2009 is suddenly a holiday of racers. If you don't believe that, consider the trifecta that have been unleashed upon us already: Need For Speed: Shift, Dirt 2, and Microsoft's holiday tentpole Forza Motorsport 3. All of them promise realistic physics, blazing speeds, and tons of customization, but NFS: Shift and Dirt 2 are multiplatform, while Forza Motorsport 3 is an Xbox 360 first-party exclusive. For my money, though, I'll take Forza 3. After playing all three, the newest Forza has, surprisingly, won me over--not with realism, but with fun.
I say surprisingly because "simulation racers" generally lie in a calcified place among the hearts of the mainstream gamers: the hundreds of factory-immaculate car models and pitch-perfect world racing circuits, along with the endless class licenses and intricate engine tune-ups, can turn most gamers off completely. Right here in the CNET offices, I told a colleague I was playing Forza 3, and that I actually enjoyed it. "Really?" he asked, somewhat disbelieving. It's assumed that Gran Turismo and Forza will be inaccessible to those who don't appreciate racers, just like Madden often erects a wall between NFL fans and gamers and the rest of the world.
I am a casual racer, and Forza 3 sucked me in.
Its first success was employing a calm British man to talk to me. Much like LittleBigPlanet, a gentle voice of authority (although in this case, not Stephen Fry) welcomed me, showed me the basic ropes, and told me everything was going to be all right. Rather than worry about detailed car controls and under-the-hood tinkering, a simple press of a few A and B buttons got me right into a season-long circuit of races. The voice tutorials gently tailed off naturally, until I had the ropes completely. Suddenly I realized that I had been playing for several hours, and was itching to complete just one more race challenge to unlock more credits. That's when I realized that, fundamentally, Forza 3 is a success.
From a pure car enthusiast's perspective, I'm not sure any game other than Gran Turismo 5 can do any better. Car exteriors and interiors are immaculately rendered, and the 60-frames-per-second graphics make animations and the entire racetrack environment look hyperreal. In fact, some of the racing landscapes are so detailed that they begin to look more arcade-like than photorealistic. Car damage accumulates with even small car scuffs, and by the end of most of my races my vehicle was a chipped-up, hood-dented mess.
Another newcomer benefit is the purist-angering rewind, which will take you backwards in five-second chunks to whatever previous point in the race you'd rather play from, in the event that you suddenly slam into a wall during a hairpin turn. It's a useful tool and has its benefits, but also incurs no penalty for using it. I didn't mind, but the hardcore will most likely have it disabled.
The real achievement in Forza 3 is the feeling of visceral fun that driving these vehicles brings. I like the Gran Turismo series, but over the years (and especially in the new PSP iteration) I've started feeling like I'm helming a simulation as opposed to driving a car. Regardless of the vehicle I drove in Forza 3--even the crappy low-powered ones that I had to slog through in order to get fancier rides--races were fun, not mechanical. I credit this to good race balance and impressive car AI, both of which made most races exciting throughout. On the other hand, racing circuits did begin to feel a little repetitive after a few hours. It takes a while to build up credits to buy cars (or earn wins to get gifted cars), and while there are a stunning 100 tracks in Forza 3, it felt like a lot of them were set in a number of repeated settings. Still, the track count and vehicle list (400 cars) dwarfs the collection found in Forza 2, and even requires a second packed-in disc to download some of the data to your hard drive.
I haven't even mentioned Forza 3's car painting studio, car-stunt video recorder, or online multiplayer, but these are great bells and whistles to what's already an amazingly deep product at the core. It'll be a long time before you're done playing through all the content on these discs.
Need for Speed Shift was celebrated for its return to realism and its well-designed racetracks, but I just couldn't find myself returning to it after Forza 3. Dirt 2, on the other hand, has the sort of Tony Hawk dirt-punk presentation and arcade-challenge structure that might appeal to a completely different type of race fan, and its rally physics place it somewhere on a spectrum between an improved Sega Rally and a realistic version of the chaos found in Sony's Motorstorm. Forza 3 is pristine and elaborate, but it's also a game that you can step into without apprehension. Just trust the friendly British man who isn't Stephen Fry.