Forza Horizon 3: The new benchmark for arcade racers

The thrill of the open road comes to Xbox One and PC – and it’s better than ever

Let’s get one thing straight: Forza Horizon 3 is not a normal racing game. Instead of tracks, Horizon 3 throws you on the open road, the beach and even the rainforest. Instead of a driver’s championship, it gives you… a festival. From the opening titles to the ridiculous first race, Forza Horizon 3 sets itself apart from its sim-heavy counterparts. And although I love incredibly realistic games such as Assetto Corsa and Project Cars, it’s hard not to love Forza Horizon 3 for what it’s trying to do.

If Forza Horizon 3 were a film, the main character wouldn’t be the driver. It wouldn’t even be the cars – it’d be the location. Rather than giving you pristine, artificial tracks, developer Playground Games gives you a decent chunk of Australia – twice the size as the previous game – and it looks incredible. Whether you’re racing on sunlit beaches, rain-soaked tarmac or open dirt roads that stretch for miles, Forza Horizon 3 matches the best graphics we’ve seen from any racing game.

Frame rate is capped at a solid 30fps, but because of the dense details on the roadside, Forza Horizon 3 offers an incredible sense of speed. Shadows, dense foliage and other cars fly by, and it really does feel like you’re eating tarmac when you approach silly speeds. Take time to slow down however, and you’ll be rewarded with cutscenes at certain places on the map.

In the same way, you’re given more than 350 examples of the most exotic machinery in the world today, and Playground Games has done them all justice. Forza Horizon 3 may not be all about realism, but it benefits from the relationships, models and sampling used on the Forza Motorsport games. That means cars are painstakingly rendered inside and out – and everything from roaring V10 engines to flat sixes sound as guttural and aggressive as you’d hope.

But there’s another thing that makes Forza Horizon 3 great, and that’s the music. Sure, soundtracks aren’t everything, but Forza has consistently put out some of the best gaming soundtracks you’ll hear, and Horizon 3 continues this trend. The game features eight diverse radio stations offering everything from drum and bass and house to old-school hip-hop, and regardless of your musical preferences you’ll find something to speed to.

Of course, the final part of the puzzle is the content itself, and it’s ridiculous in all the best ways. In Horizon 3, you’re in charge of the Horizon festival in Australia. And for some reason you’re able to sign drivers by racing them in the fastest cars around – with seemingly no regard for the speed limit, or your own safety.

And your first proper race? It’s against a Jeep, attached to a helicopter… because, who cares? It’s ridiculous, charming, and sets the scene for a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But that’s not to say it isn’t well thought out. As you’d expect from Playground Games, Forza Horizon 3 gives you a range of things to do, and always gives incentives and reasons to dip back in for another session. Whether you want to play for ten minutes or have a three-hour binge, the game doesn’t penalise you for playing casually, giving you a fun experience regardless of its time slot.

Pretty much everything you do earns you points, from side-swiping to drifting and speeding – and it’s all displayed on the screen at breakneck speeds. Sometimes you’ll have to challenge racers on a stretch of road, other times you’ll be racing in a loop – but the challenges are always enjoyable. When you aren’t sure what to do, you can even use a digital assistant called Anna to look for other races, new challenges or online matchmaking. Yes, Forza Horizon 3 adds multiplayer gaming, although I haven’t been on it enough yet to fairly judge it. I’ll add my thoughts at a later date.

As with any modern game, there’s also an XP system for finishing races, but because Forza Horizon 3 gives you so many different things to top up – from XP points to festival audience capacity, it’s hard to know what you’re actually achieving half the time. Either way, you know that your all of your efforts are doing something – and that’s a good thing.

As for the handling? It’s important to remember that Forza Horizon 3 isn’t trying to be Forza Motorsport 7, so handling isn’t super-realistic – but it’s not painfully easy either. Each car handles noticeably differently – even with a controller – and getting around fast bends and sharp corners often requires a fair amount of driver skill. Of course, you can also remove driver aids such as traction control to make things more challenging – and the game rewards you with more points for it.

So, should you buy Forza Horizon 3?

If you like games such as Need For Speed or Burnout, you’ll love Forza Horizon 3. It’s the spiritual successor to those early days of arcade gaming, given several new ideas and a thorough lick of paint. It looks amazing on a normal 1080p TV, but it’s HDR-compatible too. Its vivid sunsets and landscapes will look even better through an Xbox One S and HDR-compatible screen.

But here’s the interesting part: if you’re a fan of racing-simulation games, I’d still say Forza Horizon 3 is worth checking out. Sure, it doesn’t have the spot-on physics, setup options or real-world tracks of other games, but what it lacks in realism it makes up for in sheer adrenaline. Where other games give you downforce, rebound damping and tyre pressures, Forza Horizon 3 gives you a stereo, the open road and some of the most-wanted cars in the world. Getting a near-perfect lap in Assetto Corsa is one thing, but drifting a Mustang around Byron Bay with DMX blaring through the speakers is quite another.

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