Forza Horizon 3 Xbox One
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