Forza Hori­zon 3 Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - De­vel­oper Play­ground Games Pub­lisher Mi­crosoft Stu­dios For­mat Xbox One Re­lease Out now

This, surely, is go­ing to be a big one. Aus­tralia, af­ter all, is the sixth-largest coun­try in the world, and so as we start out in its south-eastern cor­ner, tool­ing around on a beach just off the Great Ocean Road, our minds are dizzy at the scale of it all. Up the road is a rea­son­ably faith­ful re­cre­ation of the town of By­ron Bay; it’s been ripped out of New South Wales and landed in Vic­to­ria, but we un­der­stand some cre­ative lib­er­ties need to be taken. Load­ing the game’s map we trace the cur­sor up the eastern coast to Surfers Par­adise. In­land there’s a big patch of rain­for­est and an arid chunk of out­back. We push the cur­sor far­ther north, and sud­denly it stops. We scan west in­stead and that stops too. This is it? Re­ally?

Hap­pily, it turns out that if you lop a chunk off the south­east­ern cor­ner of one of the big­gest coun­tries in the world, what you’re left with is still mas­sive. Forza Hori­zon’s map is hardly built to re­al­is­tic scale – in the real world, By­ron Bay’s re­lo­ca­tion would mean mov­ing it by over 1,000 miles. But a few dozen hours into Play­ground Games’ lat­est we’re still ex­plor­ing, the stat that tracks how many of the 488 roads we’ve dis­cov­ered tick­ing steadily up­wards, our garage con­tin­u­ing to ex­pand to hold the seem­ingly end­less vol­ley of cars flung at you from the first minute on­wards.

Forza Hori­zon 3’ s land­mass is com­fort­ably big­ger than the patch of south­ern Europe that Play­ground had us visit in Forza Hori­zon 2; that, in turn, was big­ger than the first game’s Colorado. Such are the fun­da­men­tals of videogame se­quel-mak­ing, and much of Forza Hori­zon 3 is sim­i­larly, pre­dictably it­er­a­tive. Yet there are some trans­for­ma­tive changes be­neath the hood, too. The head­line fea­ture, at least as the mar­keters would have you be­lieve, is that the en­tire game can now be played in on­line co-op, with sup­port for up to four play­ers. Yet Forza Hori­zon 3’ s most sig­nif­i­cant change is not a fea­ture, but a theme. Rightly recog­nis­ing that the tale of the up-and-com­ing driver ris­ing to the top against the odds has been done to death sev­eral times over, here Play­ground casts you as the or­gan­iser of the Hori­zon fes­ti­val, rather than just an­other par­tic­i­pant.

You’ll still take part, of course, though your ul­ti­mate goal isn’t a se­ries of podium fin­ishes, but in­creas­ing the fes­ti­val’s pro­file. That means a new stat to raise, and your fol­lower count tick­ing up along with your XP tally and cash bal­ance af­ter ev­ery com­pleted race, event or chal­lenge. As your num­ber of fans reaches cer­tain mile­stones, you’re given the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand a fes­ti­val – caus­ing an­other slew of map icons to burst into life – and then to start new ones, spread­ing from sleepy coastal town to sky­scraper-filled beach­side city, the Yarra Val­ley wine coun­try or the Out­back. You’re given a choice of two each time, and are free to de­cide which of your ex­ist­ing fes­ti­vals gets an ex­pan­sion when it’s time for an up­grade. XP, cash and fol­lower pay­outs scale with your progress, so there’s a real sense of free­dom and con­trol over what you do and when.

Over how you do it, too. You’re not un­lock­ing new events, but new routes: Play­ground has crafted a host of multi-lap cir­cuits and point-to-point sprints, but while the de­vel­oper tells you the way, the na­ture of the jour­ney it­self is up to you. Pitch up at a map marker and you’re able to limit the race to cars of a cer­tain class, era or man­u­fac­turer – or even a sin­gle car. There’s scope for the silly – an of­froad tran­sit van race, a Re­liant Re­gal street cir­cuit – and the re­sults are as likely to dis­ap­point as they are to en­thral. It means that Hori­zon 3 feels less hand­made than its pre­de­ces­sors, but it’s hard to chide a game that lets you de­sign a race full of Volvo es­tate cars, chris­ten it Dad­mo­bile Throw­down, have com­ple­tion of it count to­wards your cam­paign progress, and then share it with the world. Those of a less cre­ative per­sua­sion can sim­ply play by the rules set by the com­mu­nity, a se­lec­tion of which will be laid out in front of you in a pre-race menu screen. Play­ground has billed Hori­zon 3 as “the most so­cial Forza yet”, but that isn’t merely a state­ment of on­line-en­abled in­tent: the stu­dio has done a tremen­dous job of mak­ing the game feel so­cial even when you’re on your own. Those player-made events all bear the name of their cre­ators, for in­stance, and the AI Dri­vatars give a name and a per­son­al­ity to the other cars on (or off) the road. While it’s still tempt­ing to in­ter­pret the claim that Dri­vatars are cloud-pow­ered fac­sim­i­les of real play­ers’ driv­ing be­hav­iours as sim­ple smoke and mir­rors, in the heat of the mo­ment it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. When an old ac­quain­tance you fell out with but never got around to delet­ing from your Xbox Live friends shunts you into a tree on the first cor­ner, you’ll be­lieve it’s a hu­man at the con­trols.

You’ll pass them out on the open road, too, a quick tap of the X but­ton as you ap­proach trig­ger­ing a spon­ta­neous race to a ran­domly cho­sen nearby des­ti­na­tion. Click the right stick in­stead and they’ll join your con­voy, rac­ing along­side you to wher­ever you’re go­ing, po­litely pulling over when you spin out or crash, just as a hu­man com­pan­ion would. And real, hon­est-to­god hu­man com­pany over Xbox Live is only a few but­ton presses away, and can be played across the en­tire game. This sort of seam­less, near-in­vis­i­ble blend­ing of off- and on­line play is the holy grail for many, and rarely has it been ex­e­cuted with such gusto.

There are bumps in the road, in­evitably. Some are mat­ters of au­then­tic­ity: ev­ery ve­hi­cle in the game is left-hand drive, de­spite Aus­tralia be­ing one of the select band of na­tions to un­der­stand that cars should have their con­trols on the right and be driven on the left, and that any­one who dis­agrees is wrong. The day/night cy­cle is all over the shop, too. Some­times it’s the de­vel­oper’s

It’s hard to chide a game that lets you de­sign a race full of Volvo es­tate cars and chris­ten it Dad­mo­bile Throw­down

fault – com­ple­tion of one event type re­sets the world to dawn, re­gard­less of the time at which you com­pleted it – but in the main it’s a re­sult of giv­ing event cre­ators con­trol of the time of day, which car­ries over af­ter the race. Let­ting them choose the con­di­tions has a sim­i­lar ef­fect: Aus­tralia hasn’t seen this much rain in decades.

Yet other prob­lems are struc­tural. What cast­ing you as the fes­ti­val or­gan­iser gives you in terms of free­dom, it takes away in pres­sure and in mean­ing. The dif­fer­ence be­tween cross­ing the fin­ish­ing line first and dead last is sim­ply nu­mer­i­cal: the meat of the game has no fail state, the pun­ish­ment for poor per­for­mance be­ing that the num­bers – your cash, XP and fol­low­ers – go up by less than if you’d romped home in first place. All you re­ally need to do is show up, and at times you’ll won­der if you re­ally need to be there at all. This is a the­matic, stylis­tic, very de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion – Play­ground wants you to find the spirit of com­pe­ti­tion else­where, whether through friends-list leader­boards, Dri­vatars or on­line races – yet at times it’s a ques­tion­able one, too.

Still, it’s hard to grum­ble too much about a game that’s been put to­gether with such flair. This is a peer­less tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, es­pe­cially given its host hard­ware. This not-so-small cor­ner of Aus­tralia has been beau­ti­fully re­alised, its sky­boxes yanked from the real world with 4K cam­eras, its fram­er­ate flaw­less ex­cept for the slight stut­ter when Kinect ac­knowl­edges your fre­quent barked or­ders for a screen­shot. The re­sults are done lit­tle jus­tice by ag­gres­sive mo­tion blur – a vi­tal com­po­nent in the game’s rol­lick­ing sense of speed – but an im­proved Photo mode will rem­edy that. And if you’d rather take in the sump­tu­ous world at your leisure, the new Drone mode – seem­ingly de­signed to make hunt­ing down the elu­sive Barn Finds (a se­ries of di­lap­i­dated clas­sic cars squir­relled away in re­mote garages) less painful – lets you pi­lot what is es­sen­tially a first­per­son cam­era, at head height, at a pace to suit.

It’s an ethos that runs right through Forza Hori­zon 3’ s de­sign. There are few stu­dios more ap­pro­pri­ately named than Play­ground: it has made a vast space and slathered it with a teem­ing morass of ac­tiv­i­ties, but lets you de­cide what to do, and how and when you want to do it. It’s as on­line as you want it to be, while pro­vid­ing the feel of the on­line ex­pe­ri­ence if you pre­fer to play alone. And it’s as com­plex as you choose to make it. Ex­ten­sive tun­ing op­tions, wor­thy of the most fas­tid­i­ous rac­ing sim, are buried a cou­ple of sub-menus deep. At the other end of the scale, the rel­a­tive novice can bang all the driv­ing as­sists up to the max and con­cen­trate sim­ply on fol­low­ing the dy­namic rac­ing line, hit­ting the rewind but­ton when it all goes hor­ri­bly wrong.

This se­ries has al­ways felt like a breath of fresh air in a genre that grows ever more ob­sessed with the fi­delity of its sim­u­la­tions. With Forza Hori­zon 3, Play­ground has flung open the big­gest win­dow in the build­ing, then stuck on a few fans for good mea­sure. What other games fetishise, Hori­zon cel­e­brates, with­out leav­ing any player be­hind. If you want to spend hours op­ti­mis­ing your ride be­fore driv­ing it per­fectly with­out any un­seen help then you ab­so­lutely can, but this is fun­da­men­tally a celebration of the uni­ver­sal plea­sure of cars: har­ing around a gor­geous place, at lu­di­crous speeds, in a suc­ces­sion of beau­ti­ful rides. Or ugly ones, if you fancy. It’s re­ally up to you.

While the map is bro­ken up into ge­o­graph­i­cal chunks, there’s plenty of cross­over be­tween them. A typ­i­cal Yarra Val­ley race will in­volve sweep­ing bends, tight right-an­gles and muddy of­froad tracks, as well as the odd dip

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