Crafting a racing game that deftly rides the line between pure arcade action and hardcore simulation is an incredibly difficult task, as a developer risks alienating fans of both play styles. Playground Games has, however, somehow managed to pull it off once again, this time with Forza Horizon 3 (starting at $59.99), a ridiculously addictive racing game that represents the series' first appearance as a PC game, courtesy of Microsoft's Xbox Play Anywhere initiative. Like Forza Horizon 2, this third mainline series entry focuses on the fictional Horizon Festival, a loud and brash racing competition. The Australian setting gives the development team a cool box of toys to play with, as Oz's climate and beautifully rugged landscape mix well with the series' trademark fast cars, open-world exploration, and reckless driving. Forza Horizon 3 is a resplendent racing game that celebrates car culture and youthful festival energy, but its always-online requirement and frame rate hiccups mar what could've been a perfect racing experience.
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Life Is a Highway
In past Forza Horizon games, you assumed the role of an eager driver looking to make a big splash at the Horizon Festival; this time out you run the show. You'll still cruise, compete in fast-paced contests, and make your garage fat with contemporary and classic vehicles, but your new responsibilities enable new gameplay scenarios.
This is evident from the jump. On booting the game, you're tasked with creating a character—a first for the series. Forza Horizon 3 offers a handful of prefabricated male and female characters of various races and hues who act as your avatar. You can't tweak a selected character's appearance, but considering that almost all of your playtime is spent inside a vehicle, that limitation is understandable.
Still, you can give your digital avatar one of dozens of preset names that are audibly spoken by your crew. I was sold on the idea being the head honcho when my assistants alternated between calling me "Jeffrey" and "Boss." It's a personal touch that I appreciated, though "Mr. Wilson" would've been a superior moniker, if it had been available.
As the Horizon Festival organizer, it's your duty to please the event's rabid attendees. Though you don't directly interact with the fans, the game reminds you of their importance on a regular basis. You appease them, naturally, by winning competitions, driving with crazed flair, and performing PR Stunts that task you with taking the crazy to the next level. If you chance upon a portion of the road that's barricaded with danger signs, you can either heed the words or throw caution to the wind, bust through the signs, and see what waits on the other side. Playground Games encourages you to explore alternate paths in subtle ways that may require you to rethink your approach to racing games.
New features become available as your progress through the game. You can modify race events to create new fan-favorite challenges, sign radio stations to play the festival, and even hire Drivatars—more on that later—so that you can passively earn additional credits, experience points, and fans when you're away from the computer. Credits let you buy new wheels, experience points unlock new features and options as you level up, and fans push you to open up new hubs, thus expanding the size of the playable map. The ease of flow between these wonderfully interlocking systems remind me of those in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Forza Horizon 3 offers several games worth of exciting and outright cool racing content, but it's not presented in an overwhelming fashion. Playground Games exquisitely meters the introduction of new challenges and features, so that you're not intimidated by choice in the early stages and have something fresh to experience even after you amass hours of road time.
Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz, and Benz
There are more than 350 cars to collect, including the buggy, coupé, SUV, sport, and muscle varieties. Players who count themselves among Top Gear's most diehard viewers will drift off into another plane of blissful existence, as all the wheels are fully licensed from the likes of BMW, Ferrari, Ford, Jeep, and other notable automobile manufacturers. In fact, the "cover cars" that grace Forza Horizon 3's box art and promotional materials are the rough-and-tumble 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor Race Truck and ultra-sexy Lamborghini Centenario.
Sadly, this licensed goodness also means that Forza Horizon 3 will likely vanish from digital marketplaces in a few years' time when the automobile licenses expire, much like the original Forza Horizon, Outrun 2, and Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast. It's a games preservation issue that needs to be addressed, and one reason that I value unlicensed racing games that can stand the test of time, such as Burnout Paradise and Split/Second.
Each car includes first-person cockpit views, working lights and wipers for night and rain driving, respectively, and the ForzaVista mode—a carry-over from the Forza Motorsport series—that lets you explore a car's exterior and interior. It's pure eye candy. Based on the dozens of vehicles that I've either purchased, found in barns scattered around the Australian countryside, or won in delightful spin-the-wheel contests, I can state that they each have unique speed and handling characteristics. Cutting through a forest with an off-road vehicle is far preferable to doing the same with a coupé. You'll see what I mean when you find yourself speeding toward a tree.
I Can't Drive 55
The open-world design lets you navigate tree-filled forests, cruise through a sun-soaked urban environment, or go off-road and blaze a trail through the countryside. Riding shotgun is A.N.N.A., an Automated Natural Navigation Assistant, who offers suggestions on where to go and what to do in the massive Australian map. The K.I.T.T.-like driving assistant informs you of the many races in your vicinity, marks their locations on the map, and displays where Bucket Lists and Showdowns are located.
Showdowns are insane The Fast and The Furious-style races against other vehicles, such as copters, trains, or zeppelins, while Bucket Lists are time trial or air-jump contests. A favorite challenge had me gun a sports car to a far-off destination as quickly as possible. It sounds like a relatively mundane task, but the experience is elevated by the arcade-racing aesthetics. The blistering speed, breathtaking environments and lighting, and road music are a joy to behold. One of my favorite Forza Horizon 3 moments involved me weaving through traffic during an orange-skied sunrise, as "Waltz of the Flowers" caressed my sound system.
Magical Sound Shower
Music plays a large role in the Horizon Festival experience. As you progress, you unlock eight radio stations, some of which are based on real-life record labels. They cover a variety of genres, including classical, hip-hop, house, and indie rock. Though RUN-DMC's "It's Tricky," Justice's "D.A.N.C.E.," and the 148 other tracks form a well-rounded soundtrack, you have the option to use your own music.
If you're a Groove Music Pass subscriber, you can stream your personalized playlists once you unlock the Groove Radio option within the Forza Horizon 3 dashboard. Even better, you can import your own digital music files by copying the tracks into your Microsoft OneDrive folder. That causes the tracks to sync with Microsoft Groove, which you can use to create a Forza Horizon 3 playlist. I really appreciate that Microsoft didn't attempt to wring extra dough out of gamers' pockets in this regard. Capcom could learn a valuable lesson from that with its money-hungry Street Fighter V product.
That's not to say that Forza Horizon isn't loaded with monetization options. There's an expansion that's slated to arrive later this year, world map and horn sound effect unlocks, premium editions, and various car DLC.
Despite its arcade elements, Forza Horizon 3 dips into the simulation world with a bevy of customization options. You can purchase designs created by the Forza community, change individual part colors, or dig in with the built-in editing tool to create your own designs. You have the choice of creating cars that look as cool or as goofy as you want. Few things are as hilarious as seeing a $100,000 car cruising down the street with a giant Pokeball painted on its side.
The customization options extend to your cars' performance characteristics, which is where the game's more simulation-like aspects come into play. You can tune and upgrade tire pressure, gears, alignment, brakes, springs, and more until the ride handles just how you want. Or, you click an icon that automatically does all of those things for you. You can choose whether or not cars take physical damage, and if that damage is merely cosmetic or affects vehicle performance. Horizon 3 lets you be a gearhead or casual driver, which is a part of the game's genius.
The blurring of the online and offline worlds is another area in which Forza Horizon 3 shines. The single-player modes see you battle CPU opponents based on the data gathered from gamers' driving abilities, which makes for more realistic opponents. These AI drivers, called Drivatars, sometimes drive with precision and sometimes as complete and total madmen, all depending on the people that they're replicating. On the flip side, the multiplayer aspect includes 12-player free roam and racing modes, as well as an all-new 4-player online co-op. Best of all, you can jump between singleplayer and multiplayer damn near seamlessly; there are no lobbies or the like to sit inside. Forza Horizon 3 keeps you where you belong: on the road.
The massive downside to this? Forza Horizon 3 appears to require an Internet connection. In fact, the game wouldn't boot up when I yanked my ethernet cord from my PC. If this intentional, and not a patchable bug, this means that you'll be unable to play your $60 (or more) game if your ISP has a bady day. I reached out to Microsoft for a response. I'll update this review with the information that I receive from Redmond.
On the upside, Forza Horizon 3 has cross-platform play with Xbox One gamers via Windows 10's Xbox app, so you can battle with the best of the best regardless of your Microsoft gaming platform. Unfortunately, the console version's HDR functionality didn't make the jump to PC. Microsoft has yet to reveal if that's going to change.
Trampled Under Foot
A beefy gaming PC is a must if you want to cruise through the outback, as Forza Horizon 3's huge, incredibly detailed environments require significant processing power. The recommended minimum specs include a 3.6 GHz Intel Core i7 3820 CPU, an AMD R9 290X or Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 GPU, 12GB of RAM, 55GB of free disk space, and the Windows 10 Anniversary Edition operating system (you won't be able to boot the game using older versions of Windows 10).
My rigs's specs are similar to those recommended minimum specs, so I've experienced a relatively smooth driving experience—for the most part. Streaking through sparsely or moderately populated areas is as smooth as sin, as my computer pushed polygons at just under 70 frames per second at 1920 by 1080 resolution. However, entering a lush forest or a city causes the machine to choke a bit. The frame rate takes about a 10-15 frame hit, and there's the occasional hitching. These negatives don't break the game, but they should be noted. In fact, on NeoGAF and other gaming forums, people with absolute beast machines have experienced similar performance issues. Some people have reported alleviating the strain by capping the game at 30 or 60 frames per second. That did not work for me. However, play in windowed mode dramatically decreased the instances of such problems.
Besides the ability to unlock or lock the frame rate, Forza Horizon 3 lets you tinker with numerous other visual options for optimal performance, including Dynamic Optimization, Framerate Smoothing, FXAA, MSAA, and Motion Blur. If your PC has the appropriate horsepower and monitor, you can even play the game in 4K resolution.
Every Speed racer in training needs a proper input device, so it's fortunate that Playground Games gives you many options. You can hug curves, jockey for position, and coast into the sunset using a keyboard, Xbox controller, or one of many compatible steering wheels.
Drive You Home
Racing games don't get much better than Forza Horizon 3. This outstanding title boasts some of the best driving vistas outside of Sega's magnificent Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast, and the seemingly endless Australian backdrop, coupled with superb lighting effects and world design, makes Playground Games' newest racer a drool-worthy trek on wheels.
It's a trek that won't grow old anytime soon. The game is packed with so much content—I didn't even touch on Convoys, Drift Zones, Drone Mode, the automobile auction house, and other features—that you'll become lost in the world for hours on end. And that's fine. In a real world where life is plagued by corruption, bickering politicians, and a general lack of humanity, it's nice to escape to one in which the only concerns are the sparkling coastlines, rolling hills, and star-filled evening sky.
Oh, and an Internet connection. Forza Horizon 3's always-on requirement caused me to majorly ding a game that was set to receive a near-perfect score. I still wholeheartedly recommended the title, but it's a bit frightening to realize that an Internet issue may prevent you from enjoying this masterfully designed open-world racing game.