When Substance Meets Style
Playground Games’ Forza Horizon 3 isn’t just an exemplary open-world racer; it’s pure bliss. Every facet of the game is masterfully designed to create a jaw-dropping and exhilarating experience. The driving is challenging, with realistic physics and effects, but still manages to play like a top-notch arcade racer, and the open-world Australian outback is one of the best and most beautiful open-world maps I’ve ever experienced. Forza Horizon 3 is a triumph.
In Forza Horizon 3, you’re in control as the boss of the Horizon Festival. Across the open-world of Australia are multiple types of races and PR Stunts, each providing the player with Credits, XP, and Fans. Credits are used for purchasing new cars and upgrades, leveling up gives you a wheelspin for either credits or a new car, and Fans allow you to upgrade your Festivals and open new Festival sites. There are four Festival locations across Australia, and each can be upgraded three times, with each upgrade unlocking more event locations for you to discover and complete.
The types of events are pretty standard fare; you have common Exhibition and Championship events, as well as driving challenges (PR Stunts) that include jumps, speedcams, and drift and speed zones. There are bronze, silver, and gold scores to beat, with some requiring you to show off some serious driving capabilities. The event types may not be all that unique to players, but the driving controls and map routes more than make up for any repetition.
The driving in Forza Horizon 3 is incredibly well-tuned, as the gameplay simultaneously feels like a sim and arcade racer. There are plenty of different ways to earn style points, giving the game a sort of Project Gotham Racing feel to it. From typical skills like drifting, drafting and airtime, to more unique honors such as performing a drift tap, trading paint, or taking out trash cans, pretty much everything you do nets you skill points (short of crashing into a tree, that is). This emphasis on creating skill chains makes you want to drive with style, naturally lending itself to helping create awe-inspiring moments every time you play.
On top of the aforementioned events, there are also 15 different Barn Finds to discover. These exotic cars are hidden in certain areas around the map, forcing you to explore the area to find it. Once claimed, it’ll take a little while to restore, but soon you can cruise the outback in some awesome and hilarious classics. You can also challenge other drivers to head-to-head races. Win enough of these, and you’ll unlock Street Races, which in turn can unlock Midnight Battles, where you can win some sweet new rides. You can also track down 30 different Bucket List challenges, providing players with once-in-a-lifetime driving opportunities. There’s also the Airstrip, where players can meet to show off their custom paint and tuning jobs, as well as race in a mile drag. Once you’ve gained enough Fans, you’ll also be able to partake in Showcase events, pitting you against a different vehicle in an exhilarating outback tour. These are mostly one-off races, and are pretty hard to lose, but they offer up some truly memorable moments. There’s plenty to keep yourself occupied in Forza Horizon 3, and I haven’t even started on the multiplayer yet.
The multiplayer component gave me some mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s a unique twist on your typical multiplayer, but on the other hand, it’s not all that efficient. Multiplayer is broken down into XP tournaments, consisting of four events. Players vote on one of three options, each dictating what area they’ll play in, what level of car they can choose from, and what types of races or games they’ll be playing. It’s a cool system, as players drive between the events, goofing off in between rounds, but it can take a long time to get going, so logging in for just one or two races is sort of pointless. On top of that, there’s no splitscreen, with multiplayer relegated to being online-only. I understand that the nature of an open-world racer is better suited for online implementation, and that local multiplayer is going the way of the dinosaur, but its exclusion from a racing game is pretty outrageous. Thankfully, racing online is very stable and the Playground Games (a multiplayer mode, not the development team) are a really fun way to mix things up. The Games are comprised of Infection, King, and Capture the Flag. They’re basically a big game of keep-away, but it’s good fun nonetheless.
The online campaign co-op is also incredibly fun. In online co-op, you’ll be able to party up with up to three friends, taking on the campaign races together in a Players vs AI event. The more players who beat AI, the more points you’ll team will earn, and the highest-placing player shares that placement with the team (for instance, if three players come in 12th-10th, but one player comes in 1st, the whole team wins gold). It’s a really cool and fun system, with plenty of opportunities to get distracted by simply driving around the outback with your friends.
As for the outback itself, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful game world on console. Australia is lush and vibrant, with deserts, rain forests, prairies and slick urban streets providing plenty of variation. It’s just as much fun speeding through the city of Surfer’s Paradise in a Lamborghini Aventador as it is going off-roading in a dune buggy. The lighting effects are truly stunning; there’s really nothing like cruising an open desert road as the sun rises up next to you, covering the cold, dark sands with an intense orange glow.
As if the environment aesthetics weren’t impressive enough, the attention to detail is staggering. Rain streaks from your windshield the faster you drive, your cars take realistic damage (though never enough to actually destroy the car), and light reflects independently off the cracks in your windshield. Your brakes even glow red hot when you start braking from high speed. Plenty of racing games look ugly when you slow down and look closely, but Forza Horizon 3 is consistently beautiful.
Now, a racing game wouldn’t be a racing game without cars, and thankfully Playground Games has got that base covered, and then some. There are 484 cars to drive from the get go, with DLC cars already on the way. The game has something for everybody, from futuristic super cars to classic racers, Asian tuner machines to off-road trucks and SUVs. Being that the Horizon series is more arcade-like than sim-like, you’re also fully capable of driving every vehicle type in all of the different environments in Australia. It’s pretty hilarious trying to navigate the bumpy desert roads in Ferrari 488 GTB.
One of the strongest aspects of Forza Horizon 3 is the sheer amount of customization options present. Car tuning is deeply complex, allowing players to customize each individual car’s performance to be just the way they want it. Factor in all the upgrade parts you can install, and you have an almost endless amount of performance customization. As for the race events, every route in the map can be customized using a Blueprint. Blueprints allow you to set the race conditions, from weather and traffic to car type and race length. Want to race nothing but Hyper Cars? Go for it. Feel like taking a casual Sunday drive with all Pininfarina Berlinettas? You can do that too. Forza Horizon 3 is designed so you create the fun for yourself; Playground Games just provides the tools.
Forza Horizon 3 isn’t just the best open-world racer I’ve ever played, it’s on the best racing games I’ve ever played, period. The gameplay is smooth and responsive, with realistic effects that blur the possibilities of reality rather than outright break them. The deep customization options, car roster, and gorgeous map combine to make an altogether memorable racing game. There’s a bit of a learning curve, particularly in working the multiplayer suite, but it’s all highly polished and incredibly fun. The game also boasts one of the greatest soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a game, with artists like DMX, Justice, Beastie Boys, Bring Me the Horizon, Diplo, and more. Forza Horizon 3 is the kind of game that will always put a smile on your face. It’s the teenage summer romance with the girl you met at Warped Tour. It’s speeding white-knuckled down the highway in your dad’s midlife crisis sportscar. It’s sitting on the beach with your closest friends, waiting for the sunrise. It’s the kind of game that reminds you just how grand life can be, even when it’s whipping past you at 200mph.