle. You can also go to an event list and witness the entire grid of events Forza 3 has on offer, which is beautifully presented and colour-coded so that you can instantly see which events are open and locked, which events that you possess eligible cars for, and which events you can complete in your current car. The Career mode, and indeed the whole game, has an economical but classy interface that makes navigating the menus a pleasure rather than a chore. Even searching for specific cars in the store or in your own garage is very easy.
Naturally by winning events you'll earn credits (some of which you'll lose as repair costs if you bang your car up during the race - a clever and fair penalty). But you can also earn experience points over two categories. Your driver experience increases simply by racing, and for every level you gain (up to 50) you'll be awarded a shiny new car. You'll also gain experience points for the particular car that you're driving, and for every level you gain (up to 5) you'll pick up discount perks on upgrades relating to that manufacturer. It's a beautifully balanced reward system that turns career mode into a compulsive affair, and watching your garage grow as more ticks appear on the event grid is a perpetual source of satisfaction. In terms of car upgrades, Forza 3 again caters to both the casual and hardcore. All of the minutiae of tuning setups and upgrades are there for car nuts to tinker with, and for the casual punter there's an incredibly convenient quick upgrade option that will take a gander at what can be improved on your car based on how many credits you have, and then ask you whether you'd like to implement the changes.
Forza 3 expands upon and embraces the aspects of community in Forza 2. Pretty much anything you can create in Forza 3 can be given away or sold on the game's Storefront, which uses the credits earned in-game as its currency. The main focuses of this miniature economy are the custom tuning setups and the decal creations, which range from full car designs to smaller templates. The range of shapes available to you are fairly basic, but you're given so many layers to work with that it becomes possible to create some incredibly elaborate designs if you've got the time and inclination. Of course, if you don't, you can just purchase somebody else's design. There's also an Auction House specifically for selling cars that pretty much works exactly like Ebay. As for actual online play, races are stacked to the hilt with options to tinker with, though beware if you've come to rely on the rewind option: it won't be there to save you.
The game's sound is mildly disappointing, really only because it never stands out. The British voice that gently guides you through the career mode is appropriately soothing, but the music is as generic as can be. The cars themselves sound good in general but again, it's not noticeably better than other recent racers.
Forza 3 is close to the complete racing game package. It's got the sheer volume of content in terms of cars, tracks and options, a deep and very lengthy single player mode, a creative, thriving online community, and it successfully balances casual and hardcore appeal. Forza 3 may not look the best or sound the best, but it races the best.