Forza Horizon 3 Xbox One Review: Expanded and Improved

Forza Horizon 3 Xbox One Review: Expanded and Improved

The Forza Horizon festival is back for its third outing, and this time you're running the show.

Jaz Rignall Primary Reviewer

When I reviewed it a couple of years ago, I called Forza Horizon 2 one of the all-time great driving games, and indeed considered it a killer app for the Xbox One. Developer Playground Games really outdid itself, creating an open-world, arcade-style racer that looked stunning, and played even better. What I've been wondering, however, is exactly how Playground would improve on it for the sequel?

The main answer to that question seems to be to make an even bigger game. Forza Horizon 2's Southern European setting was expansive, but this time out the third game in the series' Australian map is double its size. Not only that, but the varied environments of down under have enabled the developers to create a more diverse ecosystem: Forza Horizon 3 features canyons, beaches, deserts, rolling hills, and rainforests, along with a mix of urban and suburban roadways and settings. It makes for an interesting landscape to drive around, and helps keep the racing as varied as it's ever been.

As well as an expanded map, the number of cars has been also been increased, from 250 in Forza Horizon 2 to over 350 in the latest version. The impressive roster of autos is about as diverse as it gets: The old cliché "something for everybody" is most certainly true here. There are street cars dating back to the 40's, the latest super and hypercars from the likes of Ferrari, Pagani, Lamborghini, and Koenigsegg, hot hatches, Asian imports, European saloons and hatchbacks, current and classic domestic motors, and plenty of really interesting boutique marques like Local Motors, Donkervoort, Arial, Baldwin Motorsports, Noble and W Motors. It's a list of vehicles that offers an exceptionally broad spectrum of driving experiences and handling characteristics, ranging from a three-wheeled, 29 horsepower 1972 Reliant Supervan III to a 1000-horsepower-plus Ferrari FXX K.

Another change from Forza Horizon 2 to 3 is the promotion of the player from up-and-coming racer to the boss of the Forza Horizon festival. This time, you're the one who's essentially running the show, and as a consequence you get to a lead a very busy in-game life. The action starts out with a series of introductory events that are designed to earn you sufficient fans (as well as experience and credits) to open up a Forza Horizon festival at a locale of your choosing. Once you've decided where to kick off your event, races and PR stunts (bucket list challenges, danger sign jumps, drift zones, speed traps and so on) open up in the surrounding area that you can tackle to continue to build out your festival. As you level it up, even more activities are made available, and so the game goes as you expand your existing festivals, and eventually get the opportunity to build new ones in new places.

The choice of location largely affects the style of racing that's made available to you. Decide to build a festival in the city of Surfer's Paradise, and the activities in the local area will all be street-based. Take the festival to the Outback, however, and you'll find that the racing is mostly cross-country, with a smattering of competitions featuring a mix of tarmac and off-road surfaces. It helps make for some meaningful choices, at least initially. While it's inevitable that you'll eventually build Forza Horizon festivals in every locale that's available, it does mean that in the early part of the game you get to choose the style of racing that you want to tackle first.

Speaking of choice, that's a major factor in Forza Horizon 3's racing. As well as picking where you want to build your festivals, you can also decide what you want to drive competitively. When you roll up to a race, the game presents a variety of racing options. If you're not interested in what's on offer, you can use the Horizon Blueprint mode to create your own competition featuring the kind of vehicle you want to drive. You pick a route, choose the car theme from a huge list of options, select the time of day, weather, and type of start (rolling or grid), and then name the race if you so wish. Once you've finished configuring the options, you can then select a car to race from your garage, or buy a new one specifically for the contest.

I think this is a brilliant feature, as it basically lets you race exactly what you want, when you want. Whether that's competing in vans and utes, classic cars from the 60's, or driving the latest hypercars, the choice is all yours. I've been using Horizon Blueprint to play the game a couple of different ways. Sometimes I'll browse through the car list and buy one of my favorites that I fancy racing right now and will make a race specifically for it, and sometimes I'll decide what to drive by first picking a race category, and then buying a car to match it. Because of this, I have yet to encounter a situation where I've had to drive a car that hasn't been interesting to me.

The races themselves are either point-to-point affairs or multi-lap circuits, both of which feature a 12-car grid. There are exhibitions (one-off races) as well as multi-race championships to challenge you, and by placing on the podium you earn credits, fans, and experience. Credits can be used to buy new cars, fans go towards leveling up your Forza Horizon event locations or building new ones, and experience levels you up and earns you a wheelspin. This is a kind of slot machine where you can earn extra credits and even cars. Some of the vehicles you can win are super-rare, and feature innate bonuses, such as giving you additional points for drifting.

As well as racing, there's a ton of other activities to keep you entertained. Dotted around the landscape, and oftentimes carefully hidden, are signboards to drive over that either give you bonus xp, or incrementally reduce the cost of fast-travel from event site to event site. Speed traps are found along many routes that you can burn through to earn fans for attaining particularly high velocities, along with danger sign jumps (the further your car travels through the air, the bigger the bonus you earn), and drift zones where you have to drive sideways as much as possible. As well as that, there are also midnight races to unlock. These illicit contests can earn you big fan bonuses as you blaze through the night against a fleet of street racers - or head to head versus a single individual in a souped-up car.

Bucket list challenges are also back. There are 30 of these one-off contests, and they test your driving mettle in different ways, such as traveling from point to point within a time limit, or heading to a location while scoring as many skill points as possible. You can even set up your own bucket list challenges by using the Horizon Blueprint mode to create a route, define the criteria of the challenge, and then set your own time or score, which you can then share with the Forza Horizon community.

Showcase events also play a part in the game. These one-off challenges occur when you earn sufficient fans, and basically put you in a race against something unusual, such as a fast-moving train, or a fleet of powerboats. The events seem to be specifically designed to make the contest very close and exciting, and as a consequence they're a tremendous amount of fun. When you're racing against the train, for example, the road you're on crosses the track at regular intervals, making for some white-knuckle moments.

My favorite activity, however, is barn finds. There are 15 of these in all, and they pop up at irregular intervals while you play, giving you a vague location to scout for a tumbledown barn. If you manage to spot it (most are hidden away in obscure locations), inside you'll find an interesting old classic car that Warren, your garage mechanic, then restores to its former glory. Most of the barn finds are really unusual, highly surprising vehicles (no spoilers), and I just love driving around looking for them.

But wait. There's more! I haven't even mentioned yet Forza Horizon 3's outstanding photo mode, car livery customization options, multiplayer racing for up to 12 participants, car clubs, co-op mode for up to four players, and the fact that the auction house and design storefronts are back in the game. All these activities add up to a vast amount of content that offers weeks of potential entertainment, depending on how often you play the game, and how obsessive you are about finding and completing everything.

The thing that makes the game so appealing for me, though, is simply the way it drives. Forza Horizon 3's handling engine is tuned to perfection to deliver a really entertaining, highly controllable arcade feel without sacrificing too much of the individual handling characteristics of the cars and trucks featured in the game. Hypercars are tight and responsive, while trucks feel heavy and turn more slowly. Their suspension is softer too, and they bounce and yaw much more than cars do as they drive across uneven surfaces. Front wheel drive cars understeer, while rear wheel drive cars oversteer, basically behaving as they should, but at the same time feeling a little larger than life, allowing for the kind of crazy stunts and hooning that makes Forza Horizon 3 so utterly rewarding and fun to drive.

There are a number of different difficulty settings for the Drivatar AI, enabling the player to make the game as easy or as challenging as they'd like. I've been playing on the highly skilled level, and that's made for some very close and extremely exciting racing – indeed, some of the best I've experienced. And that's a big relief for me. To be honest, I was a little worried about Forza Horizon 3 when I first started to play it. Because its gameplay and mechanics are so similar to the previous game, I was concerned that I'd have too much of a feeling of déjà vu while playing it, and it wouldn't be as much fun or as exciting as it was the last time out. Nothing could be further from the truth: The more I've played Forza Horizon 3, the more I've enjoyed it.

Much of that has to do with its amazing landscaping and diversity of racing. From wrestling a Range Rover down a narrow rainforest track to screaming along a ribbon of tarmac twisting through the rolling hills of Australia's wine country in a McLaren, Forza Horizon 3's automotive competition is more varied than ever. There are races along city streets, mixed-surface contests, and hardcore off-road competitions where there are huge jumps to navigate. One I particularly enjoyed was an urban off-road circuit that wound its way through several building sites, across park lakes and down some narrow back lanes – it's just a great example of the kind of inventiveness that helps make Forza Horizon 3's racing a step up from the prior game.

The fact that the game looks and sounds superb doesn't hurt it, either. Forza Horizon 3's meticulously crafted cars and environments are lit by a stunningly realistic sky, and enhanced by some incredible atmospheric effects that give the game an almost photo-realistic quality at times. The rain and mist effects are particularly good, and I even saw a rainbow at one point during a shower. The day-to-night-to-day cycle is also fantastic, and, depending on the weather, creates some gorgeous sunsets (and rises).

Having almost run the thesaurus dry of superlatives, I've made it pretty clear that I love Forza Horizon 3. It's an amazing arcade racer that somehow manages to take everything from its predecessor, and not only make it bigger, but better. Its cars are fantastic, its environment is outstanding, and its racing and activities are absolutely terrific. It all adds up to a game that I believe will become one of the classics of this generation. If you're into cars, Forza Horizon 3 is an essential purchase.

Further screenshots taken directly from Xbox One version, via Elgato Game Capture HD.
Mike Williams Second Opinion

Forza Horizon 3 is a big goddamn cornucopia of cars and a playground to enjoy them in.

Two years ago, Jaz and I raved over Forza Horizon 2. For me, it was the first Forza game I gave a solid shot. I'm not a simulation racing guy, so the Forza Motorsports and Gran Turismos of the world do nothing for me. Forza Horizon 2 was something different though. The game had real cars, some of which were so pricey and luxurious that most of us will never drive them. The handling was on point; a supercar and the family hatchback didn't drive the same. At the same time, it was still fun. It was easy to pick up, find your favorite car or car type, and just do whatever you wanted.

That hasn't changed for Forza Horizon 3.

If anything, this Horizon is an evolution of everything that Playground Games did with Forza Horizon 2. The off-road vehicles and weather system from Storm Island return here as a seamless part of the full game. We're still in a huge open-world, but the area of Australia that the Horizon Festival takes place in this year is much larger than Italian countryside of the 2014 iteration. There's more variety, from sunny beaches, to midnight cityscapes, lush jungles, calm forests, and the dusty Outback. Where you go is up to you.

Choice is the centerpiece of Forza Horizon 3 and the game adapts to you quite well. What do you want to drive? Do you fancy an Acura RSX or do you prefer the stylings of the Audi TTS? Maybe you want to feel the power of the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport or the Lamborghini Huracan. Perhaps you want to go offroad in an Ariel Nomad buggy, Hummer H1, or Jeep Grand Cherokee. If you're an Initial D fan, the Toyota 1985 Sprinter Trueno is here. Trucks? The Ford F-150 Raptor says "Hi". Rally cars? The Fiat 131 is ready for action.

No matter what you choose, there will be someone on equal footing. You can challenge the Drivatars you see randomly driving around to a race, and they'll switch to similar cars whenever you change vehicle type. You may see the same names, usually pulled from your Xbox Friends list, but the cars they drive align with your choices. The interesting thing is with 350 cars, which cars your friends choose within each type is an interesting contrast. Do they prefer Hondas or Toyotas? Are they a Charger or Mustang rider? Did they go with manufacturer's color or take the time to pimp their ride with their own livery? (Always paint your car, folks.)

Spread around the world, regardless of your car choice, will be races and events just for that car type. The Horizon Festival locations funnel you in certain directions. Where you decide to put your second or third festival locations will depend on what races you want to partake in. You're the boss of Horizon, so if you want off-road racing, choose the Outback, but if you're a city racer, Surfer's Paradise will be more your speed.

Even within those major choices, players have to the ability to take any event and twist it to their will. If you want to take on a specific circuit or route with Hatchbacks or Classic Cars instead of the default option, you can. Perhaps you want to race at night in the rain? Go ahead. And these event permutations are shared with the world, so when you enter an event, there will already be 10-20 different versions of that one event, with many created by your friends. It's about flexibility and longevity. Forza Horizon 3 wants you to have fun, not be trapped within a narrow set of choices.

There's just so much to do. Hunt for old cars in Barn Finds. Take part in midnight street races where civilian cars litter the race course. Do crazy jumps. Finish the bucket list challenges, which challenge your driving skills like drifting or racking up skill chains. Keep the pedal to the floor for speed camera challenges. Challenge Drivatars. Build a team, beat your rivals. Buy cars, tune them, and paint them. When you're done, sell them at auction. Join your friends in co-op on the campaign races or just wandering around Australia.

Beyond that, Forza Horizon 3 remains at its best when you find the vehicle that's right for you, paint it up, tune it, and just ride. There's a wonderful sense of flow, where jungle blends into forest, which gives way to desert. Or that moment where you crest a hill and see the city lights below you. I don't know what sorcery is going on over at Playground Games, but Forza Horizon 3 is one of the most beautiful games on Xbox One. (I can't wait for the PC version, which wasn't ready for review purposes.) It's so good-looking that I'm constantly destroying my driving flow to jump over in Photo Mode and take a picture.

The visual experience is backed up by an amazing soundtrack. Every Forza Horizon 3 radio station is a winner, though my favorites are the indie rock Vagrant, the hip-hop themed Block Party, and the classic Horizon Pulse. Even better, there's a Groove Music option to stream your PC music playlists through the in-game radio. Which I did, because while Playground Games picked out a great tracklist, no one picks the music I love better than me.

Top to bottom, Forza Horizon 3 is a class act. It's every bit of amazing that Forza Horizon 2 was, but better. Forza Horizon 3 is one of the only racers of its type these days: a game that's about the enjoyment of driving, for everyone. Since it stands alone, I'm glad that it's damned good. If Playground Games wants to keep pumping out quality racing games like this every two years, I'm looking forward to Forza Horizon 4 in 2018.

Interface
Forza Horizon 3's interface is complex, but easy to navigate.

Lasting appeal
The game packs a mind-boggling amount of racing and driving activities. And if you manage to finish everything that's on offer, you can always make your own contests and challenges using the Horizon Blueprint mode.

Sound
The cars sound great, and there are eight radio stations to listen to, ranging from dance music to punk/alternative.

Visuals
Absolutely outstanding. From its cars to its landscaping, Forza Horizon 3 is one of the best-looking Xbox One games around.

Bigger and better than its predecessor in every way, Forza Horizon 3 features a beautiful, incredibly diverse landscape, an impressive roster of over 350 meticulously-detailed cars, and an absolute ton of driving activities and challenges. Forza Horizon 3 is without doubt the finest arcade racer yet seen, and it looks set to become one of this generation's greatest games.

5/5

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