Since the original Forza way back on the first Xbox, I’ve watched this series just get better and better. On the Xbox One, the Forza games have moved so far past Sony’s stuck in the mud Gran Turismo series that it’s not even a competition anymore. Microsoft created the first Forza Horizon as an open world alternative to their track-based, stricter Forza Motorsports, but what at first seemed like a gimmick has quickly turned into one of the best racing game series on the market.
As Forza Horizon 3 reinforces, there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon. Moving the venue to the huge outdoor spaces of Australia is the biggest change, but the game itself largely remains the same in structure as the previous iterations. There’s a giant driving festival, miles and miles of road to explore and around 350 cars to acquire. Plus, events. Events everywhere, as far as the eye can see. Crazy events like the opening race where you are literally trying to beat a jeep being flown around by a helicopter abound this time.
In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if Forza Horizon 3’s developer, Playground Studios, somehow sucked up some of the genius minds behind the Burnout series. This is especially apparent in the ‘Danger Sign Jumps’, where certain spots are marked with, well, danger signs indicating the chance to hit some kind of ramp at high speeds to gain massive air (and points). There are a ton of other events that pop up over the extensive map, but my overt glee at wanton destruction and absurd car abuse made me love these jump zones.
Drift zones, showdowns and convoy races test different driving skills (ones that don’t involve flying in super cars) and there are showcase events that offer various takes on standard issue racing. The point of all these eclectic bits of driving isn’t just something as simple as being the best there ever was. Merely winning races is fine, but to really excel you need to entice fans to the festival and gain new members to your team.
Every absurd over-the-top feat you perform can earn you more fans. Fans, in turn, help to expand the Horizon Festival, which is a new twist. The bigger the festival gets, the more options in everything—from cars and events to customization options—you have. Horizon 3 has one of the most organic senses of progression I’ve ever seen in a racing game. You, as the player, constantly keep moving to explore and find the next cool thing to do. Much like discovering cars in old barns was an element in the original, this game is designed to provoke a sense of wonder and curiosity through exploration.
Exploring this virtual Australia, even just aimlessly, is simply a ton of fun that constantly leads to new sights. As Americans, we generally have a barren perception of Australia—that it’s all “outback,” dry and sparse desert country. If Horizon 3 is any indication, the landscape is so much more. Forests, suburbs, gorgeous beaches, deserts and more await the eager driver across rain and sunshine. In fact, in my play time, it seemed to rain an awful lot.
The entire Forza series’ unique use of players as in-game drivers has always been distinctive element. Called ‘drivatars’, these computer-controlled cars named frequently after people from your own friends list (who also play Forza) creates an interesting air of social gaming even while playing alone. Basically, the idea is that these cars represent the driving style of other players (for better or worse), and competing and beating a player’s drivatar creates a sort of asynchronous sense of competition between other humans.
Beating other drivatars can actually get them to join your team as well, leading to the acquisition of more fans, money and rewards. Of course, if fake players aren’t your thing, Horizon 3 has pretty amazing online multiplayer opportunities. Up to twelve players can just bump around the world and race each other how they want in the online free roam mode. There’s also a new four-player cooperative mode that lets you form a small team to take on special events together.
Probably the most important aspect of Horizon 3 is the sheer customizability. Far beyond merely being able to customize nearly every level of your cars (which you can), the game lets you configure how you want to play it. Arcade lovers, casual drivers, even the more hardcore sim-types can adjust a variety of options to either make the driving easier or more realistic. Forza Horizon 3 is the Swiss Army knife of racing games: it’s everything nearly any player could want from a racing game, short of actual gun-based car combat.
There’s more to go on about in Horizon 3, more secrets and features to help firmly set it as the best racer of the year. Largely, though, it’s a game that revels in the sheer love of driving for the sake of driving. The mix of traditional races, outrageous stunts and extreme speed across one of the most stunning landscapes you’re likely to find just works.
Forza Horizon 3 was developed by Playground Games and published by Microsoft. It is available for the Xbox One and PC.
Jason D’Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.