January 13, 2020 at 6:53 AM #1483
Forza Horizon 3
Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding
BEST FEATURES: An expansive open world full of various terrain, a wide selection of cars to drive of all ages and purposes, improves on Forza Horizon 2 in almost every way
WORST FEATURES: Poor AI balancing, quality of the PC version is questionable
Simulation racing and I have not been on the best terms. While I understand its objective and target audience, I’m someone who just likes to get out there and race. Far more than the intricate physics and meticulous mechanics that go into a quality sim racer, I invest in things like setting, track design, vehicle variety, and going fast with accessible controls that facilitate that. So, for me, the Forza Horizon series is an interesting beast that manages to combine a lot of what makes a sim racer what it is (car tuning, driving skill, and vehicle appreciation) by way of its Forza Motorsport game engine and put it into an open-world setting that is more evocative of a game like Need for Speed. I’ve played all three Horizon games and, while I was somewhat wary about going into this one after being a bit burnt by 2, I have to say this game is one of the finest racing games I’ve played.
Forza Horizon 3 offers a great virtual tour of the countryside of Australia. Scenic routes that take you past rolling hills, jagged cliffsides, dense jungles, and picturesque coastlines are sprinkled all over the large expanse of the game with changing time of day and weather conditions to give them some color. Of course most of the time you’ll be blazing past these scenes and, to that end, the game moves at a good clip. I guess it could feel a little faster (even if you play the PC version and crank the framerate to 60) but I understand that the sensation of speed is somewhat downplayed in accordance with the game’s sim racing roots (plus once you get into the Hypercars you can often find a good patch of road and really let it loose). I’ve been told the graphics in 3 are improved over 2 but, honestly, I have to disagree, it’s about the same. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, I just can’t see a stark level of improvement between the two games. The graphics here are solid but probably nothing you haven’t seen before either.
Again, as part of the sim racing atmosphere, a big factor is the sounds of the cars. The roar of an engine that really helps convey what you’re driving. Horizon 3 doesn’t skimp on that. All the cars have distinctive engine sounds that bring out their individuality. Furthermore racing game must-haves like tire squeals and metal grinds all hit the mark with Horizon 3‘s quality sound effects. You can definitely get into the racing spirit with the sound design. That said, the in-game soundtrack is hit-or-miss. All three Horizon games have had more underground tastes to their music, featuring bands that don’t really make the radio circuits (that I’ve heard). I’d say 3 probably has the most mainstream library yet but even so, the music here may not be something you’re too familiar with. The music ranges from electronic to dance to rock to hip-hop and even some classical music if that’s your muse so technically it has something for everyone. Plus, if you’re willing to pay $10 per month, for the first time you have the ability to play Microsoft Groove streaming radio in-game as well as use your own music that you keep on OneDrive. A nice touch but if you have to stick with the stock soundtrack, it might be difficult to find something that truly captivates you (of course this is down to taste; I personally prefer rock music for racing games and in that regard this game didn’t quite hit the mark for me).
If it hasn’t been apparent so far, FH3 is a relatively technical racing game. That is you can’t just pick a car, jam the throttle, and effortlessly slide through turns with a simple tap of the e-brake. Personally I’m not a huge fan of driving mechanics that don’t conform to this template (I grasp the necessary technique but it’s not my favorite kind of racing experience) but Horizon‘s style makes it work. FH3 is more forgiving than its Forza Motorsport superseries when it comes to car control but it still demands a fair amount of precision to play properly and win races. Turning and braking are pretty responsive but the way the cars handle is highly player-dependent as your sense of braking and turning will have to be honed in order to master the game. There are assists that can make the driving experience less intimidating for unseasoned players by helping ease players in with features such as intelligent braking guidance and a racing line showing you the most efficient way through a corner but I turn most of these off as I find they bog down the racing experience. When it comes to racing games and control, I often say do not judge a game immediately by your first few minutes playing it as every racing game demands its own finesse and understanding of the physics at play. If you can never get used to it no matter how many races you play, then that’s when you write it off, but you need time to adapt your mind and tweak your reactions to the specific feel of each game. So practice at it and understand how the cars handle if you struggle at first as it is not something that will necessarily come as soon as you start the game.
Having experienced the previous two Horizon games, I know what this series is about. Open worlds where you’re free to drive at your own pace and events sprinkled across the map for you to rank up and win races to buy more cars and purchase parts for them, tuning them to fit your exact driving needs. The original Horizon was a dark horse game with a lot of fun driving to be had and a setting that felt compelling enough, despite some cheese. The sequel was, unfortunately, a letdown compared to its predecessor with a less interesting single-player experience and an unhealthy amount of repetition that lacked the more cutthroat atmosphere of Horizon 1 (everyone had a buddy-buddy "we’re-all-friends-here" personality in 2, which was a far cry from 1‘s sarcastic and arrogant rival drivers). The game felt far more rigid and more discouraging to explore the world compared to FH1 thanks to its progress structure. When FH3 arrived, many people talked about it as they did 2, which had me concerned I was going to have my expectations grounded once more. I am glad to say that is far from the case. 3 has reignited the series and possibly managed to outdo 1 with a much deeper career mode. Unlike previous Horizon games, this time the festival’s affairs are squarely on your shoulders. So in addition to racing and tuning, you get to do things like establish festival sites and set up your own events with the predetermined routes (changing things like weather conditions and car types). The game has mostly the same structure as 2, where it was all about the series championships, but now it’s considerably less linear. Championships are not tied to the regions but rather each individual route on the map hosts its own championship. So you can compete in Surfers Paradise for one championship then drive down to Byron Bay or over to the Outback for your next instead of completing a championship in one part of the map then being routed to the next town for the following championship. Player choice takes a much larger portion of the experience in Horizon 3, letting you decide how and where you progress through the game. Furthermore, each route hosts its own single event as well (similar to FH1) that isn’t tied to a championship, breaking up the championship grind (something FH2 failed to do). Street race events from 1 return, allowing you to do side races off the official Horizon Festival schedule that, again, gives you more non-championship activities to partake in. The Bucket List items from 2 also make a comeback, offering special challenges in specific cars (such as driving to a location within a time limit or racking up a high enough Skill Score) and joining them are new stunt activities that offer open world challenges like drifts, long jumps, or speed tasks. Doing these things earns you fans, which is how the player character is able to build out and expand the Horizon Festival Australia across four different sites (and as you progress, you level up each of these sites a total of five times, unlocking new events and activities each time you level up with the street racing events maintaining a separate progress structure). Driver XP returns from FH2 but now there are many more perks to spend Skill Points on (instead of one grid, there are three different grids for a total of 75 perks to unlock). The series signature "Barn Finds" also make a return but, with the use of one of the low-level perks, are no longer a frustrating exercise in scavenging around a large open space thanks to the new "Drone Mode" that lets you fly a drone around an area and uncover bonus boards and Barn Finds with less hassle. About the only negative point against the gameplay I have would be the rival driver AI, which seems terribly unbalanced at times. There is a fair amount of rubberbanding (that is AI drivers can see a sudden surge of speed if you get ahead of them yet will let you catch up to them when they’re in the lead) and everything seems heavily biased towards AWD cars. Running a race in a non-AWD car inexplicably dials up the challenge to near-unreasonable levels, forcing you to almost always drivetrain swap your car to an AWD configuration if you want to maintain a consistent victory presence. This can make the races needlessly frustrating or partly pigeonhole your car customization efforts. However, this matter aside, the gameplay in Forza Horizon 3 has a lot of meat to sink your teeth into.
Lasting Value: 10
I invested several hours into Forza Horizon 2 and, honestly, this was probably the weakest area for the game. Horizon 2 did not change up its objectives significantly as you progressed through the game, just shuffling you along from place to place without giving you a sense of agency over your career progression. Furthermore, as stated above, there was just not enough in terms of non-championship activities to make the rest of the world feel full of things to do, as Horizon 1 did. Collecting cars and winning championships can only go so far before it isn’t enough. Horizon 3 corrects this en masse with its cavalcade of activities, giving you a wide assortment of things to do when you’re not focusing on the championships. Leveling up your Horizon Festival sites instills a strong motivation to continue through the game (vs. 2, which only had the Horizon Finale as the driving force to push you through the championships) and there are many ways to earn both money and fans to keep the pace up. Hidden discoverables like Barn Finds and bonus boards inspire you to comb the open world for secrets as well as the new Drivitar Lineup feature where you hunt down drivers who can work under you and bring prominence to your festival. 2 did feature the Barn Finds and bonus boards, much the same as 1, but with the larger selection of non-championship activities the experience stays fresher for much longer since there are considerably more things to deviate into. In addition, this only describes the single-player campaign. The online mode is much the same as 2, where you can team up with other drivers and go on a road trip through various events and challenges together to earn money and XP. I haven’t even explored the online mode yet simply because I’ve been lost in the substantial single-player content. So this game is undoubtedly a complete package for any racing fan.
I’m someone who likes racing games and I seek out what I think are the best. Despite the fact those usually tend to be of the "arcade" affair, the Horizon series has held a special place as an innovative blending of a sim racer and an open-world "action" racing game. As I’ve made clear, Forza Horizon 2 dropped the ball for me coming off the ambitious original game but 3 has brought the series back stronger than ever. Copious single-player content combined with a huge selection of cars fit for any terrain has kept me hooked since I bought it. I haven’t even plumbed everything in this review (I didn’t get to touch on Bucket List Blueprints, for instance, which let you set up your own Bucket List challenges then share them with friends once you’ve established the criteria), it’s just so massive (and THAT isn’t even going into the recently released Blizzard Mountain DLC, which offers an entirely new map set in snowy conditions with new events, cars, and discoverables; and there is still ANOTHER expansion that is unannounced on top of that in addition to monthly DLC car packs scheduled through March 2017 with the Car Pass). If you got burnt like I did by Horizon 2, I cannot recommend Forza Horizon 3 enough. It just never stops rolling.
THE PC VERSION
This is a bit unconventional but thanks to Microsoft’s "Xbox Play Anywhere" functionality, buyers of either the Windows 10 Store or Xbox Marketplace version of the game are also entitled to the opposite version as well. Save data can move between both versions, allowing you to pick up and play the game from either platform with progress made on the other and online play is cross-compatible, putting Xbox and PC players together in the same world. Because of this, I felt it’s important to mention the PC version in this review as, if you desire to buy the Xbox One version digitally, you may want to check it out the PC version in addition. The PC version does indeed look better than the Xbox One version but I would say only if you set the graphics to "High" or "Ultra". Playing the game on "Medium" settings or lower looks less anti-aliased and more flat than the Xbox One version. Sadly, running it at such a spec may be a challenge as the game feels rough and unoptimized for PC. The game seems unstable at times (it has crashed on me several times for no discernible reason) and you will need a reasonably powerful computer to run the game smoothly at these levels (in my opinion, higher than would actually be demanded if the game were more optimized). CPU activity is consistently high and it consumes about 8GB of RAM. The game is capable of running at 60 frames per second but is prone to frame rate dips that can be distracting. The Blizzard Mountain patch seems to have made the game somewhat better but I have still experienced a couple of crashes since it updated. If you are interested in the PC version, definitely look at the specs required to run the game because it may be better just to keep the game to the Xbox One.
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