The Horizon festival heads down under but stays well on top.
By Luke Reilly
Update: Forza Horizon 3 has been nominated for IGN’s 2016 Game of the Year.
The term we use in Australia for what Americans call doing doughnuts is “circle work.” Right now I’m doing some spectacular circle work around an outback airstrip in a custom V8 ute with all the trimmings. I’m talking high-powered spotlights, a CB antenna sticking proudly up into the air, and a giant, mesh-filled roo bar that looks like it’s fallen off the front of a Kenworth. ‘Thunderstruck’ is banging on my stereo and the tacho needle is banging on the redline. This is Forza Horizon 3 for me; an experience that could only get more Australian if it was delivered inside a giant jar of Vegemite by Paul Hogan crashing into your living room riding an actual crocodile.
But maybe that’s not your bag. You may prefer classic American muscle, or perhaps you’re more partial to Japanese tuners from the turn of the century, or maybe you haven’t got time for anything but European hypercars. That’s okay too, because the Forza franchise is famous for its wonderfully eclectic approach to car curation and Forza Horizon 3 is no exception; it’s still the best in the business. The big difference here is that with its new level of car customisation and personalisation, an incredibly malleable career experience that can be played solo or co-op with friends, and even baked-in support for a soundtrack of your own choosing, Horizon 3 can be bent to your desires like never before in the series. Combined with dazzling landscapes and lighting effects, outstanding sound design, and well-honed driving dynamics, the results are absolutely fantastic.
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Great Southern Land
The standard for this series is very high. Back in 2014 Forza Horizon 2 delivered us a sumptuous slab of Mediterranean coastline; a splendid, summertime jaunt through the rolling fields and quaint seaside towns of southern Europe that felt like it was lifted from an episode of Top Gear. It’s lovely, truly.
And Horizon 3’s world just crushes it. The cars may be the stars here, but it’s the stage that steals the show.
The cars may be the stars here, but it’s the stage that steals the show.
There isn’t any one reason, but many that add up. The attention to detail, for example, is magnificent, and as an Australian it’s certainly something I can wholly vouch for. The road markings, the street signs, even the garbage bins with their multi-coloured lids. It’s eerie, really. The lighting is astonishing, too, with the amazingly authentic sky bathing the whole environment in uncannily realistic sunlight and casting crisper shadows. (The latter are at their most superb as you wind through the thick rainforest sections as the sun tries to pierce through the tall trees.) Water plays a big part, too, and not just because the entire place looks even better slick from rain. Everything from the gently sloshing waves by the Twelve Apostles to the wake created by your wheels as you putter across shallow streams is top notch.
Its greatest strength is probably the sheer variety of landscapes, though. Horizon 3 remains dwarfed by the likes of The Crew’s impressively large map, but it packs a pile of vastly different terrains into its Australian backdrop. There’s a quiet coastal town, with its picturesque beaches, and the rolling fields between it and the high-rise, urban metropolis of Surfers Paradise. There’s the damp and dense rainforest carpeted with thick undergrowth around closely packed trees. There’s also rural wine country that gives way to the sparse red dust and isolated farms of the outback. If anything, Horizon 3’s outback zone isn’t really big enough to communicate the sheer vastness of the real thing that I’d yearned for (shelve your hopes of any arrow-straight highways disappearing over the, er, horizon) but it’s nonetheless a noticeable improvement over Horizon 2 where all four corners of the map felt largely similar to each other.
The lighting certainly helps a great deal, though, as the differences between each area are also heightened by Horizon 3’s new global illumination lighting system. It gives the outback a different hue to, say, the rainforest zone as the light picks up an orange tint from the sunburnt soil. The whole environment looks extra special in the pitch black of night, too, with the red glow of the roadside reflectors and the glint of approaching signs responding to your car’s headlights.
Global illumination also does wonders for the car models, seating them in the world better than ever. It’s perhaps telling that despite the fact I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cabin view enthusiast I’m finding myself more and more regularly opting to cruise with the chase cam to marvel at the way the cars gleam and pick up realistic reflections, even of the clouds above. Cabin view, however, is the best seat in the house from which to behold Horizon 3’s wet weather. It’s improved markedly from Horizon 2, with droplets now streaking across the glass and being shoved around by the wipers, as seen in last year’s Forza Motorsport 6.
The price for all this eye candy on Xbox One is that Horizon 3 runs at 30 frames per second (as with previous Horizon games) although it remains locked there always, providing a smooth and consistent driving experience. The only time I ever saw it stumble was during the vignettes you get upon discovering a barn find (which are back, more plentiful than ever, and better disguised on the menu screens prior to their discovery). The PC version is blissfully unrestricted.
It’s better down where it’s wetter.
Another area of improvement is the spectacular audio; Horizon 3 is the best-sounding Forza game to date – including Forza Motorsport. The step up from Horizon 2 is immediately noticeable, and that’s already a great-sounding game, but there’s just something about the exhaust notes here in Horizon 3 that seem louder and more aggressive than ever before. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of feathering the throttle with the backfire that Horizon 3 provides; it’s like the crack of a rifle.
Horizon 2’s brand of simple and seamless opt in/opt out multiplayer returns and now includes include new co-op functionality, so if you don’t want to play the career mode alone you can join three friends and tackle it in co-op. Everything you discover and complete is consistent across multiplayer and solo play, which is great design.
Kick It in the Guts, Barry
Beyond its prowess when it comes to presentation, Horizon 3’s big bullet point is its pliability. There are more car customisation options than ever, and the best ones are sorted into a separate menu, so it’s clear before purchasing which rides will feature the new widebody kits and blower options. 2015’s Need for Speed actually made up a lot of ground on the Forza franchise’s level of customisation (even surpassing it in some areas, like the ability to place decals on glass, for instance) but Horizon 3 is a confident response to the challenge.
We’re also no longer restricted to a default avatar; rather we can now choose from a selection, à la Test Drive Unlimited. Playground has even had its voice actors record a host of names the commentary will refer to you by, which is a cute touch. It defaulted to Luke, but I chose ‘Sausage’ because I’m clearly easily amused. Every time I load my game I hear Anna, my GPS assistant, say, “Welcome back, Sausage!” It’s impossible not to drive away with a grin after that greeting.
You’re no longer restricted to the in-game music, either, and I really can’t stress enough how much I love the Groove Music integration here. It really is surprisingly easy to play your own music in Horizon 3 and it’s absolutely worth a try if you love driving to particular tunes. While I mentioned ‘Thunderstruck’ in the intro, Horizon 3 contains no AC/DC; I’m just playing my own. Having the built-in ability to stream your music itself is different to just playing background music via the Groove app on your Xbox One, too. Done in-game it’ll play just like any of the included radio stations; there’s no DJ but your songs will get the full post-processing treatment any time you drive into a festival location so it’ll sound like your radio has just given way to a live concert. That said, my personal songs would occasionally hang and skip like a badly scratched CD, but I can’t tell if that’s a bandwidth issue on my part or a technical one with the functionality itself.
But it’s the flexibility of the racing events themselves that gives us almost complete control over how Horizon 3 unfolds. Horizon 2 allowed us to rock up to a new championship and completely ignore the suggested car class, which meant we could progress towards the festival’s grand finale without ever leaving the cars we wanted to drive most. Horizon 3 goes a step further, not only by adjusting certain events automatically depending on what car you’ve brought to the start point but also by allowing us to either completely re-script the event from the ground up ourselves, or race a custom event created by friends or other Horizon 3 players.
The functionality is dubbed Horizon Blueprint and lets us select the time of day, the weather, the competition, and even the name of the race itself. It’s brilliant, and means every event can be raced in dozens and dozens of different ways under a whole range of conditions. Completing your own or your friends’ Blueprint events will net you the same rewards you’d earn for opting for the “official” events Playground has baked in. You can even create your own Bucket List challenges – the one-off, themed events introduced in Horizon 2 – starting at predetermined points in the world.
About my only gripe here is that the Horizon 3 still isn’t nuanced enough to distinguish between Ford vehicles from the US, the UK, and Australia. As a result Horizon 3’s Australian-themed race category ‘Aussie Rules’ is kind of a waste of space right now, considering Aussie Fords remain sorted as US cars and aren’t eligible. An odd miss considering how utterly reverent Horizon 3 otherwise is to its setting.
Forza Horizon 3 is a masterclass in open-world racing and bigger and better than its excellent predecessor across the board. It looks fantastic, the car selection and customisation is second to none, and the size and variety of the sprawling Australian outback is magnificent. Above all, Horizon 3 never loses sight of the fact that tearing through postcard-perfect locations should be fun, and it puts the tools in our hands to keep it that way, always. This is the racing game I’ve been waiting for, and it’s officially my favourite thing on four wheels. A fair dinkum triumph, mates.