Standing at the freshly dug graveside of 2009 with tear-jerking eulogy in hand I admit that from a gaming perspective I am surprised how good a year closed out this decrepit old decade. And, what seems most surprising of all as we traipse happily into this new year is that the best game for me at the end of it all was a racing game.
I am not a gear head. I appreciate exotic cars the way I might swimsuit models — from afar, purely from the perspective of physical aesthetics and with the understanding that pursuing one would destroy my marriage. A Lamborghini Gallardo might as well be a Saturn V rocket for as likely I’d ever be to take a ride, but when I throw my virtual super car into third out of the S curve at Leguna Seca, I can imagine just for a moment what it might be like to tweak the flappy panel gearbox, lay my foot to the floor and hear that five liter V10 engine sing like a slutty siren on a craggy shoal.
That Forza 3 can even begin to convey the vaguest glimpse into that world is itself enough reason to love the game.
Racing games have consistently annoyed me by holding the coolest cars as a distant carrot on a too-long stick. I can really only put up with toddling around some grand raceway for so long in a Vauxhall Astra or Ford Focus, no matter how plucky a coupe it may be. I know that I shouldn’t pop in the disc and expect to be screaming around in an F40 right away, but unless you’re an informed collector more than half the available garage in these games is meaningless.
I’m not sure where I fall on the car knowledge spectrum. Probably I am in a comfortable population of individuals who have absorbed their entire catalog of data from the often dubious Top Gear, the one show in all the world where I will use any means at my disposal to watch immediately. In this spurious realm of having enough information to care but not enough to recognize my own ignorance, Forza 3 seemed keenly targeted to my misdirected sensibilities.
It is a rewarding game that doesn’t ask you to languish in the dregs of motorsports overlong, just long enough so that when you open up the engine on a Zonda or Veyron, you have at least a vague inkling of how to keep that million-dollar machine out of the dirt. And, in that we have the crux of Turn 10’s genius in constructing Forza 3.
Ultimately, they made the most adaptable and accessible game I’ve played in years. Forza 3 can be limitlessly tweaked to match your racing comfort level. Without resorting to arcane knowledge about slip differentials and clutch timing to change your driving experience, it offers easy to understand settings. At its simplest the game barely lets you make a mistake. It is a father lovingly pushing his son down the sidewalk on his first bicycle on a bright summer day, and as you gain your road-legs you can take off the training wheels and grow to make your virtual car dance like a ballerina.
And dance you will, because the controls are the vital beating heart that breathes life into this game. I would never have imagined that a controller could seem like a natural way to drive a car, but when I am fully engaged with jaw clinched and mind focused tightly on holding a tricky corner as I swap paint with a Mercedes SLR, the controller itself disappears. I simply imagine what I want my car to do — this car whose nuances and idiosyncrasies I intuit after dozens of races — and it does it.
That to me is the masterwork of game design. While I have high praise for the games you’ll see everyone else single out as the standouts for ’09, games like Dragon Age, Uncharted 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2, none took me to that state of symbiosis like Forza 3. This is a game that tore down the technology barrier between myself and its artificial construct. It built such a believable façade around the abstract idea of racing and of driving itself, that I can trick my brain into being in the moment.
I hate to go all metaphysical, but that’s somehow where this racing game took me.
There is much that can be said further in favor of Forza 3, not the least of which include the customization, the number of cars, the damage modeling, the visuals and the precious rewind button that can rescue a long trip around the Nürburgring from one poor cornering decision. These are meaningful things to talk about, but only because Turn 10 got the crucial handling and controls so right.
As expertly crafted as the cars it simulates, Forza 3 has been in my regular rotation since its release, and is easily the best game I played in 2009.