Forza Horizon 3 struggles in how it rewards the player, but the balancing act between arcade street racer and hardcore sim helps make it a highly addictive outing
Forza Horizon 3 was my introduction to the spin-off series, having sparingly spent time with the Motorsport series and having rarely given the time of day to a racing game since 2009’s Midnight Club: Los Angeles. You could say I’m not much of a “car person”, but I’m attracted to challenge and reward, which would explain my love for Rockstar’s extremely tough racer, and, to a lesser extent, the Gran Turismo series. Yeah, I know that they’re on two totally different ends of the spectrum, but if they both do something well, it’s find a good balance between refined driving skills and the ways in which the game rewards you for playing that way. Forza Horizon 3 doesn’t find that balance quite as well, and in doing my due diligence and checking out the two entries before it, I discovered that the entire franchise has done little to rectify that.
The good news is that Horizon 3 is a super slick game to look at and play. My primary problem with the game — actually, the franchise more broadly — is its inability to really make sense of the ways in which it rewards you, because sometimes the experience falls off a cliff but then still finds ways to gift you something. It almost makes the whole thing worthless, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s the point here. Horizon 3 is firmly embedded in this sort of fantasy land of racing perfection: it’s not quite a racing sim, and yet it’s too real to be bundled in with, say, a Need For Speed game. It offers some of the deepest customisation and tuning options in the genre, and yet it holds your hand so tight as to almost guide your car in autopilot.
The strange thing is that it’s endlessly addictive: its vast open world, sparingly populated by irritating AI that seems to be constantly berating my skillset, is designed to be more of a playground than a racing track, which I appreciate was the intention here. It works, because Forza’s driving physics are about as complex as a Barbie van’s, and so the game’s never overly demanding as to be too tough to enjoy. The racing line that guides you through courses almost but not quite turns each and every race into an on-rails battle for the lead, as drivatars (“ghost” cars mimicked off your friends list) crash and bash their way ahead of you. Horizon 3 doesn’t really punish you for going off the track so long as you drive through every checkpoint and don’t crash directly into walls, and while this kind of devalues any purpose to improve my skills, it does a good job of keeping the action fast and intense, much like Midnight Club: LA, although without even a tinge of that game’s punishing intent.
Much like that crash-and-bash nature of a single race, the Forza Horizon 3 world is a melting pot of events, from “PR Stunts” that vary in design and reward, to Bucket List challenges using parked cars scattered throughout the world. I like these events the most, because they basically tell you to piss off and come back if you fail: you’re not handed thousands of XP, Credits and Fans for failing, just as you would be if you were to finish last in most standard races. There’s a seemingly countless number of these events, with what seems like a constant stream of new ones added, not to mention Blueprint capabilities, which allow you to create and share your own events.
Even with these features, the core racing experience still stands out. You can bump up the difficulty of the avatars and turn off the racing stripes, although that leads to a somewhat unbalanced experience while you battle against ghosts that had used those tools. Heading online, it’s tough to really gauge how skilled or unskilled I am, so I just suck it up and play Forza Horizon 3 on a default setting with my hand stretched out, asking for guidance. The design in that sense I feel doesn’t really give you much of a choice, which is a big tease: each and every car can be upgraded and tuned to a degree that you’d expect in a hardcore sim, although most cars become undriveable if you max them out entirely. This forces you to use the “auto upgrade” option, which is useful. It’s almost like the game punishes me for wanting to care more than I should, so it nudges me and says, “Eh, let me take care of this for you, okay?” Sometimes I don’t mind.
There’s so much to do, and so many fantastic events, yet one major gripe I have is that I’m being rewarded even when I downright suck. And then even if I don’t like my result, I can simply restart, even in the middle of a tournament. Within the first few hours this was convenient, but heading into 10 and then 20 hours, I was just going through the motions. That’s a shame, because this is a game that wants to be more than it is, but ultimately seems satisfied in appealing to the lowest common denominator. I get it: that was the point of the Forza Horizon series, to make Forza more accessible, but I don’t see how that justifies removing any real sense of progression or reward. It’s taking the “participation award” to a whole new level.
And yet, Forza Horizon 3 is going to be a game I can see myself playing for a long time, but in patches, not in the long marathons I’ve been having leading into this review. I’ll want new cars, I’ll want to try out some of my friends’ blueprints, and I’ll want to team up with my friends online. These features, coupled with everything else available in the game, ensure that on the value front, Forza Horizon 3 is hard to fault: if I rated value, it would get a perfect score. It’s a constant stream of content, cars and progression, even if it is so worthless as to feel insignificant. The “festival” feel of the game is alive and well, and is something that’s been carried over and enhanced since Forza Horizon 2. Even in its inability to really evolve the core experience and improve how it rewards skill, Forza Horizon 3 never feels “dead”, and the variety and sheer number of events on offer means that, for someone like myself who likes some things and not others, there’s always something to do.
That brings me to my next point, which is something I actually love: the game’s infatuation with simply driving. The mindless rewards after losing a race is something I don’t appreciate, but actually driving through this kind-of-but-not-really Australia is a fantastic way to appreciate the diversity of the car roster, find hidden locations, and build up your perks. The perk system is a nice balancing act between four different categories, each with a different influence on how you’re rewarded, how you progress, and how certain things in the game world react to your driving. One perk, for example, gifts you double Skill points whenever certain songs start playing on the radio. Skill points are great fun to earn, and the whole system is extremely punishing in taking any earned points away from you if you slam into another car, tree, house or wall before the points are credited to the counter. Unlike the natural credit and XP progression system, Skill points are actually based on, well, your “skill” as a driver. This reasoning is factored into standard races, and you can earn just as much XP, credits and fans by finishing last as the car that finished first, so long as you’re a “fully sick driver” that does heaps of drifting, drafting and close-calls. Sure, the game requires you finish first enough times to be able to actually “finish” the Horizon festival, but if that was really your end goal you could just buy a Bugatti, put the drivatar difficulty on the lowest setting and blast your way through a mindless stream of races.
I know that you’re wondering about the Australian landscape, and I can say that it’s nice, and probably the best virtual recreation of Australia in a game yet … although there’s really not that much competition. You’ll recognise certain landmarks and the like, and the drive around the map from Surfers Paradise to The Great Road Road, through the Yarra Valley and into the Outback has its moments, but apart from a few real standouts like the 12 Apostles, it all just passes as another video game world. It looks great, don’t get me wrong, and it’s humbling to be able to recognise little locations, signs and the like, but, much like what I recently noticed about the “Europe” in Forza Horizon 2, there’s not much nuance between tracks: you’re just racing on the same roads as some nice locations and the occasional landmark pass by. At this point I should probably also mention the voice-over actors: the female voice offers a nice sort of Aussie-Scottish hybrid, but the male voice-over is everything Australians hate about international impressions of the country. The game’s most cringeworthy moment? “This is the 12 Apostles: Yes, we know, we can count, too!” And of course it was said in the thickest, most ocker accent you can imagine. Argh.
The Final Verdict
It’s very easy to fall in love with Forza Horizon 3. It’s addictive and deep, with what seems like an endless stream of events, cars and customisation options available. It lacks much sense in the way it rewards and progresses the player, which gives it a bit of a muddled identity in how it wants you to approach driving. However, it makes up for that with a genuine passion for open-world driving, and a representation of Australia that is as yet unmatched in games.