Saturday 26 January 2013

Forza Motorsport 3

"The definitive racing game of this generation".

Forza Motorsport 3, because life is full of surprises. Released in 2009 by Turn 10 for the Xbox 360, it's the definitive racing game of this generation and it's the definitive racing game of this generation. Old E3 quotes are fun.

So, are you a fan of serious driving games? I know I'm not, or rather, having not touched one for a decade or more, I'm unlikely to qualify as one. But hey, it's no huge loss - were it not for some visual pizazz and physics upgrades, you'd be forgiven for thinking we hadn't moved on from the days of the Dreamcast.

Why yes, this is one of those reviews, thanks for asking.

Forza Motorsport 3 belongs to a family of deep and complex driving simulations for car enthusiasts, containing over 500 customisable real-world vehicles to drive on plethora of courses, some real, some fake. It's a game which revels in meticulous attention to detail - you can adjust everything from the tire pressure to the decals on the bonnet, so when Turn 10 claim to love cars, it's difficult to disagree.

If you share that love for motorsport, chances are Forza 3 will make you happy. My personal expertise in motors extends little further than the BBC's Top Gear, but while I'm clearly no boffin when it comes to the driving side of Forza 3, I can at least say with some confidence that Forza 3 isn't a good video game. In fact, I'd go further - I'd say it's a symbol of both low standards and low expectations, and the unjustified praise needs to be rectified as soon as possible.

So let's begin with the obvious - much of Forza Motorsport 3's additions are a product of inevitability - there has to be more cars and tracks than Forza 2 to justify its existence, and greater accessibility for the masses is a by-product of modern trends. Budgets are up so production values are higher, and the old formula is predictably refined to create a better experience. It's all fine and dandy so far, but while the additions may be swell, the fact that it's all a given (and I don't have Forza 2 beside me to compare it to), means it's perhaps better to move on.

In Forza 3 you spend most of your days racing against seven impeccably poor computer-controlled players around repetitive tracks and environments. I should, however, use the term "racing" lightly, because the computer doesn't actually "race", opting instead to loop around the track without a clear agenda. With no understanding of tactics, aggression, a strive to win or even the ability to adjust itself to the player's actions (unlike, say, Daytona USA, released sixteen years prior), the AI is just there to clog up the roads, following pre-defined paths complete with dangerous views on corners.

For the most part, Forza 3 is a glorified time trial. Though you can delay the computer's progress with force, ultimately the opponent cars serve little practical purpose than to help Forza 3 pretend it's a racing game. The situation is similar to what you'd find in technical demos testing polygon counts and frame rates - any realism is sucked out of the experience straight away, and even if it wasn't, eight racers on-track is still rather minimalistic for 2009. Guess it's geared around an online community - too bad it no longer has one.

You'll need a unique way of thinking in order to enjoy Forza 3, because you certainly can't rely it to provide you with fun. Venture off-track and you'll be punished, not necessarily with walls or blockades, but with 20mph-limiting "super surfaces" littered across the scene for undisclosed reasons. The career mode forces you through dozens of identical laps on identical courses, each more monotonous as the last, and although progressing through the main game gives you the ability to compete against ever-faster cars, the obvious limits means that regardless of vehicle class, the mundaneness off the affair never truly goes away.

I've also never met a game as politically correct as Forza 3. Losing is an impossibility, and on the default easy setting all elements of challenge will be removed. Furthermore you're allowed (and frequently encouraged) to disobey in order to progress, bringing fast cars to slow races or even hiring the AI to do the driving for you. Forza 3 serves up everything on a platter - never will it force you to save up credits to buy suitable cars, and its selection of condescending assists creates situations where you don't even need to use the break pedal - "one button driving" is what they call it. That's a hardcore addition right there.

Should you make a mistake, you can rewind the race at any point without recourse, theoretically allowing you to achieve a perfect result every time. There is also no difficulty curve - rather than the AI (or tracks) getting progressively more tricky over time (like in a good game), it is up to the player to remove features such as traction control in order to get their "gameplay" fix (the side-effect being undrivable cars). These options will no doubt make sense with a physical racing wheel, but basic functionality shouldn't rely on expensive accessories.

To me this clearly all suggests Forza 3 isn't aimed at a mainstream video game audience, and although there's an inherent thrill in beating Bugatti Veyrons in a faithful recreation of your Grandad's old Volkswagen Golf, the shallowness of the experience quickly shines through, particularly when you hit the racing classes where experimentation is disallowed. The game feels poorly planned - you're not forced to demonstrate skill in order to rise up the ranks, you're just left to your own devices, and if you find a game along the way, more power to you.

So with its emphasis on science and casual view on gameplay, I find it easier to class Forza Motorsport 3 as a "simulation" rather than a video game. Yet even then it struggles - there are no weather effects or forced pit stops, and by its very nature, the 2011 sequel, Forza Motorsport 4, stands as the superior "simulation". Trading off this concept alone gives Forza 3 a lifespan of less than two years - perhaps there'd be something to go back to if a different set of cars and tracks were offered, but instead Forza 3 is as redundant as the annual Maddens and FIFAs - surely this is not how a racing game should be.

Forza 3 isn't just let down by the game's structure (or lack thereof) - environments are static and disinteresting, and the soundtrack is abysmal. Both are ill-suited for a game this long as they merely amplify the repetition, and although a great deal of effort was put into cars you'll never drive, the presentation generally feels half-baked after the initial tutorial. Silverstone doesn't get more interesting after the 50th lap, although you do begin to notice the dodgy skyboxes and poor character animations.

But be in no doubt that Forza 3 could be worse - at least it can be said to "play" well (damage models and AI aside). The simulation seems relatively accurate, and although Forza 3 is certainly lacking in areas, it's not alone in its failings as no games in this genre take risks these days. Still, there is never an excuse for something this dull - clearly it wasn't tested from beginning to end, and it obviously had no desire to raise the bar, despite what the marketing may have said.

The original Gran Turismo was a success because the complexity of the experience was married with varied and accessible gameplay. There was a pre-defined difficulty curve which made you learn how to drive and think about what you were doing, and the package was delivered in a humane manner - no patronising instructions or assists, no broken game structure to please those with short attention spans, and intelligent design which makes it still worth playing sixteen years later (if not just for the history lesson - in 1997 this stuff was revolutionary!).

Forza 3 isn't worth playing three years later. It feels about six or seven years older than it should, and offers very little entertainment for the common man. The racing never changes, but it's not as if ideas are in short supply - even real-life Formula 1 has tactical DRS zones to create that extra dimension of play, and that's before we point out Forza 3 is a video game with limitless possibilities.

"Arcade" racing games are based on the theory that realistic driving doesn't lend itself well to video games, and sadly, Forza 3 does nothing to convince me this ideology is wrong (the existence (and success) of Forza Horizon suggests others may be warming to these views too). That's not to say I advocate the series' destruction - it's good that these ultra-hardcore products exist, but surely it's ridiculous to suggest they should be aimed at the mass market, particularly if your definition of "ultra-hardcore" is "racing minus fun".

I suppose Forza 3 could be useful for aspiring game designers, since it clearly highlights a genre in distress, but no matter which angle you look at it, there's no reason to take Forza 3 over Forza 4, and we know for a fact the sequel makes noticeable improvements. Maybe more people should buy these games so we can collectively bring a stronger case for change, though judging by the score on Metacritic, I seem to be the only one who sees a problem.

So yes, if you want to drive around in circles for dozens of hours pick up one of these two games, but for others, particularly those with no interest in cars, you're better off giving them a miss. In short bursts it won't offend, and I'm in no doubt that people enjoy these games, but I suppose the obvious point is this - little has changed in racers like in over a decade - does that not strike you as slightly odd?

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