Forza Horizon 3 Review | Victory Lap

If Forza Horizon 2 was Playground Games’ mad dash to the top of the winners’ podium, then Forza Horizon 3 is their victory lap. Building upon everything that made the previous entry in the series such a breath of fresh air in its genre, Forza Horizon 3 is a clear front-runner for the very best racing game of this current console generation thus far.

Moving the action to the sun-drenched open-world setting of Australia, this time around Forza Horizon 3 has players assuming the role of the Horizon Festival’s organizer. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that you’ll spend a significant portion of your play-time balancing the books and paying your staff, but instead grants you some extra customization options while also ensuring that certain NPCs call you “boss,” if you’re into that sort of thing. The tone of the festival itself remains relatively unchanged since its predecessor – Horizon still exists in a hedonistic, car-filled utopia, where all pedestrians are permanently stuck behind barriers cheering you on while you drift past them – but a few significant changes make it a more pleasurable world to explore this time around.

Australia is Forza Horizon‘s most picturesque setting thus far, offering a mixture of winding city streets and sandy beaches to cruise through, along with various other idyllic locales. Off-road driving was the most enjoyable aspect of Horizon 2, and Playground has dutifully made it the focal point of the presentation here, introducing a selection of new vehicles into the mix that greatly complement the act of tearing up the dirt in the sun. With 350+ cars on offer, Horizon 3 continues the Forza series’ trend of providing a wide selection of vehicles that each handle differently from the last, and the variety in terrain means that there’s a valid excuse to choose your C-class four-wheel drive over your Ultima Evolution Coupe 1020 supercar every now and again. Photo mode has also made its return, meaning that you can take a break from the action to take a snapshot of your vehicle drifting along the Outback if you wish, along with adding filters to give it that Instagram touch.

The most relieving improvement made to the game, though, is that Playground have toned down that air of self-satisfaction that clouded the previous two games in the series, with the smugness level decreased considerably thanks to the introduction of your new guide/narrator Keira. Keira is inoffensive and has a lovely Irish accent, and as a result her talking to me via my in-car radio didn’t automatically make me want to ram my own fist down my throat, which is a significant step up from Forza Horizon 2‘s insufferable Ben. The trust-fund rich kids from the previous Forza Horizon games are nowhere to be seen this time around, and in their place stand a smaller cast of characters who are less distracting and pernicious. This makes traversing through its map much more enjoyable, as you no longer have obnoxious spring breakers bellowing down your ear as you do so.

This isn’t the only big improvement that Forza Horizon 3‘s shift away from bludgeoning you over the head with the series’ bratty cast of companions inspires. As a result of it now positioning the player as the organizer of the Horizon Festival rather than a meager participant, your main goal is to improve upon and expand the event rather than just take part in the various competitions, exhibition races and other events that you can stumble upon across its sprawling map. The biggest new addition in this regard comes -in the form of Blueprints, which allow you to tinker with the game’s pre-created events and provide your own unique spin on them, from altering the selection of vehicles participants get to choose from to changing around the weather options. You can then name and upload these Blueprints to Xbox Live, allowing your friends and other players to try them out.

Blueprints can also be used with Bucket List events, which task players with taking part in various challenges that are intended to represent what any motorist would want to do on their last day behind the wheel. Unfortunately, while the pre-made Bucket List events are a lot of fun, there aren’t enough customization options made available to players to allow you to really put your own stamp on these challenges. Instead, you’ll be offered a selection of eight objectives to tinker with, from time trials through to drifting competitions, and then be granted limited control over where your Bucket List event should take place and its other stipulations. After completing your own challenge and setting its record you can then share it with other players for them to try to beat your score, but I’ve yet to play a custom Blueprint Bucket List event that has bested those already provided by Playground. Perhaps some skilled hands will be able to do more with this feature as time progresses, but it’s not robust enough to provide the kind of oddball challenges I was hoping I’d be able to create.

Forza Horizon 3 also places a greater focus upon Drivatars, the unfortunately named AI representations of other players that drive alongside you in Horizon‘s open-world. This time around you’ll actively be able to recruit other Drivatars to join your crew, with you then earning rewards based on their performance in the Horizon Festival. With only four slots available in your crew’s lineup, you’ll inevitably be forced to make the tough decision to drop one of your friends if they begin under-performing, with the game notifying you of their progress whenever you log in. You can also have other Drivatars join you in a convoy, with you able to beep your horn whenever you pass one of them in order to have them tail you to your next destination. Using ANNA, your newly improved Siri-esque digital assistant, you can then challenge your convoy to an impromptu race to earn extra credits and XP using the D-pad, with ANNA also allowing you to swiftly set routes to various destinations across the map and jump into an online game.

Horizon 3‘s online component is split between three modes, with co-op campaign allowing up to four players to explore its open-world together completing challenges, Online Adventure pitting racers against one another in a series of competitive challenge, and finally online free-roam. Online Adventure provides one the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences I’ve had with any racing game in recent memory, with its notable lack of lobbies allowing players to seamlessly drive through Australia from one event to the next, with Playground ensuring that no moment is wasted when it comes to letting players enjoy themselves. As was the case in Forza Horizon 2, players drive from one event to the next instead of waiting in a pre-game lobby, and while some may find this to-ing and fro-ing somewhat laborious compared with standard matchmaking, I enjoy having that downtime between races to tailgate behind my opponents and dick around before the next event starts. Along with your standard races there are also the more off-the-wall modes such as the newly introduced Flag Rush, which is essentially Capture The Flag but with cars.

You can also join one of the 1000-player Car Clubs or participate in Car Meets, while the Auction House also makes a return allowing you to sell your custom cars to the world. A trip to one of your garages also allows you to check out your vehicles in great detail, with you able to “explode” them in order to see what they look like under the hood, admiring the great attention to detail that has been put into each vehicle included in the game. Though I’m not exactly a car nut, I can appreciate how much effort has been invested into perfectly recreating cars such as the Ford Super Deluxe Station Wagon, a monumentally ugly contraption with woeful performance, that nonetheless looks the real deal both on the outside and when you’re adopting a first-person viewpoint.

Unfortunately, aside from its lovely cars Forza Horizon 3 doesn’t quite stack up in the visual department. Though it certainly has its moments, and photo mode can make it look downright gorgeous when the correct tweaks are made, it doesn’t really make the most of its inherently beautiful setting. The water effects are lackluster, with driving through puddles leading to a splash of blurry white froth spurting out your tires, while most weather settings aside from bright sunlight make your tropical surroundings look drab and gray. While it’s not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination, and is definitely above average for an Xbox One game, it still doesn’t quite stack up to many of its contemporaries and ultimately doesn’t do a whole lot with what the naturally bright and inveigling color palette that its Australian setting should provide.

However, aesthetic quibbles aside and Forza Horizon 3 ticks all of the boxes when it comes to excelling beyond what other current-gen racing games have achieved. It’s packed with things to do offline, from competing in high-speed races through the rainforest through to going head-to-head against a train in a Showcase event, along with providing a robust online component and all of the extra features to tinker with that are staples of the Forza franchise. For petrol heads and fans of arcade racers alike, Forza Horizon 3 provides an excellent middle ground that you won’t want to miss out on.

Forza Horizon 3 will be released on September 27, 2016 for the Xbox One and PC. A copy was provided to Crave by the publisher.