Forza Horizon 3 - longer play review

Talbot Sunbeam Lotus gets some air on one of Forza Horizon 3's special stages.

How does Forza Horizon 3 stack up as a game for the car enthusiast after a few weeks of playing?

I’ve been playing Forza Horizon 3 (FH3) on the Xbox One for the last six weeks or so and I thought it was time to pass on a few thoughts to Drive Cult readers. I’m sure most readers are aware that FH3 is the open world sister title to the excellent Forza Motorsport 6 (FM6) and it is created by Playground Games in conjunction with FM6 developers Turn10.

Full disclosure: I’m not an avid computer game player and only really like car-based racing games. Having said that, I am a big fan of the Forza franchise and I have extensively played most of the versions of Forza Motorsport. I also played the first Forza Horizon on the Xbox 360 and I have to say I didn’t really care for that game because of its irritating user interface and a general feel that it was more of an arcade game than the more simulation-orientated Forza Motorsport 4. Part of the problem was it felt that the open world game was right at the limit of the aging Xbox 360’s capabilities and compromises had to be made. Having skipped Forza Horizon 2, FH3 is my first experience of the open world game on the more powerful Xbox One.

First impressions of FH3 were not great. The basic premise of the game is very similar to previous Horizon releases and based around the idea of a motoring festival. This time, however, the player is in charge of the festival and the overarching objective of the game is to build your festival through competing in races and challenges to add fans to the festival. I find this idea a little contrived and it seems somewhat ironic that FH3 is set in Australia which has strict anti-hooning rules and any such festival like this would be banned.

Initial reservations are not helped by the first five or so levels act as a tutorial introducing the player to various aspects of the game. As someone who has played a previous version, to some extent this seems a little pointless and forcing you to go to a particular event goes against the open world nature of the game and just made me want to go back to playing FM6.

However, once the early levels are completed the game improves dramatically. The player is allowed to roam the world as they please, competing in a range of races and rallies on tarmac, dirt roads and even full offroad courses suited to Dakar-style racers. It is perhaps the last two types of race that may be of most interest to FM6 players, as they offer a different experience to a circuit-based game. There are also stunt challenges that can be competed, ranging from drifting zones to Evel Knieval-style jumps. As you complete more races and stunts you earn more fans which allows you to open more festival locations and in turn more events are added. All the races are highly customisable in terms of the type of car and opponents. The downside to this is that FH3 lacks the progression in cars that is a key part of FM6. I’m sure it would be perfectly possible to complete all the events using only 3 or 4 different low-end cars which seems a bit of a shame.

For those who prefer their racing on the tarmac, FH3 offers a wide selection of circuits and point-to-point courses carved out of the roads within the open world map. FM6 players will find little new in the circuit races and may prefer to stick to the dedicated (and real) circuits of that game. The point-to-point races make an interesting alternative, and the ultimate Goliath circuit at 28 miles long is quite a challenge.

The choice of offroad or mixed rallycross-style tracks is perhaps more extensive (I’ve not actually counted but seems to be the case). I’m sure many players get some kind of weird satisfaction racing the latest hypercars on these courses, but being something of a purist I prefer the sorts of cars that would actually compete in rallies for a sense of realism. Unsurprisingly, cars with four wheel drive have an advantage but rear wheel drive ones are more enjoyable to throw around. The offroad races are also far more competitive than the tarmac ones and you either need to carefully consider setup or possibly turn down the level of AI ability if you want to do well here.

While the game progression may be a little contrived, the open world that has been created is very impressive. Based on several locations around Australia, it mixes four different terrains with a rain forest, cityscape (based on Surfers Paradise), open countryside and desert outback. All the areas are beautifully rendered and unlike the original game, FH3 is fully open world and if the car is capable of moving over the terrain, it can be driven on. The game also has multiple weather options which are a step on even from the weather in FM6. It is now possible for the weather to change mid-race and it models the lack of traction in wet races better than FM6. Certainly the Ferrari F12tdf is almost impossible to drive in the rain without the traction control switched on. Where I’m a little less impressed (and this may in part be due to my television) is the lack of sensation of speed when driving. All the cars seem to be able to get to their maximum speed very easily and the physics of drag seem to have been ignored here. This creates a further issue with the AI traffic. Most of it travels at uniform speeds, but it all seems to move without any regard to its surroundings. I can't count the number of times an AI car has randomly turned across my path or I've come around a blind bend to find a car on my side of the road. I would like an option to turn the traffic off once in a while. You can drive traffic-free, especially if you select the rivals function, but in the latter it is not possible to roam freely across the world.

Returning to the car list, as you would expect there's an extensive choice of vehicles, covering a wide range of road and rally cars from Fiat 500s and buggies up to Group B rally cars and GT3 racers (the latter available as DLC). The wilder LMP and Indy cars of FM6 are sensibly omitted, since they don’t suit the nature of the game. One disappointment is that the vast majority of the cars in FH3 are carried over from FM6, which again takes some of the interest away from choosing different cars to race and rally. Many of the additions are centred on the offroad cars with the Ariel Nomad being one of the highlights here. The Talbot Sunbeam Lotus (available as DLC) and Opel Manta 400 bring back nostalgic memories of watching rallying as a kid, and the car choice makes the most of the Australian location with many of the additions being Holdens and Fords native to the antipodes and rather unfamiliar to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. All the cars are fully customisable in FH3 and in certain respects takes this a stage further than FM6, with some of the cars now featuring extreme body kit conversions with extended arches and revised facias. When racing against Drivatars, for the most part the game will equalise out upgrades so tuning needs to be to improve drivability rather than putting in the biggest engine you can to blow the opposition away. Some of the upgrades specifically suit the offroad racing, so a range of upgrades and tuning options are needed to compete in different races.

FH3 further develops the different categories of cars from FM6 and thanks to the race customisation options you always seem to end up in a race with similar types of cars, rather than being in a Sixties supercar racing against modern hot hatches. Unlike FM6, the car prices in the game are broadly approximate to their real-world US dollar values.  The auction house has also made a return after being absent in FM6, and it's always worth checking to see if it's possible to buy a car more cheaply here than buying new. Most of the cars offered in the auction house are the ones readily available in the game, including sixteen 'barn find' cars (originally fifteen, with an extra one added via an update).  The Performance Indicators have been tweaked quite a lot from FM6 with one notable change being that FH3 puts much greater weight on the performance gains found by improving the tyre compound. From a simulation point of view, that means you notice the differences in cars far more than you do in FM6, as any handling deficiencies in that game can easily be fixed by bolting on a set of slicks.

To sum up, Forza Horizon 3 is a fun game that has a lot for the car enthusiast to enjoy, but it takes a little perseverance and configuring to bring the best out of it.

All pictures taken using Forza Horizon 3's photo mode.