Forza Motorsport 3 (Xbox 360)
I'm inclined to say that Forza Motorsport 3 had its thunder stolen by Need for Speed SHIFT, Dirt 2 and Wipeout HD Fury, all fantastic racing games, each with its own distinctive look and feel. But Forza 3 doesn?t have thunder. It's a laconic, competent monotone of a racing game. It is as crisp and white as a freshly pressed lab coat, as unadorned and functional as postmodern furniture, as calculated and cold as a utopia. It is low-stakes and laid-back. It is full of inconsequence, from the car collecting to the freely rewound racing. It is even free of much personality. Imagine a car show depopulated by a neutron bomb. That's Forza 3.
As soon as the game starts, the clean white menu tells you there will be no nonsense here. It's easy to get around, it's easy to organize lists of cars, it's easy to press a button and get your car as upgraded as it can possibly be for the upcoming race. Easy, easy, easy. You can glide along the top of the menu without ever having to dip a toe deeper than one layer. You don't have to mess with upgrades since the interface will do it for you. Press a button and your performance index is instantly optimized, even if you don't know what a performance index is. You can manage a hundred cars without ever having to worry about the 99 you're not going to use. You are a stone skipping blithely across a pond to your next race.
But there's a price to pay for this. It's easy to feel detached from the cars. Each car is a fancy skin over a performance index. When you get a free car, which happens as often as you change socks, it doesn't matter one whit. When you rack up credits, who cares. Oh, look, I have half a million credits. What am I going to do with them? Buy yet another car? Auto-upgrade an old car? Bid on a Sailor Moon vinyl in the auction house? Then there are the awards as you level up your cars, earning a discount on certain upgrades for a given manufacturer. A 10-percent discount for suspension parts on all Hondas? You shouldn't have. No, really. You shouldn't have.
This also detaches you from any meaningful sense of campaign progression. Forza 3 doesn't even seem to be trying. Just as it intends to spare you the hassle of deciding how to upgrade your car, it also seems to think you don't want the hassle of selecting cars or picking out races. So you occasionally choose from three broad options, locking in the next several races. They then roll out before you, one at a time, unfurling on a calendar for some reason. It's like a package tour of Europe. It's Tuesday, so this must be Laguna Seca.
The same detached sensibility applies to the racing. The graphics are leached clean, devoid of atmosphere or much character, dating back to early this-gen. Some tracks do have their moments. The waterfall in Japan or the lovely vista on the downhill slope of Camino Viejo. The tracks along the Aegean coast are spectacular. These look great, and strung together into a single seven-and-a-half-mile track, you get something as epic as Nürburgring, but with scenery. But most of the tracks are like bare tables with a fancy centerpiece. Consider how much personality the various locations have in Dirt 2, or the Sedona track has in Need for Speed SHIFT. Forza 3's strong point isn't its visuals. You'd expect a game that ships on two discs would look better.
Even with the assists turned off, the driving model feels tame and muted. It will not confound you. Driving by the color-coded line that tells you when to brake is like painting by numbers. You can jump onto a course sight unseen and finish first place without breaking a sweat. Which is fine if you want to jump onto a course sight unseen and finish first place without breaking a sweat. Forza 3 wants you to get to the winning quickly and easily, without having to practice, and without being discouraged by losing. If you want to bang into other cars or cut corners, it won't mind. It's forgiving and permissive. This is most evident in the unlimited rewind, which lets you back up and retry with impunity. Codemasters did the rewind previously in GRID, but they only let you rewind a certain number of times. Forza 3 is not nearly so strict. You can go back as far as you want. You can replay any stretch as often as you like. Hit the rewind button and do it over. Do it better. Take a chance at every curve because if it doesn't work, you won't be held accountable. Nothing matters because nothing is committed to actually happening. Forza 3 is the Buddhist koan of racing games. If a car flies off the track and you rewind every time, did it ever actually happen?
This means every race can be a perfect race. The stakes are low. The challenge is not a challenge at all. You can ensure that every replay is as boring, competent and uneventful as a real race. This doesn't have to be a criticism, because Forza 3 is oddly relaxing. It's a Sunday drive of a racing game. Get in and go. Don't worry about being good. Don't worry about risk. Don't worry about your money or career progression. Just drive. Most driving games put me on edge. My heart races. My fingers clench. I get invested. I cuss. Not so in Forza 3, where I just rewind.
On one hand, it's a sad state of affairs when a racing game this competent, generous, open-ended and pedigreed can't get a "Buy It" recommendation. But on the other hand, how exciting that a racing game this competent, generous, open-ended and pedigreed is only the fourth-best racing game to come out this year. Not that there isn't a place for a racing game like this. Consider a high-end ice cream shop. Consider someone who gets a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Not even French vanilla, mind you. Just vanilla. He's still getting good ice cream. Good vanilla ice cream. That's what it's like when you walk out of the store with a copy of Forza 3.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.