Thursday, October 6, 2016

Forza Horizon 3 Review (XONE)

Forza Horizon 3 is absolutely the bigger, better, more badass sequel to Forza Horizon 2 that fans wanted.  There is no doubt that it looks better and, maybe, plays better, and the wealth of event types of fantastic, but longtime fans of the franchise will also likely get a sense of déjà vu as the core of the experience has been the same for three games now.  It is still great, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve done a lot of this before and the thrill is fading a bit. 

Of course, that feeling really only applies to grizzled veterans like me with hundreds of combined hours with the first two Horizon games.  If you’re a Horizon newbie, on the other hand, Forza Horizon 3 is a nearly perfect game that stands as one of the best racing games of all time.  And even if you are a cynical Forza series curmudgeon like me, there is still plenty to love here as it really is objectively better than previous entries.  See all of the details in our full Forza Horizon 3 review here.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Microsoft
  • Developer: Playground Games
  • ESRB Rating: “E” for Everyone
  • Genre: Racing
  • Pros: Looks gorgeous; 400+ cars; great feeling gameplay; event variety; best car sounds
  • Cons: Not a huge leap over FH2; doing events twice … ; showcases are boring now
  • MSRP: $60
FH3 takes place in a fantasy chunk of Australia where a big city, rolling farmland, rain forest, and the outback are all within 5-minutes of each other, but the unrealistic terrain layout gives you some great variety in the scenery so it is easy to forgive.  Previous Forza Horizon games had you competing to be crowned the top racer of the festival but Forza Horizon 3 flips things a bit and puts you in charge of the festival itself.  This means you get to choose how the festival is build up and your progression through the game.  In practice, though, despite being the boss you still end up doing the same stuff you did before – winning races, doing PR stunts, etc. – so it doesn’t really bring a meaningful change to the experience.

Similarly, the events you play through haven’t really changed much either.  The map is littered with races – both checkpoint and circuit style – as well as PR stunts that have you blasting through speed cameras or doing bucket list challenges where you have to meet specific goals in specific cars in set time limits.  There are also barn finds where you get a hot tip on an abandoned car somewhere and have to go find it.  Once you reach certain progression thresholds you also open up showcase events where you race a car against a fighter jet or a train or other crazy things.  And, of course, in between events you are free to roam around Australia to explore, race head to head with other drivers, and generally goof off.

If you’ve played the previous Horizon games all of that should sound familiar because we’ve done all of this before and, I have to admit, the thrill is sort of fading.  The showcase events in particular, which were so unexpected and over the top and crazy in Forza Horizon 1, are just plain boring now (especially when you notice the severe rubber band A.I. that makes them almost impossible to actually lose despite how close they seem).  Bucket list cars and barn finds have similarly lost their luster.  I just don’t care anymore.  The actual races themselves are fine, though I’m not a fan of the game essentially making you run a lot of them twice – once in an Exhibition and then again as part of a Championship series. 

Forza Horizon 3 does do a few new things too, thankfully.  There are now drifting challenges where you drift along set sections of roads for points and I like the new PR stunts that have you flying hundreds of yards through the air off of crazy jumps.  I also really love the new drone mode where you can fly a little drone all over to take photos and take really dynamic videos of cars racing around.  You also now are tasked with building a team of skilled racers (from the drivitars of your friends, of course) and their performance contributes to your overall success, which is pretty neat.

Ok, time to drop the cynicism and start shouting Forza Horizon 3’s good points from the rooftops.  The gameplay here is really, really, insanely good.  The Horizon series just hits a perfect balance of being a decently realistic driving sim – though dialed way, way back from the actual Forza Motorsport racing series simulation gameplay – while also being intuitive and fun to pick up and play for players of any skill level.  It feels incredibly good to play and I love the wealth of options you have to make the game play however you want it to.  Want more of a sim feel?  Turn off assists.  Want it to be easier?  Turn assists on and tweak the A.I. difficulty and other options.  I love that it lets you tune the experience to be whatever you want.

Not only can you customize the overall experience in Forza Horizon 3, but you can customize and tune all 400+ cars as well.  You can upgrade them all with new performance parts and fine-tune a wide range of settings to get exactly the performance and handling you’re looking for.  You can also customize the way they look with a fantastic livery editor.  If you aren’t patient enough to make your own designs, you can also choose one from dozens and dozens of designs other players have made.  Being able to wrap my car in silly anime girls or ponies or other ridiculous nonsense is amazing.

I also can’t talk about Forza Horizon 3 without emphasizing just how fun simply goofing off in the game can be.  You are free to drive pretty much anywhere you want – including straight through forests and farmland and over hills – and it is incredible.  Racking up huge skill point scores just goofing off and jumping over mountains is awesome.  Exploring is fun.  Doing head to head street races with drivitars you meet on the roads is a ton of fun.  Just driving around and breakneck speeds to see what you can see is extremely enjoyable. 

I think the above paragraph outlines what is the real secret to enjoying Forza Horizon 3 fully, particularly if you’re perhaps getting a little bored of the series staples like I am.  Don’t try to do all of the events at once.  Don’t just rush from one thing to another.  Take your time.  Explore.  Goof off.  Don’t treat the game like a job you have to finish ASAP.  The key to the Horizon franchise’s success is that it gives you the freedom to play however you want and do whatever you want, whenever you want, so take advantage of it.  That way you don’t get burned out.  There’s a ton of fun stuff to do in Forza Horizon 3.

The presentation is at the same time very, very impressive, but also sort of a slight let down.  The cars all look amazing and highly detailed and perfect and Australia looks great for the most part, though it is hard not to feel like big chunks of the environments were lifted straight out of Horizon 1 and 2 which doesn’t help the déjà vu I mentioned earlier.  The new rain forest section is pretty stunning, though, and it is incredible how dense the foliage is.  Lighting effects are wonderful throughout and the water – in the form of rain as well as rivers and lakes you can drive through – is fantastic looking.  The fact the game runs at a locked 30FPS despite looking this great is extremely impressive.

The sound is also very good as the Forza franchise has the absolute best engine sounds in the entire industry.  The cars all sound unique and realistic and just plain great.  The game also has a wide range of radio stations to listen to covering several genres, though I’m not crazy about the song selection.  You can also make a custom radio station with a Groove Music subscription, or you can use a background music player on your Xbox One, though that doesn’t integrate into the game seamlessly like Groove does. 

When everything is said and done and the dust settles, I can easily say Forza Horizon 3 is a great, almost perfect, racing game that no race fan should pass up.  The formula is starting to wear thin, however, so I really hope that Forza Horizon 4 is able to shake things up a bit, but until then Forza Horizon 3 still has a lot to offer and is a ton of fun.  It looks and sounds fantastic, has an incredible list of fully customizable cars, features lots to do, and offers some of the best pure racing gameplay you’ll find anywhere.  Forza Horizon 3 is absolutely fantastic and well worth a purchase.