Cruise control, mate!
Like clockwork, the Forza Horizon series by Playground Games has become the interim sandbox excursion between the major Forza Motorsport entries by Turn 10 Studios, giving Forza fans a reprieve from the more serious and technical side of racing. Following the well-traveled path of its predecessors, Forza Horizon 3 transforms an exotic locale—this time, the undulating, panoramic landscape of Australia—into car heaven, an expansive playground where there's no need for gas, no cops, no pedestrians, no traffic lights, and no pesky insurance payments. The game provides exactly what the series is known for: a semi-casual ride with a cavalcade of various race types and diversions that is, by and large, as competent as it is safe and expected.
As the new Horizon Festival boss, you are in charge of expanding the car-nival (see what I did there?) throughout Australia by amassing fans. Completing main missions and PR stunts, such as speed traps, drift zones, and danger-sign ramps, peppered about the world will easily award you enough fans to reach the necessary milestones to level up each festival point and plant more festivals in other areas of the map, both of which grants you access to more races and side tasks.
Forza Horizon 3 carries over the emblematic production value and signature features of the Forza brand without fail, and subsequently there's plenty to do whether it's collecting an incredible roster of vehicles, delving into the detailed tuning and upgrade options, or competing in an extensive medley of race types on dirt and asphalt (or a mixture of both). The game's feedback loop is fortunately simple and flexible, allowing you to divert from the path and explore the terrain without ever needing to enter events until you want to.
This flexibility follows through to the new Forza Blueprint, where you can customize any event to your specifications, from the number of laps and car-type restrictions, to the time of the day and general weather. The game doesn't penalize you for expedience, so you're free to set each event to a single lap without any significant repercussion and zip through the main events like they're running out of style. The same goes for the difficulty settings, which in familiar Forza style, can be adjusted before any race and gives you bonuses for turning off assists like the signature rewind ability and the racing line.
That said, you'll probably want to keep most of the assists on while you're bobbing and weaving through traffic like a speed demon. An alternate freeroam setting, though, would have helped in this regard to help streamline the transition between freeroam and racing gameplay. Per usual, you can earn extra experience points by discovering roads and bashing XP boards, with those hidden in the farthest nooks and crannies being worth 20,000 XP, and earn skill points by chaining together daredevil maneuvers—wrecking fences, barely missing oncoming traffic, drifting or e-drifting around corners, getting airtime, and otherwise being a stuntman straight out of Fast and the Furious.
As such, you might become frustrated by various combo breakers beyond crashing into an everyday car because you weren't paying attention. Drivatars, especially those based on your friends list, will spawn near you frequently no matter where you are and will sometimes seem to drop into the world as if they're meant to crash into you. Creating a convoy of Drivatars, despite the point being to keep a group moving together, makes this problem worse. And of course, you'll shake your fist at certain trees that seem to be made out of adamantium while other, sometimes taller trees around them snap in half like twigs. That said, the new Drivatar Lineup which has you form a team of Drivatars that earn you bonus XP, fans, and credits is a nice touch. And convoys are really meant for online freeroam with actual players instead of artificial intelligence anyway.
With the expanded perk system, chaining combos together is well worth the effort. Banked skill points can be traded in for extra XP and credits, better combo ability, an advantage in online mini-games, special vehicles, and much more. If you can thread the needle at oncoming traffic on the freeway or continually drift and smash through vineyards, you can rack up multiple skill points in a hurry.
Then if a skill song—a newly-added feature that happens on occasion—is playing on the radio, your combo will accumulate twice as fast. But since the pre-made stations are the only ones that include skill songs, this means you're effectively missing out if you choose to turn the radio off or use the in-game Groove Music function to listen to your own curated list of music. That said, my favorite station is the classical Timeless station whose highbrow host has no idea about car culture and stumbles through Horizon Festival announcements with proverbial questions marks over his head.
Gaining levels also nets you Wheelspins that randomly net you heaps of credits and the occasional free car, with lucky spins sending a special Horizon Edition car with special perks like double XP or credits right to your garage. And unlike the very limited number of perks in Forza Horizon 2 which made skill points useless after a while, Forza Horizon 3 has perks that can be reclaimed an infinite number of times. Better yet, one very, very dangerous perk will let you trade in 50,000 hard-earned credits for an additional Wheelspin which makes excess credits that you aren't using in the auction house more useful (and easily spent).
General exploration, though, is only rewarded modestly compared to the XP and credits earned through events and bounty races, and there will come a point when you've discovered everything on the map, a limitation made more apparent if you choose to purchase the treasure map as a microtransaction that reveals the location of every bonus board. Eventually, you'll drive on every road, find every barn with a car, and smash through enough boards that there's little, if any, left to uncover, aside from the starting locations of new events as they pop up when you level up a festival destination. I reached this point about 25 hours into the game, and after unlocking the “Fast Travel Anywhere” perk, there's not much reason to actually drive from event to event unless you need to. If there were reoccurring missions, perhaps bonus boards that would spawn in a place for a limited time, it would have extended the life of exploration.
At the very least, the game's condensed reinterpretation of Australia (mainly Victoria)—a pastiche of various locales and “beauty spot” landmarks like The Twelve Apostles, Glass House Mountains, Maroondah Dam, Ormiston Gorge, and the general Outback—is a sight to behold. The rolling sky in particular is exquisitely rendered thanks to actual footage taken of the Australian sky as it gently transitions from day to night and back again. Take a picture of the Ultima Evolution Coupe 1020 in Photo Mode—which still doubles as a way to earn extra credits by taking snapshots of unique cars—as it curves along a mountain road at dawn, and it will likely be breathtaking. The world may be skin-deep, but it's gorgeous nonetheless.
Playground Games have emphasized Forza Horizon 3's online offerings by adding the aforementioned Convoy function and making it possible to conquer the main campaign with up to three other friends. Effectively, this co-operative feature works much like 12-player online freeroam except with the convenient ability to take a 4-player group with you into main events. Otherwise, online clubs and online events remain mostly the same with Infected and King gameplay types, plus a Flag Rush variant that has you delivering flags toward score circles. Joining an Online Adventure remains serviceable, though the inability to change cars midway through championships can be frustrating; taking a Ferrari into four straight offroad events is a swervy nightmare no one should experience.
It's a slight letdown that the customizable options for the driver has not been expanded much, with the game giving you just one of ten generic, yawn-inducing avatars to choose from. Avatar customization isn't terribly important in open-world racers of course, as the car you choose becomes your de facto skin in the game. Thankfully, there are neat Halo-themed options sprinkled about, including a Warthog vehicle or the option to have the female narrator call you Master Chief.
In the absence of other open-world racing series like Burnout Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited, the Forza Horizon series has steadily become a racing staple, and with Forza Horizon 3, it's now on cruise control. With a revised skill system, a wealth of racing content, and a co-operative campaign, you'll want to bend and curve around every corner in picturesque Australia landscape at least once, even if that's the only time.
Xbox One copy provided by publisher.