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Forza Motorsport 3 goes on delivering while Gran Turismo 5 languishes amidst a shroud of excuses. Technically near perfect, Forza impresses on all fronts with handing and modelling producing some genuinely stand out moments.
As another abandoned release date for Gran Turismo 5 approaches, I've been revisiting the driving game that, for me, currently tops the leader board. Forza Motorsport 3 offers a simply superb racing experience to the serious petrol head and pedestrian newcomer alike. Stunning, smooth visuals, tons of accurately rendered cars, punchy, evocative sound effects, precise controls and hundreds of technical customizations join forces to create a truly great driving game.
Although I'm not a massive car fan, like many people I was fair blown away by Gran Turismo on the PlayStation 1. Games like Checkered Flag on the ZX Spectrum and Lotus: The Ultimate Challenge on the PC played formative roles in my computer game education, but when Gran Turismo dropped it really was a big moment -- and at that point I didn't even have a Playstation. My best friend (who did) and I spend hours and hours honing our skills, racing each other and then trying to tune our cars to outperform the other's. The cars were more accurate than they'd ever been, the engine sounds more real, the setup more simple, purer and yet more brilliant.
Since then, despite Gran Turismo 4 being a decent game, Sony's follow-ups have largely failed to capture my imagination and the apparent chaos surrounding the (still) forthcoming release of Gran Turismo 5 has driven home the fact that I'm not the only one who senses that anything short of a game-changer this time out could see the Gran Turismo myth start to shrivel up.
Several titles manoeuvred their way into the vacuum left by Sony's stalls, but none more effectively than Microsoft and Turn 10's Forza Motorsport franchise. Where many avoided Gran Turismo and focused on specific types of driving or niche gimmicks (rallying, F1, street racing, law enforcement, death race, and so on), Forza eyed the middle lane and sped straight into Gran Turismo territory. What is more, because of Sony's drip-dry production speeds, Forza didn't have to get it right straight away, with Forza Motorsport released in the same year as Gran Turismo 4, Forza 3 arriving over a year (and counting) before Gran Turismo 5, and Forza 4 well positioned in 2011's pipeline.
As things stand, nothing available on a console can offer a driving fan as rich and deep an experience as Forza 3.
The first two games were both good, with the second building impressively on the first, but it all really came together with the third release. As things stand, nothing available on a console can offer a driving fan as rich and deep an experience as Forza 3, with its career mode standing head and shoulders above anything else out there.
Besides the smooth sixty-frames-a-second of aesthetic production value, the dynamic race calendar which alters the available events in response to your choices, the precisely balanced control scheme (which works very well with the standard controller as well as 'rewarding' a dedicated wheel), the impressive adaptive AI with its 'pressure' system, the near-endless customisations options and the extensive online mode, the aspect of Forza 3 that I'd like to focus on is its supremely impressive physics.
At the heart of the experience is the authenticity of the 'feel'.
At the heart of the experience is the authenticity of the 'feel'. This involves far more than just a precise control mechanic and the super-detailed plastic rendering of over four hundred cars. In order to make each vehicle feel so distinct and so accurate takes a hugely sophisticated dynamic modelling system that can interpret the mass and weight (yes those two things are different) of the cars and the effect on them of gravity, centripetal force, temperature, air and other fluid pressures, friction and aerodynamics and successfully put all that data to work in a very rapidly changing environment.
The level of detail that Forza 3 is able to bring to bear is demonstrated by the fact that even the tyre deformation is accurately modelled (the compression of the tyre, and hence change in grip and slip, under the weight of the car). While this kind of modelling sends physics geeks (like me) wild, for most people they are just the many hidden details that combine to bring an incredible depth to the driving.
In addition to modelling the cars as objects so precisely, and the interaction of the cars with the road so accurately, Forza 3 also boasts full impact modelling, which causes your ride to realistically scratch, dent and crumple if you scrape it along a hoarding or impatiently slam it into slow competitors' rear-ends. I hate to sound like a Microsoft employee, but the physical modelling in Forza 3 really is something of a marvel, and what it brings in terms of authenticity is seriously impressive very satisfying.
The problem for Sony is that the Forzas keep getting consistently better.
It's not a perfect game. Making exceptions for the fact that its now quite old, even within the parameters that it sets itself, it falls down in some areas. The difficulty settings, for example, are problematic, with a frustratingly wide skill gap between 'medium' and 'hard'. Likewise, while adding a human touch to the AI, the pressure system needs refining in order to make passing opponents who couldn't handle your presence close behind them as satisfying as it should be -- when they just suddenly swerve wildly off the track it seems a bit lame. The music is poor and, while sleek and well laid out, the menus are a tad dull and feature faded text that can be hard to read.
The problem for Sony, however, is that the Forzas keep getting consistently better, and if they miss their new, late Q4, release date for Gran Turismo 5, then they will be seriously close to making it a contemporary of Forza 4, which, given what we've all seen from E3, promises to be one of Kinect's most impressive titles. In addition to the now somewhat thin story Sony keeps telling about 'timing', perhaps fear is playing more than a small role in the ongoing Gran Turismo 5 saga?
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: