“This is your festival.” It’s a somewhat daunting phrase, as you discover that you’re the newest boss of the Horizon Festival, but in practice this is Playground Games handing you the keys to their most refined open world racer and often just leaving you to do whatever the hell you want.
Having been to America and Europe in previous outings, Forza Horizon 3 arrives in Australia and uses the setting to full effect, taking in lush forests, golden beaches and dusty plains. Evoking memories of both Outrun and Burnout Paradise, this is a game designed to wow you, and there are countless moments where a broad grin will likely spread across your face. Sitting amongst the best looking Xbox One games yet, the only mild disappointment is that there can be some moments of noticeable pop-in – at least on Xbox One – when you’re charging about. However, the involving racing soon overtakes any thoughts of minor graphical flaws.
This is an open world teaming with life, populated with rival Drivatars and a huge array of events, including PR stunts and the return of spectacular showcases, all set across 488 sprawling roads in the beautiful fictionalised Australian setting. As the Horizon boss, when you discover new routes you can now choose whether to create your own event or pick between an exhibition, a time trial, vs event against an online opponent, or a championship.
With Horizon Blueprint, your own events can be fully customised, picking the car classes, time of day, weather, number of laps, event flyer and its name. My Cannonsprawl 2016 event in Surfers Paradise is obviously set to be a yearly event, despite the appalling weather, and Forza Horizon 3 is good enough that I could see myself keeping to that.
While you collect XP through racing, and indeed just generally driving about, you earn credits and gain fans via events. The number of fans you have dictates how big this year’s Horizon festival becomes and once you reach certain thresholds you’ll be able to expand into new sites, or upgrade existing ones, bringing a raft of new events to throw yourself into.
The gameplay is, as ever, hugely rewarding, boasting a handling model that is both fun and natural, while those looking to push themselves can turn off the driving assists and fight to keep the roster of beautifully rendered cars on the road – or off it. It doesn’t need quite the precision of last year’s infallible Forza 6, more due to the nature of most of the routes, but it’s just as engaging and often more intense.
There’s some lovely Xbox fan service on show, including an early bucket list event where you search for the Silent Cartographer in a Halo Warthog, with the iconic FPS’ soundtrack playing as you race. Forza Horizon 3 celebrates everything that Playground Games have previously created, and its host console as well.
It does also shoehorn in a trial for Microsoft’s Groove streaming service, adding it to the options of in-car radio stations that you progressively sign to your in-game record label. It’s a nasty little trick, though your feelings on it may not be as vitriolic as mine, and frankly the music on offer is varied and wide-ranging enough for you to utterly ignore it, even if it serves to sour some of the atmosphere and escapism.
Getting away from it all is unbelievably easy though, and you can’t beat seeing the destination marker off in the distance and simply heading straight for it, weaving in between trees in forested areas, knocking hay bails out of the way, or flying from cliff tops. It’s wonderful fun. It also remains constantly generous in the way it doles out new events, bonuses and vehicles, and there’s always something new happening. Having said that, there are few games as good at simply letting you enjoy its world without barriers, and you can spend hours just speeding through the landscape.
You can now also enjoy the whole experience in online co-op, and teaming up with a friend is as good as you’d expect, though thankfully there’s none of the constraints placed on you as there have been in recent Need For Speed games, or the disruption that was possible in The Crew. As with the rest of the game, it’s approached with a laid-back attitude, but one that’s underscored by meticulous planning.
If we’re looking for the negatives here, it’s that this is fundamentally still the same game you’ve potentially played twice already. Forgetting the outstanding graphics and hugely refined experience, this is still the same framework that was put in place in the 2012 original. That’s not to say it’s lost any of its lustre – far from it – but anyone looking for the series to push into new territory may come away disappointed.
It’s not always the most challenging of games either, though of course cranking the difficulty up helps to deal with that. It can still be annoying to see a pattern where the first lap of any race is deeply competitive, only for the AI to relax into second and third to allow you a relatively simple victory. Add in the insta-fix of the rewind function and it could make the game very easy, if you were so inclined, but the overall experience is so incredible that any quibbles are soon forgotten.
The third game in the Forza Horizon series has far exceeded its status as a loud and brash spin-off, becoming a racing title that embodies the best of this generation. Beautiful visuals, pitch perfect gameplay and eternally rewarding, there are few racing games that have ever come close to what Playground Games have achieved with Forza Horizon 3.
Version Tested: Xbox One