(Xbox One Review) Forza Horizon 3

Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Arcade Racing / Rally Racing / Sim Racing
Players: 1-12
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Forza Horizon 3 takes the party-themed racer to Australia for another expansive, open-world outing. As has become franchise tradition, the back-and-forth between Turn 10 and Playground Games, continually refining each iteration of their respective lines, Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon, has resulted in yet another highly polished, feature-rich racer.

After landing in Australia, players soon realize that things are a little different this time around. For starters, the party vibe has returned with a vengeance after being toned down in Forza Horizon 2. Another change, which also explains the re-embrace of the party culture, is that players are no longer a scrappy up-and-coming racer, but the big boss. Players aren’t simply participating in the race; they’re building it. After selecting a male or female avatar, a name, and a customized license plate, it’s up to the boss to expand and plan events, entice sponsors, and increase the pool of racers. That pool of racers is once again made up of Drivatars, AI representations of other players that have come a long way from their maniacal tendencies of earlier days. The goal is to generate enough excitement to draw in partygoers from around the globe, and as luck would have it, that process happens to involve a familiar setup.

Showcases are located throughout an open-world environment that offers a variety of events comprised of multiple races and race types. Each race is a chance for players to progress by earning experience, credits, and fans. Experience increases the player’s level and allows them to take a ‘wheelspin’ for a prize of either cash or a new ride, and an additional perk to unlock skills. Perks are spread across different categories, including Festival Boss, Skills, and Instant Rewards. Each features a grid of unlocks that become accessible once an adjacent choice has been selected. Festival Boss offers personal bonuses, such as the chance to purchase extra wheelspins, earn additional credit for paint jobs, and receive extra credit when their Drivatar takes part in other festivals. Skills reward additional points for drifting, near misses, and general borderline reckless driving. Instant Rewards add a sudden injection of cash or experience, for the impatient. The setup works just as well as in previous entries, and the game’s steady influx of points, constantly earned and multiplied via modifiers for nearly everything (hitting trees or trash cans, drafting, catching air, etc.) maintains a steady momentum that manages to make even traveling between events exciting.

Equally important to progression are the earned credits and fans. Credits are needed to buy, upgrade, and rent rides to compete in races, while the fans expand the showcases to open up new events. Being the boss doesn’t make the experience drastically different from FH2; instead of unlocking a new showcase to access new events, players now level them up to create the new events. What has changed is the increased number of off-road races. The open-world nature of the Horizon series has allowed players to take even the priciest cars through fields and forests, but FH3 fully embraces the rough-and-tumble spirit of off-roading with buggies that have racers bouncing around like ping-pong balls, struggling to maintain control. Rain returns from FH2’s Storm Island add-on, but unlike the expansion, it’s less monsoon and more of a light to modest downpour. While water doesn’t alter the dirt paths too much, they do make the roads a bit trickier, and for all of the game’s embracing of the rugged outdoors, there are still plenty of more traditional street races. Befitting the devil-may-care theme, these aren’t the structured courses of a Motorsport release but often makeshift paths that frequently alternate between pavement and dirt with structures obstructing the course. One recurring issue I had was coming to a dead stop by rocks that blended with the surrounding area. Fortunately, the helpful rewind feature returns, along with the drive line and numerous other aids, which make it especially welcoming to new players by smoothing out mishaps at the expense of some of the reward cash.

If the player lacks a vehicle for a recently unlocked event, they can always rent one from the festival’s garage. There’s a good chance that will happen, too, as there are races for everything from 1990s import tuners to 1960s luxury cars. There are hundreds of vehicles available for purchase from the virtual showroom, and each can be customized cosmetically and mechanically. Paint jobs return from previous entries, with players capable of checking out several popular designs from others. These are rated for convenience for the browser and make for an easy fix to get a nice-looking ride, while the artist receives bonuses for those who enjoy their work. Gearheads can also carefully comb through their rides, purchasing new parts for the transmission, tires, exhaust, and so on. Those less technically inclined can rely on the game’s mechanic, who will automatically outfit a car for all-around performance. This setup has been gradually refined throughout the various releases, and at this point, it’s been honed to a fine point.

The same can be said about the game’s overworld and multiplayer. So much of the game revolves around convenience and choice. All around the landscape are little things to do and objects to hunt down, if the player so chooses. For example, smashable signs can be found on the side of the road, hidden in pipes, and tucked under bridges, offering boosts for experience, cash, and fast travel. Barns are scattered throughout the more rural areas hosting cards that the festival mechanic will fix up and add to the player’s garage. Danger points offer the chance for daredevils to catch air for a star-based ranking that will be posted for others to attempt, and the same goes for drift zones, speed traps, and PR stunts. Scenic vistas can be found that do nothing more than provide a nice view of the surroundings, showing off the game’s gorgeous visuals and rewarding an experience bonus. Other Drivatars roam around the world, and every one of them will take players up on a challenge for a quick sprint for cash, fans, and experience. Players can also honk at passing Drivatars to form Convoys. Once in a group, the Drivatar will follow the player, occasionally challenging them to a race, and with the appropriate upgrades, keep an eye for nearby signs and Barns. There are also Bucketlist challenges, where a specific car is tied to a unique trial. All of this is simply sitting there for the player to attempt at any time. And if they are ever at a loss about what to tackle next, an on-board GPS system can be directed to mark a route to one of the nearby activities.

Those who enjoy personalizing their experience can also choose to create their own events. Blueprint locations allow players to set up a customized race with a unique name, specific car category, set time of day, and type of weather. These can be posted online for others to try, and an invite feature allows players to send challenges to those on their friends list. As for my own experience, I will just say that I lost my own customized race. Good luck to the more astute designers out there.

Multiplayer rounds out the experience, and in the most relaxed way possible. Unlike many triple-A games with a heavy multiplayer element, FH3 does a remarkable job at reigning itself in. Players have a wide variety of choices, allowing them to be as involved as they wish. Adventure is a structured mode where players compete in a series, while Freeroam is the opposite, allowing players to drive wherever they wish and compete in whatever they wish. Bucket Lists, PR stunts, races, etc. are available in Freeroam, making it a marriage of single- and multiplayer. Playground Games returns, adding a bit of levity, with King crowning the driver who holds the title the longest without being hit, Infection spreading a virus to others upon impact, and Flag Rush sending players after flags to return them to a capture zone. For players who get into the community aspect, there are car meets, where drivers can get together and look at other players’ vehicles. Everything can be played through private sessions, too. By far the biggest addition is co-op, where up to four players tackle the tournament together. As fun and exhilarating as it is to hop online, it’s not necessary to enjoy the game. The open-world setup and Drivatars emulate a multiplayer session to the extent that players who prefer to go solo will find just as rewarding experience tackling the tournament by themselves. But for those who want to race with friends or strangers, the game has them covered multiple times over.

On the rare occasion, FH3 hits a small rut. This can happen when one of the many odd matchups doesn’t gel. The designers frequently throw out these types of different situations, such as a classic muscle car in a city sprint. Some of the combinations work surprisingly well together, while others can cause an event to drag. The formula delivers far more than it doesn’t, but sometimes a combination just doesn’t click. The party element might not click, either, with its generic lingo and faux attitude. It’s not as bad as the original, but the DJs and random event employees rarely add much. I also noticed shadows flickering in the otherwise lovely forest sections. Other than these minor asides, there really isn’t much to note, as the formula continues to deliver an exhilarating experience.

Forza Horizon 3 continues the spin-off’s trend of delivering fantastic open-world arcade-style racers. The combination of Forza Motorsport’s physics, deep car roster, and presentation with Project Gotham Racing’s performance-based scoring system is as addictive today as it was in 2012. The expanded online options, including co-op, only add to the game’s longevity, and guarantee that players will be busy until Playground Games releases their next title.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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