As far back as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed driving games. I’ve spent so much time in Paradise City that I should probably apply for secondary citizenship, so the idea of tearing through another open world in the seat of some of the world’s fanciest cars was a prospect I’d been looking forward to. While Forza Horizon 3’s offerings are weakened by a smattering of frustrations, thankfully, those problems don’t stop Playground Games’ latest from being a hugely enjoyable experience.
With an extensive array of customization and tuning options lying just below the surface, Forza Horizon 3 offers up plenty of intrigue for those interested in tinkering with the more granular characteristics of their ride. Thankfully for players like me, these menus can be safely ignored by anyone liable to bolt at the sight of a popped bonnet. Instead, we driving luddites can simply select an attribute to prioritise, and the game will handle the installation of components alongside any necessary optimizations. It’s a smart way of accommodating players of every skill-level, and helps to make Horizon 3 feel in-depth yet accessible.
It’s safe to say that the Forza franchise has always been a technical showpiece for Xbox, and Horizon 3 is certainly no exception. Nearly everything about the game looks wonderful, from the pleasantly organized HUD to the immaculately rendered car models, painstakingly brought to life with Playground Games’ tell-tale attention to detail. On console, Horizon 3 maintains a consistent frame-rate — with the caveat of being locked to 30 frames per second, and some visual downgrades. Graphics seem to scale dynamically to ensure that the frame-rate can keep up. As a result, the fidelity can be diminished in situations that begin to tax the hardware. In one large-scale race at night in the rain, I noticed the water being kicked up by the wheels of my competition had become somewhat blocky. In the end, these trade-offs feel worth it for the sake of performance, even if they are a little disappointing to see.
Overall, the quality of Horizon 3’s visual offerings is unmistakably high. Most importantly, the game retains a great sense of speed in spite of the frame-rate limitation. While the PC version has the capacity to look even better, in my experience the frame-rate has been erratic. Ultimately, I’ve preferred to play with the Xbox One’s consistent 30fps than endure a choppy experience on PC.
Horizon 3’s car models are put to use in an obligatory vehicle inspection mode, allowing you to swoop around the exterior and interior of a vehicle to look at all of the pretty pixels on display. Robust features mean you’re free to make your vehicles look as gorgeous — or as weird — as you’d like. Whether you choose to customize the design of your vehicle personally, or simply grab one of the many player-made designs from the online gallery, you’ll have no shortage of ways to soup-up your car’s appearance.
Microsoft’s new Play Anywhere system finds its first proper use-case with Forza Horizon 3. Progress is synchronized between your PC and Xbox One copies of the game. In practice, this is a fantastic feature that lets you move between rooms at your leisure while keeping your gaming experience seamless between platforms.
Driving around Horizon 3’s beautiful rendition of Australia, with its sun-baked outback, humid forests, and sandy beaches, is a joy. Taking part in events, street races, and stunts feels fluid thanks to your car’s sat-nav, which effortlessly directs you to nearby points of interest. For the most part, it’s easy to enjoy a wide variety of activities without getting caught up in menus or feeling unsure of where to go.
The racing itself is exciting and frenetic, particularly in the excellent cockpit view. It’s clear that Playground Games’ detail-oriented approach to design has extended well into the physical simulations that power your vehicle’s every movement. How deeply you interact with those systems is your choice, thanks to a number of options that help you to strike your preferred balance between simulation-level play and a more generous, arcade-like experience.
Forza Horizon 3 is not without problems, however. One perennial issue with open-world driving games remains aggravatingly present in Horizon 3: the difficulty in readily telling what scenery can be smashed through, and which bits of set dressing are immovably rooted to the ground. The difference between a tree that can be torn into for points, and one that will bring your car to a thundering halt, is all-too-subtle. In the throws of a lightning-fast race, you can easily find yourself stuck on objects you had assumed were breakable — ruining your skill chain, and subsequently discarding any skill point experience you might have otherwise accrued.
Speaking of experience, the skill point system itself feels a mite unbalanced. It’s easy to perform donuts and drifts in a random field, smashing into lovingly-rendered flora to rack up ludicrous combos and earn a tonne of skill points. Though admittedly fun, the result is a skill point system that seems to reward unskilled behaviour more generously than truer challenges, such as winning races, or driving with care.
Fast travel is irksome, costing precious credits that could be better spent on cars and upgrades. Weighing up whether you’d rather waste five minutes driving to your next destination, or cough up thousands of credits to save yourself the effort, is a consideration that crops up far too frequently to be fun. Fast travel can be made free with a skill point perk, but this requires a fairly significant investment. In truth, it feels like a waste to unlock what should have been a basic feature from the beginning. There’s plenty of driving to be done in Horizon 3 — I’m not convinced it needed to be padded out with long drives between each event.
Drivatars continue to be a mixed bag. While the AI drivers mostly benefit from emulating the actions of real-world players, making races feel more engaging and less predictable, your racing competitors inherit some annoying traits, too — such as driving into you and pushing you off course. Win enough races, and the game will suggest that you raise the difficulty of the drivatars to earn more credits. There’s a real challenge to be found in beating the higher tiers of difficulty, but the gulf between each tier can feel drastic, leaving you in a situation where the current difficulty level feels too easy, while the next level up seems too hard.
Thankfully, Forza Horizon 3 offers many ways to customize its experience, catering to a number of play-styles and giving players the freedom to tweak systems until they’re left with something that they personally find satisfying. On the technical and mechanical level, Horizon 3 never fails to impress. It’s on the periphery of the game’s design where some questionable decisions threaten to get in the way of the fun. Nevertheless, with incredible production values and an emphasis on letting players find their own way, Playground Games has built what is comfortably one of the best open-world racing games since Burnout Paradise.