Racing through the outback.
Forza Horizon 3 on Xbox One
Forza has been known for some time as the racing game to beat. While the Horizon series has primarily focused on arcade-style racing , which makes it much more accessible than some of its competitors, it has also always delivered on depth that offers something worthwhile for the more hardcore members of the fan base. Forza Horizon 3 is the latest in the open-world spin-off component of the franchise that’s aimed to expand on both those focuses. Of course, reinventing the wheel isn’t an easy task, nor was it something necessary for Playground Games to do (don’t fix what ain’t broke, right?). So instead of turning the game on its head, the developers decided to change how you, the player, interacts with Horizon.
That change comes in the form of the player becoming the boss of it all. In the previous two Forza Horizon games, you were just a driver looking to prove yourself to the world as you show up out of practically nowhere and dominate the festival. A series of challenges awaited you, and you had to keep on your A-game to make a name for yourself. This time, most people already know you’re a badass and you’ve decided to bring the world-famous Horizon festival to Australia to take advantage of the country’s varied landscape and gorgeous backdrops. You’re playing by your own rules, and that adds a new layer of control to the whole experience. Forza Horizon 3 even lets you choose who you’re playing as… sort of. You’re no longer a faceless driver, since you can now choose between a handful of pre-made avatars that will represent you during cutscenes. While those are a bit forgettable (since you are so limited), the addition of having the game say your name was definitely welcome (especially since they actually had my name in there). There are hundreds of names and you’ll get to hear your employee as well as your computer assistant say it whenever they speak to you, helping you truly feel like the boss.
“Boss” isn’t just your title either; instead of being told where and when to race, you start with a small festival on the southeast corner of the island known as Byron Bay. Things kick off with a race to the location, followed by a huge showcase that puts you against a rather stylish opponent to show just how crazy the events will get. After a few races that serve as tutorials, Forza Horizon 3 opens itself up to you. How the event expands and how you decide to earn the resources to allow it to do so are up to you thanks to the new Fans system. Players will not only earn money and experience to give you a fighting chance against later challenges. Completing races, pulling off PR stunts, and just being an all-around great driver will earn you fans as well. As you reach specific milestones, you unlock the ability to branch out your Horizon Festival until you cover the entirety of Australia, or the chance to upgrade one of your existing locations.
As locations are upgraded and new ones are added to your circuit, new opportunities are unlocked. These include the ability to select which radio stations get added to the music rotation, new event setups, and more Showcases that pit you against seemingly impossible odds all for the sake of attracting more fans to your festival. You’ll also gain access to new race types, and that’s where Forza Horizon 3 really shines.
As you may have noticed from trailers and other promo materials, a large part of Forza Horizon 3’s Australia is made up of dense forestry and wild dirt roads. Linking all of that together are some vibrant cities and neighborhoods. These different types of locations offer very different types of challenges. Dirt roads lend themselves well to rally races, forests and cities are perfect for circuit races of varying difficulty, and when you combine them all, you have interesting cross-country sprints and Scramble races.
Scramble races quickly became one of my favorite elements of the game. These remove the security of choosing the one best car for the job thanks to them randomly switching terrain on the player, forcing you to adapt. Do you go with a high-powered sports car that can take advantage of the paved roads, yet turns into a bumbling lump of metal once its tires hit dirt, or do you hedge your bets and go with the slower, but more desert friendly rally vehicles? There really is no wrong answer, and depending on which you pick, you’ll have to learn a new slew of skills to give yourself the advantage. Taking corners as a rally car and being aggressive while others try to pass will become second nature. But so will gunning it down paved roads while halving your speed on dirt just to make sure you don’t lose control when you’re in the driver’s seat of a Lamborghini Aventador.
Forza Horizon 3 still maintains that arcade feel that won’t make the switch from dirt to road to rain-slicked streets overly difficult. But the changes you experience when switching from one type of land to another is enough to encourage the player to learn to be a bit more technical in their approach. They won’t be supremely punished for taking a Ferrari onto the grass, but an understanding of how your car will now behave will put you at a big advantage. That’s the best thing about Forza Horizon 3, nothing is there to make you feel like you need to get better. It all exists to drive players to ask themselves: “how can I take advantage of this?”
I’m grateful that difficulty never came in the form of new road types or the need for a specific car, as that would’ve cheapened the experience for me. Playground Games opted to use the Drivatar system that was introduced in Forza Motorsport 5. Drivatars are AI drivers that follow the racing patterns of real players, including those on your friends list. The more your friends play, the more human-like the AI races against you, making for a more realistic arcade experience that encourages you to adapt just like you would if playing against your buddies. This sometimes means that races aren’t as clean as they are in most other racing games, which I personally think is amazing. Having a random racer try to box me out or become as aggressive as myself isn’t something you see in your everyday racer. The evolution of the computer I was facing led me to do a bit of evolving myself, and I became all the better for it.
The level of customization of the experience helps to make the challenges more manageable as well. You don’t just pick a car and remain glued to its stats. You can customize new components to alter its power, handling, braking, and more. There are even a few cosmetic options for most vehicles too, allowing players to put a bit more of their own personal touch outside of just amazingly complex paint and decal jobs. For those who want even more control, you can still fine tune each aspect of your racing machine from the brakes to the gearing. Forza Horizon 3 exists in that sweet spot between top-notch arcade game and deep racing sim granting all types of players a little something special to suit their preferences.
One thing that is definitely of note is the sheer amount of content in Forza Horizon 3, much more than I expected. It was already shared that the map would be twice the size of its predecessor, but that doesn’t always mean twice the content. Yet the developers apparently weren’t content with just the world being bigger, and that definitely benefits all of us that just want to speed through the new world. It can be sometimes overwhelming, though, with map markers pulling you in all different directions and everything seeming equally exciting. To help keep things organized, you have Anna, your trusty GPS assistant who can offer you suggestions on what to do next and help you find specific activities. It was definitely appreciated, since there were a few moments where I legitimately did not know what to do next. Why they didn’t name the assistant Cortana is something I don’t know, but hey, Anna is just as cool.
All in all, Forza Horizon 3 is a truly great racing experience. The fact that the developers were able to combine their premier arcade racing with a new layer of depth and control is something definitely of note. It’s proof that an accessible game doesn’t have to be overly simple and can provide options to the full spectrum of fans, from those wanting to just drive around all the way to those who really want to fine-tune their own monstrous machines for the road. I expected something on par with Forza Horizon 2 and was instead greeted by something far better. Forza Horizon 3 is definitely the one to beat right now, and may very well be the best Xbox One exclusive to date. If you like fast cars and have an Xbox One or PC, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.
Score: 5/5 – Exemplary