Welcome to Paradise
You’re driving down an Australian coastal highway at the magic hour in a Lamborghini Veneno. A few stars cling to the fading night sky in the west, while outside the passenger side window dawn threatens to break just above the ocean’s crest. “Reckoner” by Radiohead starts playing over your car speakers so you turn up the volume until the sounds and scenery completely wash you away. It’s a moment of ostentatious tranquility, and you’re unlikely to ever actually experience it unless you’re playing Forza Horizon 3.
The latest Horizon builds upon the already solid foundation established by previous Forza titles. Neither hardcore simulator nor arcade racer, Horizon 3 functions as a hybrid of sorts, with the depth of the former category and the unbridled fun of the latter. Equally capable of offering leisurely test-drives, white-knuckle races, and reckless off-road exploration, Horizon 3 doesn’t sacrifice complex gameplay or its own creative vision for broad appeal despite being made for every racing fan. It’s the rare sequel that fully realizes a franchise’s potential.
This starts with fundamental changes to the open world racer’s setup. Unlike other entries in the series, Horizon 3 starts the player off as the boss of the Horizon Festival. For those unfamiliar with previous Horizon games, think of the festival itself like Coachella but for gearheads. Set across four distinct locations in Australia this time—including a coastal town, a lush rainforest, an expansive desert, and a metropolitan city—it’s your job to attract fans to the event, which is done by winning races, besting speed, drift, and jump challenges, and by executing elaborate skill chains. Along the way you’ll win new vehicles, perks, and part upgrades for basically every little thing you do. If there’s one thing Horizon 3 excels at better than most games, it’s constantly rewarding the player.
What’s nice about this setup in particular is that, as the boss, you get to choose exactly how you want to explore developer Playground Games’s abridged version of Australia. Are you in the mood to jump some sand dunes? Then venture to the desert, upgrade the area’s festival hub in the northwest corner of the map, and get in a dune buggy. Want to compete in a few street races? Then grab a Nissan Skyline from the garage, equip a drifting tune, and hit the streets of Surfer’s Paradise. Feeling luxurious? Then purchase an expensive car and go cruising—simple as that. There’s ultimate freedom to how you want to approach the numerous events scattered across Horizon 3’s enormous map, so upgrade each of the four main hubs as you see fit.
Luckily, no matter where you decide to venture next, it’s hard to be disappointed by Horizon 3’s gorgeous looks. Each location is distinct and large enough to be its own game. Surfer’s Paradise shares plenty of similarities with Rockstar’s Midnight Club series, the desert area seems never-ending when you’re first introduced to it, and it’s easy to get lost in the rainforest’s dense vegetation. In addition to the game’s more unique biomes, there’s a wide array of farms, fields, and festival events scattered in-between, bridging everything together into a cohesive whole. The setting is as diverse and robust as racing games get. Even the sky is mesmerizing. Turns out, sending a few developers into the Australian wilderness to film the skyline for months on end wasn’t such a bad idea. There aren’t many skyboxes this astonishing in video games (and what follows next is an emphasized period).
Not to be outshone, the cars themselves still possess the same intricate details fans of the Horizon and Forza Motorsport franchises would expect. Dashboards and interiors are painstakingly modeled, at least to the untrained eye. It’s just that each car looks that much better thanks to the game’s setting and lighting engine. Whether they’re under street lamps or reflecting the deep orange and purple hues of dusk as you drive through Byron Bay, the results are simply spectacular. There’s a level of polish to Horizon 3 that can’t be overstated. It’s amazing how a smart change in scenery can make what is old feel completely new again.
If it’s not broke…
Driving mechanics and gameplay systems remain largely unchanged from previous entries, but again, it’s how the map blends the game’s different activities together that makes every straightaway, bend, and jump compelling. The experience is fully customizable as well to ensure that the driving controls match your preferences. Cars are as unforgiving as you want them to be given the assortment of driving assists that you can choose from. Braking assists, traction control, transmission types and so much can be altered at a moment’s notice. Driver difficulty can also be tuned accordingly. In fact, one of the smarter things Horizon 3 does is recommend tougher opponents should you start winning races too easily. In doing so, races become more tailored to your temperament and skills. Whether you want to face stiff competition or approach the game more casually, you’ll be able to adjust Horizon 3 to your liking.
As mentioned earlier, Horizon 3 also offers plenty of variety with its copious amounts of activities. The standard racing championships return, but not in the same, somewhat tedious rinse and repeat structure of Horizon 2. Instead, each of the four Australian terrestrial habitats comes with its own bevvy of tracks. Each track features a one-off exhibition event and a championship series. If you don’t like what the developers have provided, create your own race by simply specifying eligible car types, the time of day, the number of laps, etc. in a blueprint.
Bucket list events also return, putting you in a specific car to either reach a certain speed, beat a drift score, or simply race against the clock. These too can be created by the player through the use of blueprints. Again, select a car, time of day, and objective, then set a score and send it to your friends as a challenge. On top of all these races, there are PR stunts that feature jumps, speed, and drift targets, as well as numerous billboards to smash through in order to get experience and fast travel bonuses. The amount of content in Horizon 3 seems endless, and that’s because it sort of is.
If customizing your own events isn’t enough, you can also customize your own soundtrack with the inclusion of the Groove radio station. In addition to eight of its own radio stations featuring a diverse selection of licensed music, Horizon 3 also offers players the ability to form their own playlists through Groove, Microsoft’s version of Spotify. That means if you get tired of the music in the game, or simply don’t enjoy it, all you need to do is log into Groove with your Xbox Live email and password and design a playlist more attuned to your tastes. The experience is pretty seamless, and it’s hard to actually find music that doesn’t somehow fit with the game in some scenario. The fact that even the latest Bon Iver record produced some decent results should be reassuring to those with even more eclectic tastes out there. It’s pretty enjoyable to score a game with your own favorite tracks. If only Microsoft would make this a part of Xbox Live instead of just a two week trial.
“That’s not all,” should be the title of this review. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is starting to sound like a car dealership commercial. Nevertheless, there’s also the rich car customization that returns from previous Forza games. If designing a new paint job, decal, or tune isn’t your thing, it’s still nice to be able to download other players’ creations. And even if you’re more of a standard paint job kind of person, perusing the elaborate designs available every time you buy a new car is sort of fun, like Forza’s own, unique version of people watching.
Horizon 3 features cooperative and competitive play too. Coop is a seamless experience, typically pitting you and your comrades on the same team against the AI and awarding credits based off a cumulative score rather than individual performance. It works surprisingly well by incentivizing players to not only worry about their placement, but their teammates’ as well. Multiplayer is also, mostly, successful. While you’ll no doubt run into a fair number of careless drivers trying to check you into walls or out of bounds entirely, it’s still a good time as long as road rage isn’t a problem for you. While idiots are hard to avoid, it does seem as though the developers have tried their best to dampen the effects of more obnoxious drivers by ghosting their cars after the slightest scrape.
Developer Playground Games newest Horizon offering is as serene as joyrides get; it’s also a neck and neck street race that makes your palms sweat; and it’s a sandbox full of jumps, speed challenges, and billboards to crash through. It’s all of those things and somehow more thanks to its brilliant Australian setting and thoughtfully designed structure. If you consider yourself either a casual or serious fan of racing games, Forza Horizon 3 is a must play.
Open world setting and design
Gorgeous skies and detailed cars
Exhilarating and soothing gameplay
Loads of content and customization
Fully featured multiplayer and cooperative play
If you hate racing games, good games, or yourself, not for you
The best racing game for this current generation of hardware, and possibly ever.