There's an old trick in gaming PR, oft-wielded when hawking the latest game in a long-running series.
If this year's soccer / driving / match-3 / open-world historical game is only marginally different from last year's, the PR feint is to place a heavy emphasis on some hitherto unsuspectedly crucial aspect of the game's evolution.
"This year we've introduced dynamic real-time rendered quarterback spacial awareness," or "the assassin's coat now has three pockets," or "we've added mauve triangles!".
If you're reporting on these "innovations," the correct response is to figure out if they are truly relevant, or if they are the product of a desperate marketing meeting, in which the first PowerPoint screen — "What the hell are we going to sell them this year?" — lingers uncomfortably on the projector, even beyond the final pain au chocolate.
So when I recently showed up at a Forza Horizon 3 event and the nice developer representative start talking about the game's amazing sky, I thought, "aha, so this is the PR MacGuffin!"
I ought to have known in advance. If you look at Horizon 3's E3 trailer, it spends a weird amount of time gazing up at the sky, panning the heavens beatifically, mooning at the clouds like it's popped one too many magic mushrooms.
The PR tells me that developers at Playground Games spent months in Australia, pointing fancy cameras upwards in order to capture skippy cumulus, glowering nimbus and wisps of cirrus. Nice work if you can get it.
Playing Forza Horizon 3's first few hours though, it's difficult to escape the fact that the sky looks pretty freaking great. I mean to say, none of us is going to buy a driving game to watch a billow of fog, but if you're going to be inhabiting this open world for 30 hours or more, it's nice that the top half of the screen is pretty.
Early in the game's first get-used-to-the-controls race, the player has to try and beat a car that's swinging from the underside of a helicopter. (I should mention here that, unlike the core Forza series, the Horizon games don't take themselves too seriously.) It's a pretty good way to keep the player's eyes not merely on the horizon, but on the sky as well.
The bottom half of the screen isn't too shabby either. While FH2 took place in the lovely country in the South of France and North of Italy, this new edition takes Australia as its palette, a vastly more diverse proposition.
The demo I played (which I suspect will make up part of the demo that's coming out today) takes place near Surfers Paradise which, believe it or not, is an actual name of a city and not a made-up video game name.
Some years ago, I spent six weeks near Surfers Paradise and I can confirm that it's a lovely part of the world. Endless, golden beaches edge tropical rain forests, dotted with modern cities and low-rise vacation villages.
The Christmas I spent there was the wettest they'd had in years, and the kaleidoscopic sky seemed like an invitation to post arty shots of streaky reds and purples on Facebook.
I recall driving down to Byron Bay — also featured in this game — during a rainstorm. A kangaroo hopped out of the brush right in front of me, skidded on the wet tarmac and fell arse-over-pouch. As I braked to an astonished stop, the kangaroo stood, brushed itself off and looked at me like the whole unfortunate episode was best not mentioned again. Off it lolloped.
Amazing country. Good choice for an open-world driving game. Long story short, I like the sky in this game. I guess the PRs making a big deal out of it worked out pretty well for them, at least in my coverage.
So we should talk about the game itself, the experience. Well, judging from the couple of hours I spent with Forza Horizon 3, it's an open-world driving game in which you get to explore, pick races, upgrade, race, explore, upgrade, race and so on.
The cars look gorgeous and they feel powerful. They drive convincingly, with AIs all being reasonably obliging, though it should be noted that this is the earliest, most forgiving part of the game. Even so, it's a boisterous and exciting game to play.
There's a story holding up the whole thing in which you are the boss of a giant racing festival. You get to make executive choices about hiring drivers and staging events, but mostly, you get to race.
The cars you see me (inexpertly) driving in the video above offer some clue as to the diversity on offer, in terms of vehicles, terrain, tracks, music and even characters. That's right. You don't have to be a white dude. Also, there's no sign of that incredibly annoying bloke who appeared in the last Horizon game.
This map is much larger than in the last game, and once again features secret barns where you can find new drives. If you don't really want to drive around every last corner of the game, you can make use of a drone to scope the place out.
There's all the usual fuss and bother of upgrading and customizing cars as well as racetracks. It's clearly a racing sandbox that's designed to keep players busy, and that's even before multiplayer modes that include four-player online co-op as well as plans for online challenges with prizes.
The developers say that they want this game to feel less prescriptive and metronomic than previous game, in terms of progression and its unlocking system. The plan is to let you do pretty much whatever you want to do.
I asked about microtransactions and DLC. Nothing at launch, but you can expect some of that stuff to be showing up at some point in the future.
The fact is, I had a lot of fun playing this game. It looks great, feels good and carries a jolly, fun vibe. If you're one of the many people looking forward to this game, based on its early stages and the demo, I'd say you've good reason to be optimistic.