Video Games Review: Forza Horizon 3 (Xbox One, 2016)

GOD, I love the Forza Horizon series. It’s everything I want in a racing game — a balance of work hard/play hard — race now, then go where you like, in whatever car you want and just enjoy the act of doing that. It’s a total breath of fresh air, especially after the endless procession of staid, serious racing sims we see in this industry (and that includes its Forza Motorsport stablemate).

Here’s the thing, though: Forza Horizon 3 is one of the strangest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Why? Because it’s set in not one, but two cities with which I am intimately familiar.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve run, shot, web-swung or driven through a digital recreation of New York in a video game. I’ve done it enough that I feel like I know my way around the city, despite my never having been there IRL. It makes sense to set your game in New York — it’s a popular city, a city of history, of significance.

Never in a million years did I think that anyone would bother to set a game in the flaming, decadent garbage pile of a town I call home. The Gold Coast, in the south east of Queensland, Australia, is the primary setting for Forza Horizon 3. Seeing the Q1 and Soul buildings in a game, blasting through Surfers Paradise and seeing a near-perfect recreation of Cavill Avenue and the beach front as you’ve known it your whole life, seeing the names of places and roads you recognise, like the Tugan Bypass, is bizarre. Byron Bay receives similar treatment. Every time I boot the game up, I go through the rush of weird familiarity again.

This effect is even more pronounced when you realise that the map in Forza Horizon 3 is a strange, amorphous blend of hundreds of real world Australian locations — you can reach Byron Bay from Surfers Paradise via Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, passing the Twelve Apostles. Turning west from Surfers, you’ll head almost immediately into Far North Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest and then into the Outback. Veering south will take you into Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

All of which is, of course, hilarious to actual Australians. It’s like peering into an alternate universe version of our country, where everything looks right but isn’t quite where it’s supposed to be.

And it does look right. The Forza series, in both its Motorsport and Horizon incarnations, is a stickler for the little things and that remains true here. The attention to detail in everything from architecture to flora is on the same level as that afforded the many cars available in the game.

Visually, the game somehow finds a way to up the ante from Forza Horizon 2 with new rain effects and little environmental changes that frequently blur the lines between fantasy and reality. I still haven’t gotten over the way rain beads against the paintwork and how dust sticks to the side of the car, washing off as you plow through a creek. Every car model is crafted with obvious love and care — certain screens allow you to explode the vehicle doors and inspect every part of the car inside and out. Candyland for rev heads.

The vehicles and the track design are, once again, the game’s true highlight. The spirit of the Forza Horizon games is that you can take a seemingly limitless number of dream machines from every era for a consequence-free joy ride around whichever unsuspecting nation the Horizon Festival has descended upon, and the design reflects that. The game’s Australian roads are built for two things — speed and throwing the back end out for sick skids and doughies. Brings a deeply patriotic tear to the eye, mates.

Also on offer a wide array of Australian vehicles, both classic and modern. One early race saw me tearing up a beach in a brand new, bright green Holden Maloo ute at night which, I mean, I have you ever heard anything closer to the Bogan Dream than that?

There are a few differences to the formula this time around, however. Where previously you were merey a high-profile participant in the Horizon Festival, the bafflingly nonchalant British organisers have seen fit to place you in charge of the entire show for some reason. This means, when you pull up to a race, you are given a track to race on but you can choose the class of cars that can take part. This doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it frequently paralysed me with indecision. I kept trying to meta it. What’s going to best on this track? Thankfully, the game allows you to access races that have already been created by other players and do those instead. Your mileage may vary, but I think I preferred it when the game simply threw a race at me and we went rather than it putting the onus on me to come up with content.

The game’s upgrade and progression systems have been broadened as well, with separate trees for boosts, straight payouts and boons for playing online. You’re also granted periodic poker machine-esque spins for extra credits and cars though it seems to have been tweaked from Forza Horizon 2 because, after around 20 hours of play, I’ve only managed to unlock a single car this way and it was a bit of a shitbox from the 70’s. Never mind, I’ll upgrade it later and then it’ll be capable of hitting nine-tenths lightspeed off the line.

Speaking of upgrades, the game’s simple-but-hilariously-effective upgrade system returns largely unchanged from Forza Horizon 2. It provides clear indicators for just how much of a gain or loss in performance you will take from any given upgrade. The enjoyment I gain from picking The Worst Cars and dropping The Best Upgrades into them just to see what kind of a monster I can create is yet to lose its appeal. In Forza Horizon 2, I was able to beat the game with a monstrous Volkswagen Kombi that was so ridiculous it qualified as a supercar. I hope to be able to recreate that feat here.

Forza Horizon 3 continues in the spirit of the games that came before it, and Project Gotham, the series that largely inspired it (indeed Playground Games, who developed the game, created Project Gotham back in the day). It is a racing game that puts a high premium on fun beyond all else and for that alone I am grateful. This is one of my favourite series in gaming today and I’m so happy its back.

Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Great racing; Great visuals; So relaxed; So much fun
Lowlights: A touch too much onus on the player to create race content IMO.
Developer: Playground Games/Turn 10 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: September 27, 2016
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC