Forza Horizon 3 gives you the freedom to roam like you were never allowed to roam in previous Forza Motorsport games. It’s exhilarating at first, to be allowed to go anywhere, do virtually anything. In races, you’re allowed to do insane things like launch cars off cliffs and dodge trains. That’s the best part—that racing madness—because after a while, driving from location to location gets tedious.
(Full disclosure: Playground Games wanted me to play Forza Horizon 3 so badly that it sent me the game before anybody else had it. I fired up my Xbox One and downloaded it.)
The first two hours that I spent with Forza Horizon 3 were a medley of massive confusion (because I’ve never played a Forza Horizon game before, and there is a lot of information abruptly thrown at you from the start), utter wonderment and memories rushing back. It had been a long time since I picked up a racing game, though I religiously played Forza 3, 4 and 5 when they first came out.
I’ll admit that I’m bad at video games. Not so much at actually playing them, but navigating them. It takes me a long time to learn a map, to understand the interface and to absorb what each different activity entails. So you can understand that suddenly being thrust into a wide open landscape with little direction proved to be overwhelming at first.
But it’s part of the fun with learning a new game, I suppose, especially a game as pretty as this one. The cars still have that video game-look—kind of flat-textured under close examination—but the gloss and the shapes are extremely realistic. The environment is as alive and detailed as you can imagine—is the sun constantly setting and sending golden streaks across the sky in Australia? Is there a perpetual ocean breeze that makes the trees sway like that? Even the fine, copper-colored dust of the outback sticks to your car if you go crashing through it enough. Are you really lost if you don’t have a destination?
I threw up my hands, said screw it and just got started. And as soon as I started driving, I instantly knew where all the controls were. It’s like how you never forget how to ride a bike; I never really forgot how to play Forza.
One of the criticisms we had of the last game was that you were forced to play as the one character that Playground Games chose. Not anymore.
I was allowed to choose my personal avatar in the beginning and her name as well (Kristen. Duh.) from a list of options. And from that point forward, the game would get my attention by speaking to me directly. (“Hey, Kristen. You’ve got some fans in this area!” More on that later.)
The game starts you off by sticking you in a Lamborghini Centenario, which is every single iteration of fast and insane that you can imagine. The V12 screams from your speakers in a way that would make a banshee blanche.
You need to race it to the first checkpoint. The course swings between ribbons of pavement and through the rough claws of an offroad course, which is very upsetting to the low-slung and track-tuned Lamborghini. At first, I was confused. I’m supposed to go offroading in a Centenario? Where is that heads up pointing me to? Off that cliff? Ooookay then.
Nobody would ever do any of these things with a Centenario in real life, but of course, this is one of the lovely things about Horizon 3: it revels in being a fantasy. Not so much that’s it’s a completely harebrained dream, but with the colors so abundantly vibrant and saturated, the situations balanced between racing simulation and arcade-racing game, you start thinking anything’s possible.
Once the game leaves you alone for a bit and you’ve gotten all the administrative shit, like having everything explained to you when you first access it, settled, you’re pretty much free to roam around wherever you please. Literally wherever. Even in the ocean, though I didn’t test how far out you could go. Horizon 3 is set in six Australian ecotypes, which include cities, towns, beaches, rainforests and deserts. Good onya, mate!
You get to most of those places by driving through towns, backroads, beaches and sometimes through the forest itself. It’s not as mayhem-causing like Grand Theft Auto is, but other cars minding their own business on your journey are totally a real thing, so if you do something really stupid, like shoot through a town at 112 MPH, you can expect an accident when you try to navigate the roundabout. But then you can just rewind and it’s like no harm was ever done. Those new scars from a head-on collision experienced in first-person on your soul just go away, if your damage is set to cosmetic only.
But! It seems like the game wants you to hit things. You can sideswipe other cars, knock over fences, destroy foliage, do burnouts, drift and speed like a maniac and the game will actually reward you in experience for that kind of tomfoolery. The message gets repeated periodically: you fans aren’t just here to see you win, they’re here for a show.
The fans are a big part of Horizon 3. In this game, you are the boss, meaning you also have a bit of an actual job to do. You are responsible for starting “festivals,” which are new parts of the map where different activities are found. There are three types of currencies in the game, the first of which is your fan base. Completing events earns you new fans. The more fans you get, the more you’ll be able to upgrade existing festivals or open new ones, both of which unlock events in a surrounding area.
You also earn experience points by doing pretty much anything, including smashing into the environment and other cars. More experience earns you skill points that you can spend in the Skill Shop, where you can unlock a mix of passive beneficial rewards (like more experience points for drafting) or instant rewards (like bonus credits). When you reach a new experience level, you get a Wheelspin—a slot machine-like feature that gives you a random chance for credits or cars.
Credits are the in-game currency you use to buy new cars or upgrades, and you make money so easily and so quickly in this game. I’ve played other games where you need to grind or farm a serious amount before you have enough credits to buy anything, and this isn’t that kind of game. The cash flows quickly and easily, and in no time, you can buy new cars and upgrades without thinking about it much. My first purchase was a Ford GT, because why not. It’s blue.
From what I can tell so far, you can take any one of your cars out and do whatever you want with it, even race them on the tracks. The game will automatically offer events that are suited to your car and its class. Is that a 1955 Mercedes 300 SL you have that you want to race? Sure thing! Dune buggies? Trucks? Those are fine too. And don’t worry if you hit a tree or crash it or launch it off a cliff, there is no pain in this world, just an unsettling anesthetic pumped in that only allows for smiles and victories. It’s not electronic numbing somnolence, exactly, but rather an air of indifference to chaos.
You also have your own personal PR lady, a chipper Australian woman named Keira, who will do everything from set your waypoints, navigate you, negotiate your music contracts (Horizon 3 offers you a bunch of new music stations to choose from), set up your festivals and walk you through the game. She drew my attention to a “barn find” activity on the map, so I set a waypoint there. It’s an area where some rare car is hiding. I spent the better part of an hour combing the place top to bottom. I couldn’t find diddly squat, got fed up, finished my wine and went to bed, slightly dizzy from all the navigating.
The next day, rather than drive around the same area all over again, I took out my Drone, a new feature for Horizon 3. It’s way easier to cover ground quickly in the drone, but I wish the game let you fly it higher than about 15 feet above the ground. The advantage of a drone is to provide a bird’s eye view of the landscape, isn’t it? That was definitely lacking. I’m still not quite sure what this feature is for, but it’s there.
What also I did find tedious about Horizon 3 is that you had to drive to all the places that you needed to go. I know this might sound like a stupid complaint for a driving game, but I feel like you could be using that time between activities and locations more wisely. It’s like Pokémon. Once you got a Pokémon that could Fly, why on earth would you walk to places again? Perhaps this is just a Horizon thing, driving everywhere, but I really couldn’t get into it.
As is the case with all the other Forza games I’ve played, some of the realness is lost to the fact that you have to compress the entire range of motion involved in turning a real steering wheel or pressing a real throttle pedal into the few centimeters of travel that an Xbox controller allows you. Your fingers will calibrate quickly enough, but it’s one aspect that kept me anchored to reality.
So, no, Horizon 3 isn’t just about racing, though there are many of those you can join. It’s about doing everything in a car you’ve ever wanted, in a world that’s still governed by physics. It’s not as hyperreal as regular Forza (Forza 5, anyways), so things like nose dive when you brake hard into a corner aren’t as noticeable.
I don’t think a hyper-real experience is the point, though. This game is about your choices and how you make and shape your involvement. You’re not caught up in a pre-set agenda the game has for you. You have access to basically anywhere you’d like to go because almost nothing is walled off. There are no cops.
I haven’t finished the game yet, but so far I’m rather enjoying this laissez faire attitude.