Racing games have sure come a long way.

From the Monaco Grand Prix days on my Commodore 64, car games have always been a favourite of mine. Back then, racing was a top down, scrolling screen affair, with no actual corners, just an 8-bit background with different angles.

I’d have to say Forza 3 has improved on the graphics somewhat since then. And perhaps I’ll even begrudgingly admit the physics and sound are a tad better than back in my day. But the real question - indeed, the only question worth anything whatsoever to me - would have to be: is it as exciting, or as fun, as those early gaming session where 80% of the experience was left up to the imagination?

Thing is, I loved Gran Turismo. It blew me away with the graphics, the number of cars, the tuning - all the features were so far beyond other racing games of the day. The sequel was great. Then came GT3 on PlayStation 2, and wow, I was again amazed at the advancement. But by GT4 something had gone. There just wasn’t the soul. Technically brilliant, and an amazing feature list. But it just wasn’t as much fun. Something had been lost.

Forza Motorsport on the original Xbox came on the scene and revitalised the genre somewhat, mainly with the online features Xbox Live allowed. A sense of community changed the gameplay with syndicates and seasons, and racing against real people, over a console, was far better than playing the AI.

Forza 2 of course on Xbox 360 brought more of everything, with an update in physics and graphics, improved online modes, but it still lacked something. I found that after getting maybe three quarters of the way through, I just lost interest.

So that brings us to Forza 3, touted as the best racing game of its generation. I was curious during the E3 event this year to hear the carefully worded qualifier ‘of its generation’ used several times during the introduction. What it means is a bit unclear. If I’m honest, I felt it sort of implied that everyone knows Gran Turismo 5 is on the horizon, and that everyone believes it will be the mother of all racing games. But so what. GT5, Forza’s "elephant in the room", is nothing but code on a developers PC somewhere within the depths of Sony. So far, it has been delayed within two months of its then-announced Christmas release date. Sure, odds are GT5 will be awesome, but it’s not here yet. So lets get the comparisons off the board because regardless of what the competition will bring, and whenever they actually bring it, right now there’s nothing. Forza 3 is the best racing game out this year. It’ll be the best racing game out for at least the next six months. End of argument as far as I'm concerned.

400 cars. 200 events. Over 100 tracks. Amazing physics. Wicked graphics. A god-awful soundtrack you’ll hate within 48 hours. Sounds like a recipe for a successful racing game to me. But more importantly, it’s fun.

OK - maybe the fact I first got to play it on the ginormous Xtreme Screen at Hoyts Sylvia Park had something to do with it. I think any game that’s presented at 30 metres by 12 metres is going to sell itself to you. Along with various other game reviewers I got about three hours hands-on with the game. Seems like I’m not the most typical player out there. Rather than choose an Evo IV and go for time attack glory, I jumped in the Land Rover Sport and dropped the tyre pressure to 14psi before smashing my way to victory on a tarmac rally track. 4WD SUV drifting is the new craze if you ask me.

Career mode is back, but a little different. There is also a 'free play' event list, letting you quickly pick whatever event (and car) you wish to participate in without fuss. The meat of the game though is still career mode.

You are first given the choice of a number of terrible hatchbacks. I chose a Honda Fit, because, well, there wasn’t much for choice. As is genre formula now, you start in a low rent car on some small tracks and some fairly easy competition. After a few races you can upgrade your car to make it more competitive. As you progress in your career, you'll win different cars more suited to various events further down the track. You are encouraged to keep each car for as long as possible, with cars gaining experience and prize cars selling for virtually nothing, making selling them a waste of time.

Eventually you will find yourself in the big leagues, racing V8 Supercars, Le Mans racers, and GT cars on the world’s famous circuits. Taking a 962 for a blat around the Nurburgring is both enormous fun and slightly frightening. For me though, the best part of the game isn’t the hardcore race cars. I like to tinker with the rubbish cheap cars, tweaking and adjusting them to outrun cars worth four times as much.

One of the great things about Forza is the tuning system. Sure you could race against V8 Supercars in another V8 Supercar. Or, if you are like me, you could build your own Frankenstein machine to take racing. There’s something about a twin turbo V6 Skyline that appeals, and the ability to add turbos, swap engines, or drivetrains, along with the minute adjustments you can make to tyre pressure, diff ratios and aerodynamics make for a tweakers dream. Of course you can get it all horribly wrong. Given complete tuning freedom, a novice is just as likely to ruin a car’s driveability as they are to improve it. However there is now a ‘quick upgrade’ option which will automatically upgrade bits of your car to the current race class, providing you have the credits.

The changes you make are also immediately translated into the game physics. You can feel the effects of stickier tyres, or stiffer suspension as soon as you embark on your next race. The game even simulates tyre deformation, both mathematically and visually. Coupled with this is the livery editor. You can paint your car any colour you like, design decals and pictures to stick on it, and take it racing online. Having a distinct car is a lot of fun, making you stand out from the crowds. Of course, being from Hamilton, most of my cars are matte black and V8’s. The first thing I did in the game was a massive burnout, because, well, that’s what we do down here.

The AI in Forza 3 is hard to rate. Whilst way too easy on easy and medium settings, hard provides a real challenge. It is neat to see the AI behaving in a rather human fashion, if over acted somewhat. In the early races you can force errors by sitting right on another driver's tail. The AI will sometimes corner too hot and leave the track, or tap another driver. They will also shunt you back if you knock them too many times.

Regardless, if you are sick of the AI, jump online. Whilst it’s a bit hard to gauge given the limited number of players on live as the game is only released today, multiplayer looks to be as good as always. One of the outstanding features of the Forza series, and one that has decimated GT’s efforts has been Forza’s online racing. With an online auction house, individual store fronts, custom paint jobs and decals, a huge number of customization options for races, it’s hard to fault.

Feel like having a drift competition with your friends? Check a few options, and away you go. Feel like racing only Remuera Tractors? A starting grid chock full of Range Rovers and Cayennes is within your reach. You can even specify the level of difficulty for a multiplayer race by limiting the driving aids you can use. These aids are really how Forza lets you adjust the challenge of the game. ABS, Traction control, Damage are all adjustable, to make the game more realistic, or easier if you prefer. In addition you can have a racing line showing at all times, turn the AI difficulty down, or use stability management to keep things under control. I prefer to use only the ABS driving aid, as I am a chronic brake stomper in these games. Everything else is off, allowing for some glorious Clarkson-esque powerslides. It also allows some spectacular crashes that even booze fuelled kiwi teenagers would be hard pressed to beat.

Perhaps the most controversial addition to the driving aids is the rewind feature. At almost any point during a race, you can hit the rewind button and go back a few seconds, or more if required, and try that corner again. Or avoid that car again. Or perfect that drift. A feature already presented in games like Grid, Forza goes a step further and removes any limitations on the number of times you can use it. Luckily for multiplayer, all times are ranked both on lap times and driving aids. Those who are good enough to race with no assists will still fare better in the leaderboards than those who have assists on.

At first I was against the idea of an unlimited undo button. Having now played a good number of hours in the game, it is in fact a useful feature. Especially in endurance races, where after 3 hours of racing a mistake would mean re-racing another 3 hours. Instead, you hit rewind and try that corner again. Rewind does have two limitations. You can’t use it too close to the finish line on your last lap, and it can be turned off completely for multiplayer.

Of course, it’s the first glance that sells a game, and visually Forza is stunning. It doesn’t have all the post processing effects of Need For Speed SHIFT, rather going for a clean, crisp, detailed approach. This approach works, and the cars and tracks are full of little things that add to the overall picture. Heat haze, shaking bonnets and paint scuffs all make things that little bit more realistic. The new tracks look fantastic, with detailed backgrounds adding to the experience. This is both good and bad, as some of the typical race tracks do in fact look slightly dull compared to the city circuits and mountain ranges.

The game now also sports full rendered interiors for cars, adding a level of realism and difficulty. In-car can be a challenge, especially in very low race cars as you lose the ability to see as far ahead. Throw in the fact it runs at 60fps, at 1080p, and if nothing else sells you, the sensation of speed will.

The game engine has had some tweaks of course, and now feels even better. Cars drive very well compared to their real world counterparts. Yes, I’ll admit I don’t own a McLaren F1 so have no point of reference. But the cars I have owned or driven in my lifetime do feel very accurate in-game. Lift off oversteer in an MR2? Check. Excessive wheelspin in a V8 Commodore? Check. The tinny sound of a Honda CRX with a massive exhaust? Check.

One of the other features Forza is known for is car damage. Insert jab at Gran Turismo here, but so far, only Forza has had decent damage modelling. Smashed tail lights, bumpers falling off, stuffed suspension causing your car to veer left, it’s all here. Even rolling your car is possible, thanks to updates to the physics engine.

Is it all perfection? Well, no. There doesn’t seem to be an R35 GTR. My Honda Jazz 1.3 shakes when revved just as much as my V8 Hemi Charger. The load times are a little long. It comes on two DVD’s, one of which must be installed on the hard drive to use. Sure GT2 had two discs too, but still, having to have a hard drive means those with the Arcade version of the console may not get the same experience. You also cannot yet get a wheel that compares to the epic Logitech G25 in NZ for Xbox.

But then again, those are all minor issues. Considering there’s even more Forza 3 on the way with a holiday DLC pack containing new cars and tracks, it’s a game that keeps on giving.

Definitely the racing game of the moment. Best experienced with a wheel, especially if you are willing to drop the coin on importing a Fanatec Porsche model. Get some 5.1 sound, turn the sub up to eleven and drop the hammer.

Yes GT5 is around the corner, but if you are a racing game fan at all, you’d be silly to wait until next year for it when Forza 3 is here right now, and damned good fun at that. Besides, that game could still be delayed again, or even, dare I say, not as good as it’s hyped up to be. As a racing fan I hope it is everything I’ve ever wanted. But today, Forza is certainly close enough.

Get both - I will. Flame on.