Review: 'Forza Horizon 3' Sets New Bar for Racing Games

A wide canvas and unparalleled freedom make Microsoft's latest 'Forza' spinoff a winner

'Forza Horizon 3' lets you tear up the Australian coast in everything from a McClaren to Halo's Warthog Credit: Microsoft Studios

The popular Xbox Forza games have always had in their bones a fetishistic love of cars, but the Horizon spinoff series beats them in one key area: they fundamentally get why we want to drive. Forza Horizon 3, due out tomorrow, is the best example yet. Many of the most popular racing games focus on the fastest cars. They want to put you in the hot seat of a Lamborghini or a McLaren and send you off at 200 miles per hour. Others focus on the rough-and-tumble. Offroading games like Motorstorm embrace the open country and the tough vehicles that tame it. Forza Horizon 3 understands both. It knows why you want to twist through virgin forests, unsure of what challenge the next turn may bring, and it gets what makes $1 million track toys a joy to drive, even in a digital space.

Part of that joy comes from the change in setting. So far, the Horizon spin-offs have explored the mountainous state of Colorado and the French and Italian countrysides. And while both locales lend themselves to spectacular vistas, they don't have the breadth of Horizon 3's Australia, which condenses the continent's massive Pacific seaboard into one manageable, contiguous chunk. Distances that normally stretch hundreds of miles will fly by you in seconds. And it's the perfect backdrop for a game that tries to encompass the entire spectrum of driving culture.

Forza Horizon is popular because the series makes it so easy to jump in and enjoy yourself. Hypercars and offroaders alike are monstrous machines that spit out huge amounts of power, and controlling them here in the real world can feel a bit like riding a grizzly bear. Forza accounts for this by taking on some of that responsibility for you – until you're ready.

In practice, this feels like playing an episode of Top Gear (which is to say the English one, before its bellicose host Jeremy Clarkson became a complete shithead). Even if you know nothing about cars or how they work, you can have a great time. And if you're an honest gearhead fluent in the intricacies of tire pressure and downforce, you'll have a bevy of deep, customizable tuning options that can pay dividends in tougher races. But if you're content to simply race about this gorgeous, condensed rendering of Australia and take in the sights, that's okay too.

Horizon 3's plot is irrelevant – but here's the setup: You're one of the world's best drivers, sent to Australia for the Horizon Festival, a series of concerts and exhibition races modeled after shows like Coachella or Bonnaroo. It's all one giant, indulgent party on wheels. Your job is to build up your fan base by doing tricks, performing PR stunts, and, of course, winning races so you can keep expanding the festival to new areas.

Most of us, after all, don't have dozens of hours to dump into mastering every turn and straight away

Keeping with the theme, Horizon 3 does its best to keep you moving and engaged by sloughing off some of the worst habits racing games have picked over the years. Gone are the days when you'd have to retread the same tracks over and over with progressively faster cars. Most of us, after all, don't have dozens of hours to dump into mastering every turn and straight away. Instead, you're free to pick how, when, and where you want to race. You can draw out your own rules for traditional races or more extreme PR stunts, and you can pick everything from your car to the weather.

And that too represents an important shift not just for the series, but for racing games in general. As this genre has evolved, it's tried to reinvent itself countless times. Need for Speed experimented with an open world in the early 2000s, Motorstorm pioneered over-the-top off-roading, and racing simulators like Gran Turismo mastered detailed tuning and engineering. Horizon 3 has distilled the best of each and blended them into one bold statement of intent. This is the bar now.

It respects its players in a way that no other game ever has. It's a structured playground that gives you anything you could want. You still have to earn it – and those hypercars don't come cheap – but you're not locked into any set path to earn in-game cash.

Horizon 3 will nudge you, from time to time, to play with an SUV or a buggy or a hypercar just so you can say you drove one. After that, though, you're free to drive whatever, wherever. I spent almost half my time with the game between a Tesla Model S and a McLaren F1 (a guy can dream). But every couple of hours, I'd jump in a beefy Australian-made Holden and take to jumping sand dunes.

It's up to you whether you spend your digital automotive reverie drag racing, attempting stunts, or simply zipping by the iconic Twelve Apostles rock stacks at sunrise. Horizon 3 wants to teach you how special cars are, not by proving to you how fast they can go or how well they corner, but by showing you the kinds of experiences they can bring you. In the real world, these adventures are locked away by money, time, and, your sense of self-preservation. In this playground, you’re free from all that. It's just you, the car, and the time you make together.

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