Racing games have gotten very serious. With arcade games like Blur, Split Second and Ridge Racer failing to excite a large enough audience, and genre staple Need For Speed seemingly in the middle of a crisis, the video game racing world has been left to the serious. Forza Motorsport, Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, DiRT Rally and to an extent Driveclub, all do a great job at letting you drive a virtual car about virtual tracks, racing virtual or real people and setting new times for online leaderboards in a serious fashion. And Forza Horizon 3 is serious too: It's serious about making sure you love every second of it; it's serious about making you want to stop and take in the view; it's serious about making everything fun. It's seriously good.
Horizon 3's setup isn't a major leap over previous entries. Once again you are placed on a large open-world map (this time eastern Australia, including Surfers Paradise and Byron Bay) as everyone converges on a single location for a massive music and car festival. The difference this time is that you're the person in charge of the festival, and must race to build up fans and expand the event into new locations.
An opening race event does its best to give you a taste of what's to come, mixing up locations and terrains to great effect. This is one of Forza Horizon 3's greatest achievements, bringing coastal, city, forest, and outback areas into one cohesive, completely open game world. Festival sites, once unlocked, provide hubs for these areas, with more events, challenges, and stunts provided each time you level up a site.
Hairing along a coastal road at 150 mph, weaving in and out of traffic, is exhilarating, but the fact that you could be bouncing along a hilly field that leads to a tightly woven forest minutes later makes the whole game a thrilling treat. The city areas are also better than ever, giving a real PGR/GRID vibe to the racing that left me hoping Playground attempts a bigger urban location next time around. It would be wonderful.
There's a seemingly never-ending list of activities to pick from, including new 'Blueprint' events that let you create and share variations with others, although sadly just five of the awesome Showcase events. A disappointment, considering a) they're fantastic, and b) that was a complaint levelled equally at Forza Horizon 2. With credits (used to buy cars), XP (for leveling up your rank), and fans (for leveling up your festival sites) all being awarded for pretty much whatever you choose to do, Horizon 3 has one of the most appealing and rewarding gameplay loops of any racer to date. Not since the now ancient PS2 days of Gran Turismo 3 have I felt such a strong pull to keep on playing in order to get more.
As is the Forza way you can choose the car or cars you want to spend the most time in. I naturally found myself switching up to a new 'main' as I acquired new vehicles, but the handling in Horizon 3 is so fun and the terrain so varied that you'll want to hop around. I can't emphasise enough how enjoyable the simple act of driving around in Horizon 3 is. It's so easy to just throw the car off-road and just drive for the hell of it.
You'll slowly earn rewards no matter what you're doing, and pootling around (can Super cars pootle?) from A to B has been given an upgrade thanks to the new convoy system. By honking your horn at AI drivatars you're able to enlist them into a car convoy as you explore. These racers will hang near you, and can be upgraded via the perks system to find hidden items or challenged to spontaneous races. I've lost track of the amount of times I headed off to a location on the map (usually a quest to find one of the 15 cars hidden in a barn or smash up an XP board) only to end up somewhere completely different having got carried away challenging my convoy pals.
Forza Horizon 3 is packed with content, but if you're bored of playing alone it's not short on modes and options to play with friends. The clubs from previous games return, there are loads of events to take on against online foes (including standard races and more unusual modes like Capture the Flag and Infection). Brand new to Forza Horizon 3 is online campaign co-op, with support for up to four players. This allows you and three friends to build up popularity and festival sites together. It works really well and gives the game an extra social angle on top of an already great suite of features.
This might be a little unfair but I'm genuinely surprised and continuously impressed by how great Forza Horizon 3 looks. Considering the Jurassic Park-sized amount of shit Microsoft gets for making the Xbox One similar in power to a child's battery-powered ride-on police quad bike, it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming every game will fail to impress in comparison to Sony's first-party PS4 output. Forza Horizon 3 doesn't. I've only noticed one significant frame drop (from the target 30fps) in my entire time with the game, but on the whole this is a solid, smooth 1080p experience with beautiful lighting and weather effects. If you look closely it's obvious that an awful lot of fine tuning had to be done in order to achieve this (zooming through a forest will reveal some detail and shadow pop-in), but this is by no means a blot on Playground Games' incredible visual achievement.
Given the festival wrappings of the Forza Horizon series, music plays a big part in the overall experience. Within a few hours you'll have unlocked the entire list of 9 radio stations, each offering a specific genre. I like Pulse, mainly because it features two Chvrches tracks, but as is the way in racing games I'm happy to listen to anything to accompany the roar of whichever high-powered beast I'm current behind the wheel of. The final radio station is Groove Music, Microsoft's music streaming service that the game conveniently offers a free trial to. It's easy enough to say no to this, but if you're the kind of person who gets worked up over such a service being pushed inside a game, you've been warned. It does let you use your own music stored on One Drive, too, so you don't need to pay for a pass.
Minor music service quibble aside, Forza Horizon 3 is a beautiful, immensely entertaining, joyous arcade racer that successfully builds on Playground Games' already tremendous formula. As an open world racer Forza Horizon 3 is epic and diverse, as a racer it's satisfying yet deep, and as a place to hang out it's a whole heap of fun.
Version Tested: Xbox One