Forza Horizon 2 was one of the greatest driving games of all time, combining the tight, physical and tactile control scheme from Forza Motorsport 5 with a fantastic open world which was as varied as it was beautiful. It was filled to the brim with the pure joy of driving. When you swerved around the small coastal roads of southern Europe you got an experience unlike any other, one that was simple, elegant, and yet intricately designed. The beauty came from the balance between simulation and realism, and its ability to play it loose and be more forgiving. Forza Horizon 2 will forever be remembered as a fantastic driving game, one of the few that managed to satisfy the hardcore track racer crowd while also appealing to the Need for Speed fanbase at the same time, without ever having to compromise along the way.
That's why developer Playground Games was a bit nervous when they revealed Forza Horizon 3 at this year's E3, and rightfully so. When you've achieved perfection, where do you go next? Well, apparently you go down under to Australia, because that's where the new game takes place. Here, Playground Games has managed to create the biggest sandbox in the series to date, adding hundreds of new cars, events and cool music, all in the hope of outdoing its predecessor and exceeding our lofty expectations.
If you have yet to properly familiarise yourself with the Horizon half of the franchise, it's a sandbox racer with the core mechanics seen in the Forza Motorsport series. Your character is the mind behind the yearly Horizon festival, and as manager it's your responsibility to take part in all kinds of races around the open world, invest in new vehicles, hire new radio stations and generally spread the word. That happens by collecting fans, and you get them by completing races, both on the track and off-road in the rain forest and in the Outback. Variation is no doubt present, and during the first few hours you'll easily be overwhelmed by the amount of content and all the individual systems.
And with this, we arrive at Forza Horizon 3's first main problem; direction, or a lack thereof. When you gain a level you receive wheel-spins that give you the opportunity to win money or new cars. You also have skill levels which consist of three skill trees where you can permanently upgrade yourself and your options. At the same time your festival locations have their own levels which gradually expands them as well as the events they contain. You can earn money by completing events which can be adapted using blueprints that let you decide each parameter of the race. You also have to remember to hire radio stations for the festival as well as hire and run Drivatar buddies, make money on designing skins, complete PR events, find forgotten cars in barns, take part in vinyl grounds, and tune your ride. Simply put, there's too many systems layered on top of each other, and these have a tendency to muddy the overall experience. It's the driving sensation that's central in all Forza Horizon games, racing across the landscape in a nice set of wheels and putting away mile after mile. However, by adding in so many individual systems it quickly sucks some of the joy out of the experience, and there's often no clear sense of direction.
That's not the only problem either. Even though Australia definitely is the most impressive piece of landmass ever featured in the series, it simply lacks some of the picturesque character seen in the previous chapters. It's beautiful, but the design of the cities is not as iconic, and the landscape is almost too varied which means it lacks a focused and defined identity. In a matter of a few minutes you race from the rain forest to the Outback, then from sunny coastlines to sprawling cities. It may work wonders in terms of the variety of events Playground can squeeze into a limited amount of space, but it simply lacks the soul of southern Europe and as such it doesn't feel as special.
It might feel like it's starting to look bleak, but make no mistake, the Forza series continues its winning spree with Forza Horizon 3. Simply put, the game is incredibly entertaining. If you can overcome the amount of feature creep, and if you welcome the more varied game world, this is a driving game that wants to be fun more than anything else, and they come very close to succeeding all the way through.
First, there's the car physics. It's of course a lot heavier than Need for Speed, Burnout and The Crew because, despite its more accessible nature, Forza Horizon 3 is not an arcade racer. The cars are sticky, heavy and even unwieldy at times, and that's because a lot of the mechanical DNA is shared with the Motorsport series. Of course it's more forgiving, especially in the way the tires respond to various road surfaces, which lets you drift around corners with more precision. Forza Horizon 3's car and driving physics are like well-designed traction control. The game lets you have fun, but without sacrificing the professional approach that has made the Forza name what it is today. At the same time, you can turn ABS, the racing line, gear shift and limiter on or off as you see fit, so even though we'd consider the balance to be perfect all round, you can tweak it to fit your personal requirements.
Every race is designed to satisfy all types of players, and the overall balance between various types of events, which more often than not focus on one particular ability, is better than ever. Even though the number of systems can be overwhelming, the variety between the types of races is great as there's always something new and exciting to do if you happen to become tired of a certain activity. All these activities are also heavily enriched by the addition of the Drivatar system, which inserts player-like AI controlled opponents into the races and the open world, and which become more erratic and uncontrolled in their behaviour by using data from real Forza players. You never race against generic opponent X or Y, but rather ghosts or mechanical reflections of real players. This has always been clever because it not only creates an unpredictable dimension to each race, but also makes the world more interesting. If you simply drive around, you'll see convoys of several Drivatar-controlled cars racing down a random dirt road. They're not real players, but in that split second, it feels like you're a part of something alive.
If the series has an ace up its sleeve, it's the visual fidelity, and that certainly does not change with Forza Horizon 3. The game is gorgeous from the very first frame and all the way through to the end credits, and its beauty cannot be overstated. The colour palette, the lighting, the 3D models and the physics all combine for one exquisite visual feast, and this should be improved even further with the addition of HDR support, which we sadly couldn't test during the review process. This is where, luckily, the environmental variation works in the game's favour, because rain forests, deserts, and golden sandy beaches are jaw dropping to behold, and a joy to race through.
Likewise, the game's soundtrack is also a strong component and has increasingly grown to FIFA-like proportions where you can quickly find tons and tons of cool new songs and artists you never even knew existed, until that one perfect moment where a cool, new piece of music roars out of the speakers as you race for mile after mile in the Outback in an Ariel Nomad. There's tons of different radio stations to listen to, and all are perfect road companions. It's also possible this time around to listen to your own music, but it's not nearly as user-friendly as Microsoft made it out to be during E3. You actually can't - or at least we couldn't figure out how to - upload files to One Drive to listen to them in the game. Instead, you're offered 14 days of free music on Groove, Microsoft's Spotify competitor, and by adding playlists on your Groove account you can listen to your personal music in-game. It's a sweet addition, sure, but it's still a shame that you don't have complete freedom.
Multiplayer is as smooth as ever, and is also ever-present, but it's only there only as much as you want it, since you control how much you interact with other players. There's the possibility to open up every race to other players, and likewise your world can be populated by real players mixed with Drivatars. It's all about choosing to group with other racers, although sadly we were not able to test the multiplayer component to its fullest, although we can confirm that matchmaking was incredibly smooth. Most importantly, it never interferes with your personal game if you don't want it to.
That Forza Horizon 3 fails to exceed the promise of its predecessor is of course a little disappointing, but that doesn't make it a bad driving game by any stretch of the imagination. Actually, it shames almost all other driving games out there, and continues to set the bar high. Australia is not as interesting as a racing location, and many of the systems quickly become filler, but if you're prepared to accept these small faults, Playground has created a massive world filled to the brim with exhilarating driving. It practically run rings around its competitors, and that is quite impressive indeed.