Hands-on impressions / Forza Motorsport 3 (Xbox 360)

Christmas came early to London recently, with Microsoft holding a sneaky-peek preview event showcasing some of the goodies they’ll be offering this festive season. With everything from mice that work on any surface, to HD webcams and a new Windows Mobile operating system rest assured that Microsoft has plenty to keep your average tech-minded geek smiling this Chrimbo.

But that’s not why we were there, of course. We were there for the games. For in among all the gadgets and gizmos were a couple of tasty looking triple-screen set-ups for Microsoft’s exclusive car-sim, Forza Motorsport 3. We ducked past the leggy ladies in sexy elf costumes, stuffed one last canape into our face and grabbed a controller.

Now it may seem like we guzzled too much complimentary bubbly (we didn’t, we never drink and drive) but bizarrely it wasn’t Forza 2 or even Gran Turismo that raced into our minds when we took to the track, but Fable II. Bear with us on this one.

Just like Peter Molyneux’s latest, Forza 3 deals with that tricky dynamic – the relationship between accessibility and depth. Where Fable II employed one button combat, no deaths and fairy-dust trails to mask the mechanical depth beneath the hood, Forza 3 adds auto-breaking, rewinds and racing line indicators to the bastard-hard, sim heavy series. Despite obvious differences in genre these two games have the same aim: keep the hardcore happy while flinging the doors wide open to intimidated newcomers.

These arcade-friendly additions to Forza 3 do the job splendidly. The auto-breaks break when they are supposed to, the rewinds rewind (allowing you to undo an unlimited amount of cock-upage) and the racing lines – sadly not marked by Fable fairy dust – all point in the right direction. Add to this some friendly collision nerfing, auto-tuning, and a nifty ability to psyche the AI drivers into mistakes and the scalable assists on offer are mightily impressive.

That the additions work should never be questioned, of course. Turn 10 have always displayed a uncanny, almost scientific nack for nailing every detail of the Forza series. But one has to question whether offering even more play options can attract a younger, broader audience in the way they hope. Fable II managed to achieve that delicate balance between depth and accessibility by organically responding to the demands of the player, without having to resort to menu toggles and fiddling. Whether Forza 3 can replicate that design masterstroke and become the ‘all racing games to all people’ it clearly hopes to be is questionable.

But perhaps all this is beside the point. As the Microsoft rep present was keenly, almost defensively eager to state – you can turn it all off anyway. Do so and you’re left with the iteratively improved Forza 3 that the fans are hoping for. It’s enough to cement the series’ position at the top of the racing sim genre and give the Gran Turismo 5 team a few sleepless nights. Oh, and it’ll probably sell a few million copies too.

The graphics – especially noticeable on the hugely impressive wrap-around triple-screen HD setup on show – are stunning, showing off improved resolution textures and 10 times as many polygons as the previous entry. The car models are a little hyper-real, science lab pristine for our liking, but they’re stunning nevertheless. As for the tracks, lens-flare and bloom lighting effects all over the place means even the dullest circuits look impressive.

The triple-screen setup was particularly adept at highlighting Forza‘s new cockpit view, with the wrap-around effect meaning that peripheral vision played a vital role in weaving your way through traffic. Disorienting at first, it quickly became thrillingly immersive. How this will translate to the single knackered old screen at TVGB HQ remains to be seen, but a cockpit view is a nice addition.

As you would expect, handling and responsiveness is recreated with (what feels like) uncanny accuracy, allowing you to throw the game’s expanded line-up of 400 customizable cars around more than 100 tracks. The career mode has been bolstered too, more than doubling the previous game’s 90 events to 200. Add to this a tweaked livery designer that wasn’t on show at the event, the ability to upload vids to Xbox Live and the promise of a couple more secrets to be revealed before next month’s release and it’s impossible to imagine Forza 3 being anything other than a roaring success.

But the ‘all driving games for all people’-schtick is perhaps over-stretching. For all its optional concessions to a younger, less experienced, less patient audience, Forza will never be Burnout. The Forza series has always rewarded precision and nuance and will continue to do so. This is still racing simulation, and it’s shaping up to be the very best.