The Ultimate Virtual Driving Experience: ‘Forza Horizon 3’

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Forza Horizon 3 finally pushes the Horizon series past a mere “racing” game and into a driving experience. Horizon 1 and 2 are both incredibly competent games that mixed open-world experiences, exciting stunts, and collect-a-thon tendencies into the racing formula in a way that felt interesting, but never cohesive. Horizon 3 on the other hand feels so polished and integrated that it might as well be the seventh or eighth Horizon game.

First let’s start with the world. Not only is the new Australian playground larger than ever before (nearly twice the size of Horizon 2’s map), it’s more open. Gone are the random large sections of impassable terrain that seemed to pockmark the maps of previous Horizon games. Instead the Australian wilderness is a lovingly crafted and complete world space that is so varied and dynamic it may as well encompass the entire world, rather than a small swath of the land Down Under. You start the game at a seaside location on a cliff that is surrounded by flat grasslands that feel a touch like the African savanna. Other major locations include a small skyscraper-filled city, a few small neighborhoods, a rain forest complete with massive waterfalls, and the wild and unruly Outback.

Forza Horizon 3 Coast Landscape

Each area is distinct, but it all flows together in a way I didn’t expect. To make sure you really enjoy the world that Playground Games created, there are beauty spots located around the map that display a small 25 second or so panoramic view of a particular place with a short voiceover talking about what you’re looking at. It’s a nice touch that also provides tangible benefits in the way of experience points for the player.

For returning fans of the series, you should be happy to hear that many of the hilarious and wild activities that defined the previous games have all returned. Showcase events are back in full force, along with various jumps, speed traps, and drift zones. There are plenty of chances to act like a hooligan. And for those of you who got tired of racing planes over and over again in Showcase events, Horizon 3’s events feel much more fresh and interesting.

Forza Horizon 3 Helo Showcase

To match the varied locations, Horizon 3 is also loaded with an incredible spread of cars that span every genre, driving style, and brand. From the Halo franchise’s Warthog, to the BMW Isetta, back to the Koenigsegg One:1, there is something for everyone. And of course, every machine can be altered and customized to your heart’s content. My current joy-toy is a ND-generation Miata with a supercharged LS3, rally suspension, and AWD. There is something wonderful about blasting past a trophy truck at 200 mph in a Miata as I race through the Outback.

Being based in Australia, Horizon 3 also features some more interesting and unique cars that are only found on the island continent. Vintage utes and dune buggies join modern Holdens and Aussie-exclusive Fords to help round out the list of nearly 400 cars.

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Forza Horizon 3 doubles down on player choice and customization as well. In previous games you were an unwitting driver who was just part of the celebration, but in Horizon 3 you are the one in charge of Horizon. Win a few races and rack up some fans and your festival grows. When it’s ready to grow you are given the choice of where to start your next Horizon Tour location. If you prefer tight circuits and city driving, head over to Surfer’s Paradise. If you want to flog the most badass off-road machinery, head to the Outback. Eventually you will unlock every location, but this small touch really helps to mold the early game into the best experience possible for every player.

Forza Horizon 3 City Skyline

That customization of experience can be pushed even further at each location. Between reaching enough fans to expand out to a new location, you are also given site upgrades that allow you to enhance an already opened festival, unlocking more events and activities. So if you find yourself really enjoying a certain area, but you already completed all the available events, just upgrade that location and you have even more fun waiting for you.

Even the actual events can be customized by players. You can “Blueprint” most of the events in the game, altering the time of day, weather, car restrictions, and more. It’s just one more way that the “boss” of the festival gets to take charge and dictate events. You can even create customized Bucket List events and challenge your friends.

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If it feels like I haven’t talked much about the actual racing in Forza Horizon 3, that is because it feels like the least important and interesting piece of the game. In typical Forza fashion, the racing is superb, but when there is so much else to do, see, and explore, the simple task of participating in a circuit race feels a little boring. Sure, I could race the same event over and over trying to cut my lap times and climb the leaderboard, but why bother? Instead I just competed in an event once, took whatever score I managed, and moved on. Starting convoys, racing with friends, finding new PR stunts, and just driving around the world felt much more satisfying than the curated events.

Forza Horizon 3 Fence Smash

And that is what I think the most important key to Horizon 3’s success will be. Forza Motorsport exists for the hard-core simulation drivers who obsess over tenths of seconds. Forza Horizon is more of an enjoyment simulator. Go out and drive with your friends, and just have fun. Like I said before, it’s less racing game and more driving game. It takes the large ideas and fun found in older titles like The Crew and Burnout Paradise, and it wraps them in the visuals, speed, and visceral immersion that Turn 10 and Playground games do so immaculately.

In short, if there is any “must have” racing game for the Xbox One, my vote is Horizon 3.

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Forza Horizon 3 was reviewed on an Xbox One console using a pre-release retail code provided by Microsoft. Xbox Play Anywhere PC compatibility is unable to be tested at the time of publishing.

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Christian Moe contributes to many of Internet Brands' Auto blogs, including Corvette Forum, Club Lexus and Rennlist.

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