While Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon are very clearly carved from the wood of the same gaming tree, they are ultimately very different beasts. To take the wood carving analogy to painful extremes, Forza Motorsport 6 would be a beautiful oak banquet table. Forza Horizon 3 would be something like a cross between an occasional table and a transformer, able to assume various sumptuous forms according to the needs and desires of the diners.
As wonderful as it is, put any thoughts you might have of Forza 6 out of your head for Forza Horizon 3. While the former shuttles you between races through menus, the latter – in keeping with the rest of the Horizon series – scatters races and other points of interest across an open-world map. This, combined with the fact that the default handling settings are a bit more arcadey than the main Forza series, means that the latest entry has often found itself compared with Burnout Paradise.
I didn’t really like Burnout Paradise.
The other Burnout games, I loved (Burnout 2 was amazing). I just couldn’t get on with Paradise’s open world. While I’m happy to consider the possibility that it was down to my innate stupidity, I found it was often a chore to navigate. Finding specific places could be more difficult than it should have been, and taking a wrong turn in the middle of a race – particularly when I was in front – was a very real fear. Not once did I ever have such problems in FH3, though perhaps that’s simply because it’s basically idiot-proof.
The whole semi-story angle of the game is odd (who on earth buys a racer for brief yet unskippable cutscenes?), but it ties into gameplay nicely. ‘Horizon’ refers to a hybrid racing/music festival you see, and this year it’s taking place in a mini version of Australia. Each time you earn the required number of ‘fans’, you’re rewarded with the chance to upgrade one of your festival sites, or open up a brand new one. Each time you do one of these, a new batch of icons pop up on the map representing races, drift zones, speed cameras, and more. They’re visible in-world once you get close enough, and a waypoint can be set to any from the map screen.
A compressed approximation of Australia proves to be what’s pretty much the perfect setting for this game. It provides an excellent variety in environments to race through so that while one minute you could be whizzing over asphalt in the city streets, your next event could take place in a forest, or across desert terrain, or over a beach. Or perhaps some mix of these. It’s not a great idea to try taking your lowered supercar over the sand and over uneven greenery though; so it’s just as well that there’s an even more impressive variety of vehicles.
Off-road beasts, super-fast monsters designed purely for track performance, three-wheeled Reliants, dune buggies, rally cars, muscle cars, classic designs, sleek performance cars from the last year or two… all these and a great many more can be found in FH3. True to Forza form, each vehicle feels unique, and the differences in handling and speed – particularly between car types – is staggering. This not only enables races across all different terrains, it also allows the player a huge amount of control over what types of races they actually take part in.
Fairly early on, you unlock ‘blueprints’. What this means, in effect, is that – with the exception of championships and tightly scripted ‘showcase’ events (where you might race against, say, a train or a bunch of speedboats) – you have the option of calling the race-related shots. This isn’t just basic stuff like difficulty and assists, which you can adjust even for a pre-programmed event. A blueprint race will allow you to choose things like the time of day and – importantly – type of vehicle involved. You can’t fiddle with the route, sadly, but it’s still a great idea that works very well. Struggling to take corners in the souped-up Ferrari you’ve been using? Change it to a race for lower class cars instead! Or perhaps that race through the outback was too easy? Make everybody use track cars, that’ll spice things up! Fancy a race full of clunky old street cars for comedy value? Go for it.
It can’t be stressed enough how eager FH3 is to please the player. This is immediately visible in how you’re rewarded with XP for… well, almost anything, really. It doesn’t come across as patronising – you still lose it all if you crash before the points are banked – rather, it makes the very act of driving even more satisfying. You earn points for crashing into (destructible) things, for not crashing into things, for high speeds, for drifts, for passing, for jumps… chain it all together for a combo and, if you can avoid smashing into a wall or a tree that’s a little too big, there are some mighty high scores to be had.
It’s just as well that driving is fun in and of itself, because the game is designed to encourage you to drive rather than fast travel, and the map is huge. Fast travel destinations are limited to your festival sites until you unlock the ability to travel anywhere, which takes hours of play and a whopping 15 skill points. Even then, you have to pay for the privilege with hard-earned credits. Having the option there is welcome but, to be honest, you probably won’t be tempted by it often.
To its infinite credit, FH3 never leaves you bored. You are never lacking something to do. There are finite objectives – XP and fast travel boards to smash, rare cars to find and keep hidden away in abandoned barns – but you can always replay that race, go back through that championship, try to beat that drift score, have a go at an even more outrageous speed past the cameras, try an even more dangerous jump through that danger sign. Even when there is finally no untouched icon on the map – a situation it will take you dozens of hours to reach – as well as the aforementioned score chasing, the blueprint feature will give any race a brand new sheen and a whole new feel. The game will keep suggesting new drivatars for you to recruit (beat them in a head-to-head) to boost your earnings, but the true appeal when it comes to other drivers, of course, is racing against them online.
The online/offline transition is fairly smooth. Either via the menu or your satnav assistant “ANNA” (some desperate acronym), you set matchmaking for what you want to do. When a session is found and accepted, you get a brief “welcome to online adventure” screen, then you’re in. When a race kicks in you get a short time to get to the start for bonus credits and XP, then the event beings. When you decide to go back offline, you continue in the exact spot you were when you opted out. There are plenty of people playing, so finding opponents isn’t a problem. There’s a nice variety of possible modes, and players vote form a few choices each time. As well as races, you have neat twists such as ‘infected’ (one car starts out infected, bumping another car infects them, etc.) and ‘flag rush’, where flags must be collected/stolen and returned to the correctly coloured circle for points. Lobbies have been sacrificed in the name of a consistent player experience, which means that you can’t simply choose what type of online event you want and stick to that. A shame, but hardly a game-breaker.
Back offline, wider cracks can show in terms of AI. Although the whole idea of drivatars is to mimic the behaviour of individual players, the bottom line is that they struggle to accommodate the presence of a human racer. It’s possible – likely, even – that you’ll go several races without this being apparent. Sometimes though, especially on corners, they’ll behave in a way that not only causes you problems, but doesn’t even benefit themselves.
That, however, is the entirety of my gripes with the game. I love it. Hardcore petrolhead, casual arcade racer, or somewhere in-between; you can tweak settings and assists to match your style (though I was quite happy with the default) before you even mess with the races themselves. This is a game where you set yourself a waypoint, then cheerily ignore the satnav’s directions as you hurtle through vegetation and over hills to take a more direct offroad route. You can’t be sure what’s waiting for you, but you know it’ll be good.
What’s the bottom line? An open-world car game that works, Forza Horizon 3 is one of the best racers of this generation. At the moment, perhaps the best.
Review by Luke Kemp. Thanks to Xbox for the review code!