Forza Horizon 3 Review

It is the definitive virtual automotive sandbox

The Forza series took a detour from its fairly serious, racing-oriented approach to making a driving game when the decision to make the first Horizon title was taken. That was over 5 year ago and now we have the third installment of the series, Forza Horizon 3, to play with and it’s a phenomenal package, one with huge replay value.

Main stars in Horizon 3 are the cars, as with any Forza game, but this time you aren’t confined to driving them on closed circuits and you can instead take them for a spin in the Australian country side which is in itself a main feature of the game.

There’s no getting around it: the game is good - really good - and in the months that it’s been available it’s been showered with praise and been the perfect playground for many a YouTube video. Its best attributes are its amazing visuals - both cars and environments look amazing, the way the cars have been tuned to respond to player input and their handling - they behave superbly and can be driven quite gracefully even with the regular Xbox controller.

But let’s break it down into more detail to see why exactly it’s so good:

1. The cars

Forza Horizon 3 can have up to 350 cars all of which you can upgrade and customize to your heart’s content. In order to reach that level roster, you do need to purchase the two expansion packs, plus the frequent car packs they put out and this is one of the game’s obvious bad sides - but we’ll get to that later on in the review.

Each car feels like it’s been tuned to reflect the actual road behavior of the real thing, and tuning the one you really feel that the changes you’re making have an effect; this on a car whose unique handling intricacies are already very obvious in stock form.

This is where the game’s biggest appeal factor stems from: you get hundreds of cars which you can alter then drive, then alter some more until you hare happy with the result. And once you’ve dialed in your preferred modded motor’s handling, you then proceed to operate visual changes that reflect your personality.

And since the online component has been so important in the Horizon series and still is in the latest installment, you can (and should) take your custom set of wheels onto the multiplayer scene where you’ll teach others learn to appreciate it - passing another human player in a racing game will always give you satisfaction, but doing so in a car which you’ve slaved over to get just right both visually and in terms of handling is even more rewarding for many players.

2) The physics

How cars handle in a racing or driving game is of the utmost importance and it can literally make or break a title. Thankfully, Horizon 3 provides superb handling which is beautifully nuanced from car to car. As its developers said back when Horizon 1 was launched, they were not aiming to make a super-simulation-oriented series, and instead focused on making the cars feel fairly realistic and fun.

And while I personally am not the biggest fan of such solutions as they feel neither arcade nor simulation and therefore scratch neither itch, I must admit they’ve absolutely nailed in Horizon 3. Cars have heft to them and the game does a great job of conveying their inertia - it does it partially through visual means, but also thanks to the clever way the Xbox One controller vibrates - it uses this feature very well and it adds another layer of immersion and really, for the kind of game this is, a wheel is really not needed; you can play it very well on a controller and will rarely feel the need to buy a wheel and pedals set.

The first thing I did after the tutorials where over in the game was to disable all of the driving aids aside from antilock brakes and the racing line in order to even better understand its handling model. And after doing so I realized that there’s even more depth than I first thought - once you disable the nannies, cars feel even more different to one another, providing even more of a unique experience with each one.

Now don’t go thinking it’s a simulation, because it isn’t. Corner speeds, while fairly accurately culled by under- or oversteer, are slightly unrealistically high (there’s immense grip in some cars that have both sticky tires and aero). Stray off the black top in a slammed supercar and you’ll immediately understand what they were on about when they said they wanted to make the game fun; jumping is a bit sketchy too sometimes.

3. The map

For me this was the part of the game that wasn’t really perfect and I’ll explain why it didn’t exactly bowl me over. Sure, the fact that it really manages to capture the spirit of (mostly rural) Australia is nice and everything is beautifully modeled and textured. The problem is they wanted to cram a bit too much diversity into too small a surface - the transition from forest to mountain to desert is often forced, too sudden and for me often snapped me out of enjoying whatever I was doing in-game.

Frankly, while maps in the Test Drive Unlimited series had lower quality models and textures, those maps were many times bigger and more immersive and less silly looking - they also had many very dangerous corners and a wider variety of roads. In Horzion 3, though, the map feels a bit forced, the different environments seem crammed together and kind of clash and all corners are unrealistically large - it’s as if they were designed by a supercar-driving lunatic that wanted to not brake on his 200 mph commute home.

It feels somewhat too small and in my experience really lacks any memorable routes. Don’t get me wrong - it’s not a bad map, and you can experience a fair degree of freedom, especially if you like the off-road routes that the game just edges you to take, but it isn’t like some reviews suggest “a star of the game” or “one of its good points.” It’s okay but nothing more.

4. The gameplay

One of Horizon 3’s strong points is that it allows for really varied styles of racing on either tarmac or gravel or a combination of both - the latter is the most frequent in my experience with the game. And the types of races and events available are really quite varied in difficulty and scope and doing them doesn’t feel like a chore like it does in some other less characterful games.

Here, I enjoyed most races and even failing and restarting is less frustrating than in some other games I’ve played. And the artificially intelligent Drivatars that always behave differently add an extra dimension to the experience too, although as some others have accurately pointed out, they feel like smart but overly aggressive machines instead of more restrained and calculated human players.

The AI does sometimes have the tendency to be a bit too aggressive, and you may find yourself knocked into a spin from behind on the last corner of the last lap by a driver you thought was not going to catch you. Thankfully, the helpful rewind function is there to ease these moments of stress - and if you play with it on, the racing in Horizon 3 will never feel daunting, even those races of a high difficulty level.

At least you’re not forced to constantly do racing or time attack challenges and you can pepper your time in-game with other activities like searching for barn finds, discovering all of the roads, completing PR stunts, trying to maintain as fast a speed as possible past speed cameras, becoming an in-game automotive photographer or just causing mayhem around the map - the latter results in experience and money for the player so you’re encouraged to do it.

5. The expansions

One cannot talk about Forza Horizon 3 without mentioning the expansions it’s received since launch. They consist of two big ones: Blizzard Mountain and Hot Wheels and each of which brings a new map with it, as well as new routes, cars and storyline options. We bought the Forza Horizon 3 Unlimited Edition which set us back $89.99 and in the bundle we didn’t get any of the expansion packs - which is a tad weird for a game that’s nearly one year old. For the price we only got the All-Star Pack, the VIP pack and the Car Pass - we had to pay $19.99 for the Hot Wheels pack and another $19.99 for Blizzard Mountain. That’s a grand total of almost $130 and we still didn’t have all of the available cars.

And for me the two expansions which also add new maps weren’t that much fun because they are not seamlessly integrated parts of the map and you have to go through annoying loading screens every time you want to access them. And once you have accessed them and you want to return to the main map, there’s another loading screen waiting for you.

This for me is the game’s biggest pitfall - that it constantly asks you for money in order to access its features and in a way it’s an example of everything that’s wrong with the gaming industry nowadays when titles get intentionally truncated before release so that what remains can be divided up and sold to you in parts at a later date. This is a hugely lucrative thing to do for the publisher, but when it comes to end user experience, it’s not really that pleasant.

6. The verdict

Forza Horizon 3 is a hugely accomplished title that’s more of an automotive sandbox that lets you virtually live out your most ludicrous car-related fantasies. It offers a wide range of cars and environments to roam around (once you’ve paid for all of them), it looks beautiful and has an active online community that might be a big draw for some people in and of itself. 

The way the cars drive is also a highlight and the subtle changes that you can make to the way they behave will have many people coming back for more - in this sense, the game is hugely replayable as there are hundreds of cars that can be modded in hundreds of ways... each.

The Australia-like map is gorgeously detailed and offers quite diverse driving experiences. It is, however, a bit small and the fact that you have to go through loading screens to access the expansion maps is quite annoying.

But that and the fact that it’s kind of dear to get your hands on all of its goodies are the only real downsides to a game which is definitely worth your consideration of you like cars, modifying, customizing and driving them. It’s definitely a recommendable title, but make sure you really want it, with its more fun arcade-style handling model and not the fully-fledged Forza Motorsport game which really caters to the hardcore automotive enthusiast in a way no Horizon game ever could.

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