Forza Horizon 3 review

Game Info
Platform Win, Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer Playground Games
Release Date Sep 27, 2016

Forza Horizon 3 is big, boisterous and slightly barmy.

Shining slick with waxy polish, it follows a direct line of competent racing game construction, from 2014's highly regarded Forza Horizon 2, and the 2012 Xbox 360 original.

Since its founding in 2010, developer Playground has only ever worked on Horizon titles. The team is made up of people who previously worked on driving series' like Project Gotham Racing, Driver, MotoGP, Formula One, Burnout and Need for Speed. Turn 10, the development house behind the core Forza series, had a hand in the making of Forza Horizon 3.

That this game is soundly constructed, varied and good-looking is no great surprise. Playground has proven that it knows how to make good racing games. The company has been iterating on open-world driving for almost as long as the genre itself. It's a joyful carnival of squealing tyres and bumping fenders, of wheeling vistas and shuddering prangs. Most of all, Forza Horizon 3 is a beautiful world to explore.

Why does Forza Horizon 3 make me feel happy?

What's interesting here is not so much the mere fact of Forza Horizon 3's fierce competence, so much as the ideas that sustained my interest in the game, many hours after I climbed into my starter vehicle.

In terms of basic mechanical activity, racing games are possibly the least altered genre in high-end gaming. Accelerate, decelerate, turn left, turn right. That's it. That's all there's ever been. Everything else is either decoration or degrees of finesse.


Forza Horizon 3 isn't the first console game to support High Dynamic Range — HDR for short — as that honor goes to this week's launch of NBA 2K17. But it's easily the best example of how stunning it can be.

HDR, in short, allows for a wider range of displayed colors on screen as well as an enormous improvement in contrast and on-screen brightness on supported TVs over last-generation displays. If you have a display that supports the HDR10 standard and an Xbox One S (and have correctly set up your system), you'll be greeted at Forza Horizon 3's title screen with an HDR brightness adjustment slider. My impulse was to dial this all the way up, which, as it turns out, was a mistake, as I was subsequently rubbing my eyes within minutes. With HDR enabled, Forza Horizon 3 is often a constant assault of brilliant color and blinding sunlight, whether it's coming over or a ridge or blooming from a rear view mirror.

The Australian outback that Forza Horizon 3 presents is beautiful on normal displays, to be clear. But there's something that much more immersive about blinding, beautiful light if you have the TV to support the game's HDR settings — even if that light can be as distracting as it is beautiful.

- Arthur Gies

There are countless cheap or free games that offer this physical simplicity, the vaguely entertaining diversion of keeping the thing between the two twisty, curvy lines. So the successful $60 racing game must deliver something that's valuable to the player, a tangible sense of magic.

Coldly exact simulation, no matter how precise, is not enough.

Emotion is the voguish ingredient in games right now. Just about every shooter hero or role-playing character is in the midst of a harrowing narrative journey or emerging from deep expository trauma. YouTube is drowning in Let's Players, weeping and sobbing after some tearful mission denouement.

Games that make us feel something are games that win popular acclaim. How can this be squared with a simulation about soulless vehicles, whizzing around on sheets of tarmac? Why does Forza Horizon 3 make me feel happy?

Forza Horizon 3 thinks big. Its emotional palette is, literally, the grand horizon. While playing this game, the thing that makes my heart skip is its world, its sand, its stone and its skies.

The Australia portrayed here isn't merely rendered prettily. It's more that the world itself is a never-ending source of discovery and charm, so much so that, while playing, all I ever wanted was to reveal more, more, more. It helps that this game is significantly bigger than any of its predecessors. I'll confess here some small measure of bias. Some years ago I spent six weeks in New South Wales, living near Surfers Paradise, a key location in Forza Horizon 3. I can attest that the beaches, cities, villages, rainforests and inland locations here are lovingly portrayed. While driving through the lanes of Forza Horizon 3, I found a waterfall that I'd once visited with my wife (I remembered it because she was attacked by a bloodsucking leech, and I had to burn the beast off her calf with a cigarette lighter).

The game allows the player to stop and watch a short sequence from this beauty spot, just one of many collectibles in the game that encouraged me, not so much to race, but merely to drive around.

Even so, my bias doesn't fully explain my adoration of this landscape. My favorite part of the game was the outback, which I've never visited in real life. This particular environment offers the most freedom to go off-road, to bump wildly across dunes and hillocks, crashing through wire fences while avoiding the odd tree.

In its devotion to environment, Playground has wisely steered clear of the drift towards human stories, such as those sorry attempts we saw in Need for Speed (2015). At the start of Forza Horizon 3, I chose my character from a pleasing selection of beautiful young people. I am a nice-looking young woman called Priscilla. Throughout the game, Priscilla doesn't utter a word. She's a puppet. The humans in this game are unimportant.

forza horizon 3 review 3

The only speaking characters in the game are a helpful mechanic, an assistant and an in-car navigation system. Most of the time, they stayed out of my way. I was never required to care about them. They never asked me to do anything I don't want to do.

I liked the people a great deal.

Although there are tons of options for the player to indulge in cooperative missions and multiplayer contests, Forza Horizon 3 also avoids an over-reliance on the alleged narrative power of real people, as in The Crew. The much-vaunted power of friends in games all rather depends on the individual quality of one's friendships. The Crew was not a great success.

While the core Forza series majors on minutely designed real world racetracks, Horizon dots its racing locations within a wider world of just tooling around.

Frankly, I didn't find the designs of the racetracks themselves to be as interesting as the world they inhabit and the views they afford. This is fine. There's too much stuff going on to really get hung up on perfecting every last turn, or shaving half a second off my best lap time. I can choose to do those things, but I don't. I choose to drop in, race, and drive off in search of something new.

Forza Horizon 3 is super laid back about how I spend my time

Forza Horizon 3 is super laid-back about how I spend my time. There are fresh activities on offer everywhere, from seeking out hidden barns secreting rare cars, to mowing down signage, to triggering speed traps. AI cars mooch around just waiting for me to toot my horn and challenge them to a race to some random location.

The world is also dotted with specific challenges featuring dream cars. The game asked me, "Can you race to this spot in this here Rolls Royce in under two minutes?"

"Well," I replied. "I was just on my way to a championship race, but since you're here and since I'm here, let's give it a whirl."

forza horizon 3 review screen 4

In such ways, happy hours were spent.

The open world must be opened bit by bit with a points system that could, at a stretch, be described as a story. You are ostensibly in charge of a racing festival. As you earn "fans" for driving feats, you are able to open new festivals in new locations. So, from a seaside starting place you can open up those areas of the map that inhabit a city, the outback as well as rainforest and mountainous terrains. I found the city to be fairly generic, compared to the loveliness of the game's other locations.

Increased fandom also allows for these festivals to be expanded, opening up new challenges, roads and races. XP is also on offer, allowing the player to earn currency to buy new cars, and to upgrade the ones already in possession. Freebies are thrown at the player during each level-up, which occurs with almost indecent regularity. In short, Forza Horizon 3 is generous with its assets.

The game's systems successfully drew me onward, always keen to find new landscapes. Strangely I found myself less bothered about unlocking new races and championships. This central activity offers dozens of tracks using dozens more different types of cars. There are even unofficial street races. But the races don't mark themselves out as significantly more interesting than the challenges and open-world exploration.

forza horizon 3 review screen 5

It's not merely that the racetracks are often unremarkable or slightly samey in their fundamental design, it's that that the game's other activities are often so compelling. For those players who do see the racetracks as a driving game's prime concern, there are many levels of difficulty on offer, from full-on hardcore simulation to one that's so easy it's actually hard to lose. There's a deep pleasure to be had in trying out new cars in different environments

Ease is emphatically not the case in multiplayer games that range from races and championships to playful arena versions of tag and capture-the-flag.

I'd thought myself a reasonably competent Forza Horizon 3 driver, until I ventured into pre-release online games organized by publisher Microsoft Studios. I was, shall we say, severely challenged. But the online modes all worked and all made for a fun experience, if you have the necessary abilities.

If the world of Australia and Playground's piling up of activities form the core attraction of Forza Horizon 3, the last word ought to go to the cars themselves. In such a diverse environment as Australia, there's a definite need for a broad garage taking in everything from sleek speedsters to beach buggies, and even Halo's Warthog.

I spent a lot of time selecting the cars that reflect my own preferences, repainting them in vivid colors and upgrading finitely tuned internal systems. This was by my own choice. Garage management takes care of itself, if you prefer.

So it's also a collection game. There's a deep pleasure to be had in trying out new cars in different environments, rejecting those that are unsuitable and lavishingly love and upgrades on those that find favor. Forza Horizon 3 is nothing if not a fetishization of that most sexy of consumer products, the automobile.

Wrap Up:

Forza 3 Horizon is as beautiful as it is engaging

Forza Horizon 3 is as much a driving game as a racing game. Through a superbly realized version of Australia as well as a wide variety of terrain, cars and challenges, this free-roaming car simulation offers a valuable playbox. But it also managed to muster "cor blimey" moments that made me feel a whooping rush of speed and liberation.

Forza Horizon 3 was reviewed on Xbox One and Xbox One S consoles using pre-release "retail" download codes provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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