The latest installment of the casual-gamers Forza is here, it’s got an Australian accent, and it’s glorious.
In 2012 the insanely popular Forza Motorsport video game franchise got its first spin-off in the form of Forza Horizon. A slightly more casual “arcade-style” experience, Horizon was still built on the excellent mechanics of the original title, combining slick graphics and a huge car list with the sort of imaginative play and race variety that could make it compete with giants like Need for Speed. In 2014, Horizon 2 brought the series to the Xbox One console – Forza is a Microsoft-only title, built by the company’s Turn 10 Studios – and increased the gloss and scope significantly.
I was lucky enough to play and review both of the proceeding Horizon games, and have been appropriately impressed with the latest installment, Forza Horizon 3.
The title has been updated in seemingly endless ways, but let me start off with the hard stats. The geographical setting this year is Australia (following Colorado in the original, and a sort of pan-European playground in the second version). The map is nearly double that found in Horizon 2, and covers a rich variety of environment types: the beach, the outback, rainforests, and cityscapes, to name a few.
Horizon has enhanced the flavour of its initial car set by throwing you lots of Australian metal to choose from. Holdens and Aussie Fords are layered on thick.
More importantly, Horizon 3 also boasts a larger list of available cars. Some 350 are available at launch, compared to the 200+ in the last game. Remember, too, that Horizon 2 added loads of cars after launch by way of periodic expansions (that you have to pay for). Forza Motorsport 6 runs about 460 cars deep, by way of comparison, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Horizon 3 push 400 before it ends its run. Get ready for loads of downloadable content.
Horizon has enhanced the flavour of its initial car set, too, by throwing you lots of Australian metal to choose from. Especially with the freebie cars (you’re given quite a few at the start of major plot points, but have to earn credits to buy the rest), Holdens and Aussie Fords are layered on thick. Choosing my first car in any driving game always helps to set the tone for me, and I can’t say I was disappointed with my Holden HSV Limited Edition Gen-F GTS Maloo, this time around (watch that rear end, it’ll dance around on ya).
The storyline has changed as well, though that part doesn’t do much to affect normal gameplay. In previous Horizon games, one's character was, as you’d expect, a low-level racer trying to earn his way to the top of the standings at the Horizon Festival. (For the uninitiated, the “festival” is a plot device to allow you to race across the countryside, formally and informally, and jump lots of stuff. It’s a thin story but leads to addictive gaming.) For H3, your character – who you’re able to pick an avatar, name, and nickname for – is in charge of designing and running the festival.
Racing, and simply driving around, is clearly the strongest suit of this Forza title.
Basically the result of that tweak is that one attempts to earn fans to grow the festival audience, and therefore expand the venues in number and quality, instead of merely gain XP points to earn your way into better races and cars. As the organizer of the festival, I can also now use the new Horizon Blueprint feature to customize my own races, championships, and challenge events – though the structure of the events themselves mostly carries over from the last game.
Racing, and simply driving around, is clearly the strongest suit of this Forza title, even when the application of the brand’s powerful physics engine is on some less-than-realistic kinds of racing. Yeah, I can and did race my 2017 Ford GT over the broken, grassy dirt of the Australian Outback, on sandy beaches, and occasionally through a city park or two. The customizable difficulty controls basically make any of that behavior range from easy to impossible, depending on where you ramp things like braking and steering assist, opponent difficulty, tire modeling, and more. I love that variability; it makes the title playable by casual gamers and harder-core racing game fans alike, with both getting a really first rate car-game experience.
It's playable by casual gamers and harder-core racing game fans alike, with both getting a really first rate car-game experience.
Unfortunately we don’t have a wheel/pedal rig setup yet at the Motor1 offices (I’m working to rectify that), so I can’t comment on the exact detail of the controls experience. But I can say that weighting, balance, and handling of cars feels quite consistent and tractable by way of the standard Xbox One controller.
The great variety extends to racing formats, too. Like a big, open-world RPG, Horizon sometimes invites you just to drive to a thing in the distance that happens to look cool. I’ve already logged quite a lot of time doing this in the amazing Arial Nomad – a sort of race car-plus-dune buggy that’s hard to believe exists in real life. Beyond that you can search for “barn find” cars – inevitably classics of great rarity and/or value – race towards “Danger Sign Jumps” and their attendant cool cutscenes, and even honk at oncoming traffic to assemble a race-ready convoy of cars. There are so many ways to play Horizon that, even if you don’t like a few of them, everyone should find a favorite.
Fair to say that there are lots of iRacing-type simulator enthusiasts that won’t want to give Horizon 3 the time of day. If the thing that gets you off is absolute accuracy and fidelity to real racing, this isn’t your joint (but even then, it could be a good gateway drug for your kids or friends).
The game has a truly cinematic feel, and is immersive in a way that arcade racers rarely achieve.
Naturally, Horizon 3 is about as pretty as driving games on consoles get, too (I’m told that PC gamers have higher standards, and I’m guessing their super-machines will render lovely graphics for the Windows-based version of the game). The development team actually captured Australian skies on location, and has rendered them in High Dynamic Range (HDR) glory – though it’s fair to note that you’ll need an Xbox One S and a 4K HDR-capable television to see them. Even in the more basic version, though, the cars are precise (and massively customizable), and the environments incredibly detailed and lush. The game has a truly cinematic feel, and is immersive in a way that arcade racers rarely achieve, in my experience.
In short, there’s no good reason for Xbox One owners who dig driving and racing titles not to pick up Horizon 3. Certainly the online portion – which, due to limited review time I didn’t get a chance to dig deeply into – should be well-stocked with friends and racers by the time the holiday giving seasons roll around. Here in Canada the Standard Edition runs the typical $79.99, and will be available in physical media or download format on September 27 (you can also splash out on the Ultimate Edition with early access for $129.99, and start playing on September 23).