For a long time now, Microsoft has made sure that each time the leaves begin to turn here in the United States, gamers have a reason to get behind the wheel of their favorite digital cars. For the last several years, publisher Microsoft Studios has been alternating between two very different flavors of racing game, both under the Forza banner: Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon. 2016 sees the release of the third game in the latter series, Forza Horizon 3.
The Horizon games, while still about cars and car culture, are in many ways the opposite of the Motorsport games. I've described it before something like this: While the main line Motorsport series fixates on the reality of cars, Horizon focuses on the fantasy of those same cars. You can beat up a Horizon car, but you can't wreck it. You can drive a Lamborghini up and over sand dunes or through knee-high water without it falling to pieces or simply dying. Forza Horizon is everything you'd want to do with a car but can't in real life or, at least, can't afford to.
With Forza Horizon 3, the fantasy branch of Microsoft's racing family has matured. The first game proved the concept, the second more or less perfected it. Forza Horizon 3 is the work of those first two put into action and brought into the modern era.
Let's talk about cross-platform play first
I want to talk about it because it's important to say that, at the time or review, the PC version of the game was not yet available. I bring this up immediately because this is perhaps the most anticipated feature of this game. The idea of being able to play an Xbox One game online with PC gamers, enjoying the same game at the same time, is an appealing and alluring one.
And we still don't know if it works or not. So instead of making conjecture about it or just leaving it out, we'll handle that in a separate piece.
Great Southern Land
Much of Horizon 3's charm revolves around the setting – Australia. This was one of the primary points the team at Playground Games hyped during previews and, really, it's pretty well deserved. This game is bigger than either of its predecessors in all the right ways and it's more visually varied, to boot.
The southern Australian setting gives way to all kinds of places. There's the outback, of course, full of scrub plants and dunes. But there's also thick jungle, a downtown area, some suburbs, and even some rolling wine country.
Each area feels a bit different in terms of how you drive it. More populous areas are full of city blocks and sharp corners without as much room for free driving, where the outback definitely has roads, but they're anything but required. Horizon 3 also has, in my experience, fewer barriers to open driving. In Horizon 2's European adventure there were all kinds of walls keeping you out of places. While there are still some walls this time around, they're few and far between. I spent more time exploring and less time figuring out how to get around.
Some of the bucket list challenges even capitalize on this by pointing you at a goal you simply cannot get to by following the suggested GPS path. Instead, you have to break off and bound across the countryside, flying over hills and through bushes, to get to the destination.
I didn't have an HDR television to sample the entire gamut of colors that Forza Horizon 3 is capable of, but even without them the wide variety of landscapes does a great job of putting all those colors on display. The jungle areas are dense and often quite dark even during the day. At night, they're pitch black. In the outback, it feels like the sun is going to leave a burn.
Even the skies that developer playground made such a big deal of feel like they really matter. The Horizon games are about the tourist vacation aspect of play as much as they are about the racing itself, so every little detail matters, and man, those skies look great. You send up spending a lot of time looking at them, and knowing they're built from actual captures of Australian skies makes the fantasy feel that much more real. The only thing missing is literally every animal and even some of the plants actively trying to kill or maim you.
It's not perfect, though. As with any other open world game, the cracks in the facade show themselves a bit more often than I would've liked. Stopping too far out from activity reveals a world that's a bit too quiet. Like I said, the animals are missing. I saw a dingo (not currently in the process of stealing any babies) in a loading sequence, but that's about it.
When you crash into a railing just feet away from festival goers or people unfortunate enough to live in an area swarming with consequence-free drivers, they don't react in the slightest. They'll clap if you get near, stop if you back away, but a huge off-road vehicle coming to an instant stop doesn't faze them. They're animatronic people designed to make the theme park that is Forza Horizon 3 look something close to alive. Working in animals and having people react more realistically could've both gone a long way toward bringing the world to life.
But, really, the amount of time you spend stopped, without music playing, without the sounds of motors revving, is minimal. I was playing for hours before I noticed and it was a rare thing thereafter.
So much room for activities
The variety of landscape provides more variety of gameplay, too. Forza Horizon 3 has the most diverse lineup of cars yet. There's a ton more in the way of off-road vehicles, including some straight-up dune buggies, heavy duty pickup trucks, and rally cars. Races will take you from the city street up into the jungle, taking you through pools of water and flowing riverbeds. More of the races than not take you across two or three different surfaces.
There are new events, too. Epic-sized jumps dot the map, asking you to take your car to wild heights and land it on its wheels. These moments make for some great photographs. Most events from the past, like speed traps and speed zones, are back again as well alongside circuit races and point-to-point races.
This time around, instead of being some random driver at the Horizon Festival, you'll step into the shoes of the one running the show. What that changes in terms of gameplay from moment to moment means very little aside from the pleasant female voice in your ear sucking up to you even more, but it gives you control over a few elements.
You pick the order in which festival locations open and the order in which they expand. Each new expansion brings more events with it, so if you're craving some time in the Outback, you level up that location and so forth. It puts the pacing of the game in the player's hands while still doling out new events in a pretty even way. You always have some stuff to do, but it's never overwhelming.
As the boss, you also get to create events. This is one of the biggest new elements of Forza Horizon 3 and I'm not sure yet how it'll pan out. This is something that'll only bear fruit with long term community involvement.
In the short term, it seems like a cool way to let players add something to the festival. If you really don't want to do a Cult Classics race right now, tooting around in a three-wheeled Reliant Robin, you can pick a user-created race that might be a midnight rally race through the jungle or a rainy day muscle car race.
The biggest downfall of this mode is that you don't get much control over the race itself. You can pick out which cars are eligible and conditions like time of day and weather, but you can't, for example, design a new course. If there's anything that has me looking forward to Forza Horizon 4, it's the almost inevitable inclusion of custom tracks or even pseudo-custom tracks.
You can also create your own bucketlist challenges. Here there's more room to express yourself. You can create any kind of bucketlist challenge you can play in the game, from those Danger Sign jumps I mentioned earlier to skill challenges to timed cross-country races. In addition to setting weather and daytime conditions as you please, you can pick a song from the game's eight radio stations to go with the challenge.
Personal expression (within the bounds of an open world racing game) is very much at the core of Forza Horizon 3, especially when compared to previous entries in the series.
Of course, you can pick the car you want to drive and run any number of races. You can pick a standard paintjob, a custom one built by a community member, or create your own. It used to stop there. Now you can choose a drive from among a group of drivers, male and female, covering a variety of ethnicities. You'll be able to pick a name from a huge list of male, female, and and nick names, too, that your GPS will read back to you, a la Codworth in Fallout 4. Both of those can be changed at any time, too. One of my minor, but irritating pet peeves in Horizon 2 was that they wanted you to take photos, but every car had the same stone-faced off-brand Nathan Drake at the wheel. If you're bored of one character, you can now pick another whenever you like.
You can set a custom license plate on your car as well, within certain family-friendly boundaries. There's even a laundry list of car horns.
The team at Playground Games seems to have gone out of their way this time around to make as much of the game customizable as possible without simply dropping you in the middle of an empty map and saying "go do cars."
The one place this is sort of a miss comes in the form of the 9th radio station. The game features 8 curated radio stations with selections like classic, punk, rap, and drum & bass. The rap station even managed to fit in a track from one of my favorite artists, so I'm pretty happy with the selection overall. The 9th station, though, uses Microsoft's Groove music service. There's a lot of potential here. You can build your own playlists out of music you own by uploading it to Microsoft's One Drive service, and, if you're willing to pay the Groove Music fee, you can pull from their much larger library of tracks.
If you're willing to sit down and manually curate playlists, you can build your ultimate driving playlist. However, the station functions less like a radio station and more like a vinyl album. You select which playlist you want to use in the options menu, and then tune to that station on your dial. From there, it starts playing from the beginning of the playlist. If you turn off your game and come back later, it starts from the beginning of that playlist. If you switch to another playlist and back? Back to the beginning. There's no shuffle and no real skip option available. It just plays the same songs in the same order.
If you're willing to sit down and pick an exact order for a playlist and ready to live with that, Groove is a great option. But for this to really work, they'll need to offer, at the very least, a shuffle option. If someone drops a few albums by their favorite artists into a playlist, they don't want to hear each one in order.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my intention is to look at the multiplayer, cross-play, and the return of the auction house once the game is publicly available and the features have enough traffic to get a real idea of what they have to offer. The cross-platform multiplayer Microsoft is making a tentpole feature of the Xbox platform starts with Forza Horizon 3, and the potential this feature has to broaden the game's audience is huge. It stands to change the way people play and talk about the game. Right now, though, that feature isn't available, so we've talked about what is.
What's here is a huge, open world filled with all kinds of sights to see and fun activities to take part in. You get to do all this stuff with more customization than ever.
What I struggle with is that, aside from the awesome setting, there just isn't that much new to the game when it comes to what you're doing moment to moment. When Forza Horizon 4 inevitably comes along, I'd love to see the team, wherever they go, find new ways to really mix up the Horizon Festival. What's here is great, and worth picking up if you have any love for racing games, cars, or even just travelling from your living room. Grab a steady all-wheel drive car, set the difficulty to easy, and go for a ride.
While we wait to see what effect cross-platform play has on Forza Horizon and to see if Playground can mix things up the next time around, though, what we have is the most complete, best looking, best playing Horizon game yet.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Forza Horizon 3 for the Xbox One from the publisher. We played around 18 hours before writing this review.