Another holiday season is up us! Here's a look at the biggest games of the season as we make our way to the end of 2016. You can find our other previews here.
One of my favorite experiences from this year's E3 was playing the demo of Forza Horizon 3 on Xbox One. The short, six-or-so-minute preview took the form of an exciting multi-stage race that delivered a mouth-watering taster of Playground Games' upcoming open-world racer.
What impressed me, aside from the exceptionally high quality graphics, was that in a short space of time, the demo showcased a broad variety of vehicles and driving conditions as I raced a sports car down highways, drove a buggy along a gorgeous beach, and tackled twisting dirt tracks with an 800 horsepower off-road truck. Forza Horizon 2 was certainly no slouch when it came to different racing activities, but it seems that the third game in the series' new setting of Australia features even more racing options than ever before. As a consequence, I've been really looking forward checking out more of the game, and that happened recently at a Forza Horizon 3 preview event where I got the chance to sit down and play through the first hour or so of the game.
The action opens with a sequence of events that are very similar to the E3 demo. There's a hectic road car race where you drive a Lamborghini Centenario along some open, sweeping roads, which transitions into a drive along some beautiful beaches, complete with an ebbing and flowing tide. Once you arrive at your destination further down the coast, you're challenged to race a powerful off-road racing truck against a Jeep that's dangling from a helicopter. Apparently, this stunt is to help publicize the upcoming Forza Horizon events that you're now in charge of.
Being the boss of the Forza Horizon events is definitely a step up from the work-your-way-to-the-top premise of Forza Horizon 2. This time out, you're the one who decides where Forza Horizon events take place (from a choice of locations) and when to expand them. Basically, events are tied to experience points and fans that you earn from completing races and challenges. The more you garner, the faster you can build new Forza Horizon hubs, which then open up new races and challenges in the surrounding countryside. It's an interesting progression system that essentially gives you a choice of which kind of environments you'd like to race across, from the urban circuits of Surfer's Paradise to the off-road oriented Outback.
Speaking of environments, Forza Horizon 3's Australia looks absolutely stunning. It's twice the size of the Southern European setting of its predecessor, and features a more diverse ecosystem, including beaches, canyons, rain forests, rolling hills, desert-like terrain, and of course a wide variety of urban and suburban roads and locales. What helps bring the landscape to life is Forza Horizon 3's amazing sky, which forms a major light source for the game. Playground Games actually captured real Australian skies over the course of last summer using a custom-built 12k HDR camera rig, and incorporated them into the game – and the results are outstanding. The sky constantly changes, with clouds casting shadows across the world as they move in front of the sun, and dynamic weather systems rolling in and out, creating rain showers. It's a brilliant effect that delivers lighting and weather that feel incredibly realistic – definitely the best I've seen in any game.
That said, it was a tad tricky to truly admire the scenery while I was burning across it at top speed in my newly-acquired Lamborghini Urus. Since time was of the essence, I decided to blast around the game cross-country from point to point using my GPS destination beacon as a marker. While I did, I was happy to see that Forza Horizon 3 has kept the bonus score multiplier system for pulling off stunts, near misses, and other hoon-like driving activities that made blazing around Forza Horizon 2 so much fun. On my travels, I drifted through a series of vineyards and managed to rack up a quite enormous bonus for destroying the place, which I then promptly lost by smashing into a tree at top speed. Doh!
The first championship race I tackled was an off-road circuit affair that ran through a town, and then up and over a series of rolling hills before circling back down to the starting point again. It basically followed the same format as prior Forza Horizon games: Race through a series of gates and make sure that you don't miss one, otherwise you get sent back to it and your race is pretty much over. Unless, of course, you use the rewind option to send yourself back a few seconds so you can drive through the gate properly.
It didn't take long to get into the swing of things. Forza Horizon 3's handling engine feels very similar to the previous game, with the same forgiving arcadey characteristics that enable you to throw a vehicle around without too much fear of overcooking it on a sharp corner. I drove a few different types of motors during my time with the game, ranging from SUVs through an off-road buggy to a couple of stock road cars, and they all felt very different from one another, largely in terms of the softness of their suspension and the way they reacted to steering inputs. The off-roaders generally steer more slowly and feel heavy and bouncy, while the road cars are tight and reactive in their response to the joypad. All feel a little larger than life, and the way they’re tuned makes it easy to slide and drift quite spectacularly – which makes driving a lot of fun.
What I particularly like about Forza Horizon 3's racing is that along with a myriad of preset championships, there's a new Blueprint Mode that enables you to create your own races. You're able to define the style of race, choose routes, set the time of day, and decide which cars are allowed to participate. This basically gives you the freedom to race whatever car you want, wherever you want. Setting up a race is an absolute breeze, and I created couple of championships for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI that I bought at my first Forza Horizon event that essentially matched Japanese rally cars against one another. It made for some close and competitive racing featuring cars that I really love.
And just as I was really getting into the game, time was called on our session. Even though I only spent an hour with the game, it's clear that Forza Horizon 3 packs a tremendous amount of content. Its gorgeous, diverse landscape is huge, and spread across it is a tremendous amount of different vehicular challenges, from championship races through speed traps and jumps to barn finds. Not only that, but the game features an impressive list of more than 350 cars, and also now allows co-op play for up to four players.
The really good news, however, is that you'll be able to play a demo of Forza Horizon 3 very soon. I unfortunately don't have an exact date at time of writing, but Microsoft have said that they'll be announcing the release of the demo shortly after the embargo for this article lifts – so that should be sometime during today, Monday September 12th.
In the meantime, expect a full review of Forza Horizon 3 closer to its September 27th release date.