Forza Horizon 3 is for people who couldn’t care less about shaving four nanoseconds off their Silverstone lap time and just want to have fun with cars.
After letting racing fans loose on the mountains of Colorado and the Franco-Italian coast, the Horizon festival has come to Australia, and Playground Games have left you in charge. You’re not just another competitor this time round, you’re the festival boss. You’ll still be doing all the same stuff you did at the last festival, but this time it’s not really about winning.
Progression is no longer tied to how many championships you win, so coming 1st isn’t important. Instead you advance the game by completing races and events to draw more fans to the festival. When you’ve attracted enough fans you can expand the festival, which unlocks more events and race routes.
Without the ultimate goal of becoming Horizon Champion to work towards, it all feels a bit aimless. Aimless fun is still fun though, and there’s a great deal of it to be had.
As with any Forza game, there’s an incredible variety of events to take part in. There are themed races and championships for every kind of vehicle available. Hop in a Mustang and race against other American muscle cars or pick a side in the Mitsubishi vs Subaru championship. The change in setting has brought with it more opportunities for off-road racing, so there are plenty of monstrous off-road trucks and dune buggies among the game’s 350-strong lineup of vehicles.
The racing AI has received a noticeable tune up, to the point I had to drop down a difficulty level from the one I used in Horizon 2. While the other racers won’t try to run you off the road (thankfully), they’re not above trading paint. If anything they’re a little too aggressive for a game that encourages clean racing. This is probably a symptom of the “Drivatar” system, which the AI uses to mimic the driving styles of real players.
If you feel like taking a break from racing, the Horizon Showcases and Bucket List events make for the perfect distractions. These are kinds of things Clarkson & Co would’ve done on Top Gear if the BBC didn’t have a health and safety department; dodging oncoming traffic in a Lamborghini Centenario, or racing an off-road buggy through the jungle against an old army jeep suspended from a helicopter. The showcases feel heavily scripted and there aren’t nearly enough of them, but they offer some of Horizon 3’s most memorable moments.
With so much to do, it’s easy to become paralyzed by choice. Thankfully, with just two button presses, the satnav will choose an activity for you and set a route to it. It’s a small touch, but one I began to appreciate more and more as the map became littered with potential diversions.
Of course, if you’re not in the mood for organized fun and just want to drive around in something fast, then you’re still well catered for. Horizon 3’s Australian playground is one of gaming’s most beautiful and varied backdrops. The vibrant rainforests and expansive outback deserts look magnificent at all times of the day, thanks to first class lighting effects and weather cycles.
Horizon 2’s slice of southern Europe was dazzling but hardly diverse. Horizon 3’s Australia offers twice the size and a great deal more variety. The map is large enough to suit the needs of an open-world racer, but small enough that you can drive through a city, across a beach and into the outback in the time it takes to listen to one song on the radio.
Speaking of the soundtrack, it really adds some extra personality to the game. Drifting across the beaches of Australia in a buggy is fun, but the grin it puts on my face wouldn’t be so wide if it wasn’t to the sound of “X Gon’ Give it to Ya” by DMX. Each of the 9 radio stations plays a different genre, so you if you’d rather listen to Richard Wagner than CHVRCHES, there’s a station for that.
The Drivatar system might imitate real racers, but there are still online races and free roam lobbies for those who prefer a more traditional multiplayer experience. The 4-player co-op campaign is the new headline feature that allows up to three friends to join your festival. Any events you complete together in this mode contribute towards your progress through the main game. In a rare example of cross-platform support, there is no restriction on PC and Xbox One players joining each others lobbies and races.
Sadly, long loading times handicap the game’s multiplayer component. While I was waiting for online races to load up, I had plenty of time to contemplate how much fun I could’ve been having in the solo mode instead.
In fact, the PC version suffers from multiple technical issues including crashes, intermittent framerate dips and stuttering. These were infrequent enough to be tolerable and may be fixed before long, but for the moment the Xbox One provides the more stable experience.
The Horizon series has always provided players with plenty of customization options and Horizon 3 throws a few more in as part of your new role as festival boss. You can create and share your own races, championships and Bucket List events, import your own playlist to listen to on the radio, and the car customization has been expanded to include bodywork mods and rims.
The driving experience can be as realistic or as simple as you want it to be. The default settings feel like a satisfying mid-point between hyper-realistic Motorsport simulators and physics-defying arcade racers, but those who want a little more realism and challenge can turn off some of the driving assists that stop people like me from spinning out on every other corner.
The cars may look like the real thing (down to the millimeter in fact), and with the right settings they’ll handle like the real thing, but this is not a racing simulator. The game takes plenty of liberties to maximize the fun factor. A 100ft jump might wreck the suspension and snap the axles in reality, but in Horizon it will bag you a lot of skill points, as will ploughing sideways through someone’s garden fence when you slightly overcook that drift. This is a game that isn’t about to let anything get in the way of you having fun, and it’s part of what makes Horizon 3 so special.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
Forza Horizon 3 is a celebration of everything that’s fun about cars; a madcap road trip through beautiful Australian landscapes. The lack of a clear, ultimate goal dampens the sense of progression, but when the journey is this exciting, who cares about the destination? Playground Games have taken the expertly crafted Forza engine and used it to create something with all the personality that the Motorsport series lacks. When I’m belting across the outback in a McLaren P12, watching the sun bounce off the bodywork as my favorite song fights to be heard over the engine, I’m having too much fun to think about my lap times.