Review by Nick H.
The Forza series has a habit of setting a high bar both for the racing genre, and even video games in general. The venerable racing series manages to improve upon itself almost every time, and considering how good it is each release, that is saying something. The trend continues here as Playground Games unleashes a spectacular combination of racing action, breathtaking visuals and varied tasks that turn Forza Horizon 3 into a celebration of cars and racing.
The traditional Forza titles are excellent driving games, but there is something special about the open worlds of the Horizon series. There is greater variety in the environments and the cars, and there is more of an arcade feeling to the titles as well, especially when you catch some serious air with your ride. The number of cars included right out of the gates is impressive, ranging from race cars to buggies and everything in between. These are not just cosmetic differences either. If you are going to be off the beaten path, an SUV or buggy is going to fare so much better than a Shelby. Even the term 'off-road' can carry all kinds of different meanings here as you have some set roads, some dirt paths, plenty of grass and even sandy beaches and bodies of water to navigate around - or through or over depending on your style of play.
My personal style is that of an overly aggressive driver. I am perfectly happy to rub paint with other cars (or just call a spade a spade and say I am perfectly happy to smash them off of the road). From wide open straight shots to winding, curving paths there are numerous opportunities to create spectacular moments of success and even more startling failures. The series continues to provide you with a rewind button, which is handy in case you have a moment that is just an absolute deal killer. Not using it for events or jacking up the difficulty level grants better experience and rewards, but I like having the option to scale things back as well in case I need a little extra help (hint: I do).
The first event starts off in spectacular fashion as you hear all about how this year's Forza Horizon event is set in Australia (Matt should appreciate that), which is home of so many different beautiful and varied landscapes. You get dropped into a race using a buggy that is racing against another car being carried along the track on a helicopter. This is a great introduction to the game's mechanics as you learn how to navigate all kinds of different terrain without actually being in a competitive race until near the very end when your opponent is released and the two of you duke it out for first place on the home stretch. 'Visual spectacle' is the description that comes to mind when I consider the graphics. The cars and environments are absolutely gorgeous, with so much attention to detail as cars spit up sand on the beach, or they reflect on the wet pavement or lose side view mirrors after scraping sides with another vehicle.
Afterwards a little more of the game is peeled back as you are presented with car options and asked to take on your first opponent. Like the last few versions of Forza to come out, this one also pulls in people from your friend list on Xbox Live to build out your competition. This system of 'Driveatars' has been carried over from prior games, so even though I was playing this prior to the release, I was still up against Trent from the DDNet team during my first recruitment mission. The technology behind these Driveatars is excellent and it remains a great deal of fun to see familiar names as my competition.
Forza Horizon 3 is built around an open world littered with different events and things to do as you earn experience points, credits and fans to help you unlock even more content, such as different cars, unique horn sounds and alternate radio stations, along the way. Little things built into the environment such as signs to be run over to give you an experience boost encourage you to scan your surroundings. If the map shows you there is a sign you don't see while crossing the bridge, get in that water and go under the bridge and odds are you will find it. These moments of exploration are a lot of fun and the variety of objectives combined with the excellent online cooperative play opportunities really kept me engaged for long stretches of time. It is not as though the game just gives you busywork for the sake of padding the experience. Too many open world games start to feel that way to me after a dozen or so hours in. The core experience of racing and seeing new sites is so good and so compelling that these new activities are something I genuinely looked forward to and not some item on a checklist that I felt compelled to do.
It helps that while you start your adventure with a little festival on the south eastern corner of the map, you can spread out and explore all kinds of new territory. There are little perks you can buy as you level up, from credit boosts to unlocking drones you can fly for discovering other events and a whole lot more. Even the radio options that let you choose from a variety of musical styles help to keep the audio portion of the presentation fun. With eight stations and over one hundred songs, there is a great deal of variety in the music, but if that is not enough for you, Groove Music users can dial into that service and integrate their own song choices into the game. The growl of engines and the sound effects in the game are generally excellent, but just like when I drive my car (except a lot faster), I crank up the music as I cruise the countryside.
Related reading: Nick's review of the previous Forza Horizon title.
It could be argued that this is more of an incremental improvement over the second Forza Horizon game because the overall formula is not drastically different from what has come before. However, almost every single aspect from the changing weather and gameplay tweaks provide an improved experience that makes the exploration of virtual Australia an absolute joy. Whether skidding around a wet corner at high speeds or catching big air on a dangerous jump, I felt compelled to continually test boundaries and the end results was a thrill that few racing games can hope to match. With plenty of activities to do and the option to engage in them with friends online, I can easily say that Forza Horizon 3 quickly succeeded in becoming my favourite title in the Forza series to date.