Forza Horizon 3 Review (Xbox One)
Few games provide as liberating an experience as getting behind the wheel of an exotic car in Forza Horizon 3, tearing through the Australian outback, and chasing the pack in the hopes of being the first to cross that finish line. The feeling of speed that was so present in previous Forza titles is there --- and so is the engineered beauty of the world's greatest car manufacturers --- but Forza Horizon 3 doesn't rely simply on high speeds, gorgeous cars and tight racing to be such a tremendous success. It has all those elements in spades, but Forza Horizon 3 doesn't take itself quite as serious as its cousin Forza Motorsport either. When bombing through the vast Australian countryside or splashing down the wide beaches, that makes a world of difference.
Rather than putting you in the middle of the Horizon Festival as just another racer, Forza Horizon 3 actually makes you the boss of the whole shebang. Playground Games' version of Australia is your canvas, and you can organize the country-wide event as you see fit --- well, within Horizon's own boundaries anyway. Things start out simply enough with one festival at the beach, but as you win races, pull off stunts or earn recognition in a number of different ways around the map, you'll earn more fans. More fans means you need more locations to accommodate them, and you can expand Horizon through a handful of new areas that offer their own new perks and open up new events.
The whole map is open from the start however, so you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. It's just that there won't be any specific races tied to much of the world until you gain enough fans to crank open three or four of the Horizon Festival hubs. That's all part of the appeal of the Horizon franchise too; there are virtually no places you can't just drive right through. Where Forza Motorsport had beautiful courses captured from a number of real world tracks around the globe with obsessive detail, Horizon tears down the walls keeping you honed in on the path and lets you forge a course all your own.
That's not to say you'll be able to skip your way around the actual races --- there are checkpoints in place to ensure you stay in your lane during competition --- and the racing there is still just as tight and harried as it ever was in any previous entry. Horizon 3 just has the added benefit of promoting a little bit of freewheelin' fun at every opportunity. You don't simply get rewarded for racing "correctly," you'll also be lauded for doing some things that would only be considered safe in a virtual environment, you know, like driving blindly off a cliff to see how much distance you can cover. These jumps and other elements like speed traps, convoys and drift zones promote more stunt driving --- and provide even more white-knuckle moments --- than traditional racing. With constantly evolving leaderboards, there's no shortage of reasons to keep angling for one more foot, one more mile per hour.
Forza Horizon 3's competitive nature goes well beyond leaderboards too. The infamous Drivatars return, again filled with the knowledge of a million races, reactions and attitudes. Unlike their presence in Motorsport, where reckless endangerment behind the wheel was viewed with a heavily scrutinizing eye, Horizon's Drivatars trading paint feels more natural. More importantly, it's less frustrating. While Horizon still keeps things controlled on a track, with so many races taking place on huge two-lane highways, expansive paths through the outback or over the river and through the woods (and back again), there's more space to carve room for yourself without making your virtual driver one of "those guys."
We've all seen them in other Forza games, crashing and smashing into turns with little regard to other vehicles on the road. With Horizon 3, you'll still see those maneuvers being used, but it all feels like part of the fun. Truthfully, it is, especially when the cars on the other side of the fender-bending are your rivals.
Forza Horizon 3 has some extracurricular activities to keep you occupied when you need a break from the grind of rubbing and racing. Barns hold a number of secrets, but in Australia they apparently hold some of the rarest, choicest automobiles the world has ever forgotten. If you weren't cutting through the farmlands and fields of Australia before, these hunts will get you digging through hoping to find that jalopy your mechanic can turn into a jewel. Adding more cars to the garage is nice, but these hunts also give you an excuse to break out the drone for some faster exploration without worrying about things like trees or other cars. Once unlocked, the drone is perfect for these moments, and can be busted out at any time.
Adding Drivatar racers to your Festival team also provides a nice distraction from checkpoint chasing, and earns you more good standing with the crowds you're trying to attract. These simple point-to-point races provide ample challenge if the driver you're hoping to recruit has been logging plenty of hours behind the wheel, but you can always circumvent that by just blasting through the land with your eye directly on the finish line. Unlike actual races, there aren't many rules in getting a Drivatar racer to join your team. That works to your advantage pretty well. It can feel cheap to outsmart the AI like that, but sometimes rules are made to be broken --- just like the wood fences blocking your path to victory.
Most enjoyable however are the new Bucket List Blueprints scattered throughout the map, which allow you to create a singular event in whatever shape or form you see fit. The conceit however is that there's a bit of drama behind the event. It is a Bucket List event after all. At select map points, you can build such events, and there really are a lot of customization elements involved if you want to dig into the nitty gritty of it all. Some aspects, like speed trap challenges, require you to use existing speed traps in the world, which is a bit disappointing, but the rest of the map is your oyster, so to speak. All you've got to do is complete the challenge yourself to set the pace, upload it, and let the world shatter all your expectations.
All of these elements could arguably be overshadowed by Forza Horizon 3's most impressive aspect: the world itself. Australia is undeniably a beautiful country, and this shrunken down, digital version of the continent is stunning. There are so many ecosystems at play that you don't typically see tied together in one racing game, and each one brings its own set of rules and challenges to the driver. It's all (mostly) authentic too, so don't think you'll be able to rip through the rainforest in a Gallardo without spinning out at every turn --- unless you're driving like your grandmother. It's something to behold when you can kick up dust in the outback at sunrise, divebomb the rainforest, speed up the sandy coast and spend the evening watching the sun set behind the city skyline.
That's all due to Playground devoting a great deal of time and energy in capturing the skies of Australia during development. When driving in a racer, typically your attention is tuned to what's happening directly in front of you. There's no time to stop and smell the roses because you'll be passed by three or four cars the moment you start gazing beyond the wall. Horizon's expanses practically beg you take a breath, provided it hasn't already been taken by some of the most eye-catching skies you've ever seen in a game. Even without the HDR update for Xbox One S owners, Horizon 3's atmosphere will give you pause. It sounds strange to want to hit the brakes and take in the ocean lapping against your tires while the skies turn from a brilliant blue to a rosy pink, but when you're the boss of the Festival you're entitled to a few moments away from the motor oil and crowds. There's no better way to wind down.
Forza Horizon 3 has everything you could possibly want from a modern racing game, and it just happens to be in the most stunning package we've ever seen. There's so much to do, so much to see, and so many cars to drive, it's a bit overwhelming at times. But then you look up from the asphalt and see the world around you, and it brings a calm over it all. Continuing to build on the solid foundation put in place by previous Forza Horizon and Motorsport games, Playground Games has delivered what could be the ultimate open-world racer in Forza Horizon 3.
This review is based on a digital copy of Forza Horizon 3 provided by the publisher for Xbox One.