Forza Horizon 3

Developer: Playground Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Genre: Racing
Release Date: September 27, 2016
Platform: Xbox One
Also Available For: Windows PC
Written By: Phillip Nelson
October 16, 2016

The Forza franchise is no stranger to racing fans, and what was once seen as an imitator to Gran Turismo, the Pepsi to GT’s Coca Cola, Forza has since went on to be the standard by which all console racing games are judged, as Gran Turismo once was, and while never being able to match the sales figures of Gran Turismo’s massive fan base, Forza titles have outscored GT titles for a decade, not to mention releasing a Forza game every year for the past several years as opposed to a single GT title once every several years.  Forza Motorsport was the more serious, more motorsport series and the original Forza series, and then came Forza Horizon as a more laid-back, more care-free, more fun-loving parallel series with the 2016 release of Forza Horizon 3 marking the third entry to the second Forza series.

After several years of having Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon running parallel to one another, with Horizon titles now being released in the years between Motorsport titles, there are still would-be players unfamiliar with the differences between the two, and near the release of each new Forza title there are message board topics and posts asking about this exact issue.  Forza Motorsport is the series with closed race circuits, almost always purpose-built race tracks, and mostly real-world race tracks, and while the driving physics aren’t as realistic as some of the PC racing sims or even the occasional console sim, Forza Motorsport leans far more realistic than the vast majority of console racing games.  Forza Horizon, on the other hand, is still a bit more on the realism side than most racing games but more forgiving than Forza Motorsport, and whereas Motorsport focused on closed race tracks Horizon instead offers an open world to venture around in and races held not only across the map’s meandering network of streets and roads but even the countryside, including now being able to drive through waters of the ocean or through ponds and streams.

Another key difference between the two series has been that Forza Motorsport always had dry races, by which I mean no precipitation, and every track had a fixed time of day and always during daylight, so no night races or dynamic time.  Horizon, on the other hand, first had a full and dynamic day/night cycle and then in Horizon 2 added changing weather with the obvious addition of rain.  Forza Horizon 3 still has a dynamic day/night cycle and changing weather but also has what is arguably the most impressive sky ever put into a video game.  Many games have a fixed sky and some have a changing sky but Horizon 3 has a sky that’s actually recorded from the real sky and it shows.  It’s the most authentic skybox ever seen and always interesting.

The impressive day cycles, changing weather, and sky add to the beauty of a rich, varied, detailed depiction of Australia.  The original Horizon was set in Colorado and then we went to southern Europe for Horizon 2, which brought a more open map than the first but also one that felt a bit more boring than the previous Colorado setting despite the visual improvements available on a new generation of hardware.  Horizon 3’s Australia feels even more open than either of the previous two titles but also boasts great detail and is actually interesting, both to look at as well as to explore and play around.

Fan favorite features sadly lost in recent titles on this generation, namely the auction house and Storefront, make a welcome return in Horizon 3.  Horizon 3 also adds additional customization options, in the form of wide-body kits, to the already popular personalization options like the famous livery editor, not to mention the depth of part upgrade options and tuning.  Players can once again scour the auction house in search of hot deals on desired vehicles or, to my personal displeasure, seek to monopolize the auction house by buying up everything and flipping it at inflated prices, and once again we can go into a player’s Storefront and see what they’ve shared with the community, like car designs or tuning setups.  Players are paid when other players use their liveries or tuning setups.

The diversity of terrain and conditions mixes things up and keeps things from getting boring, as you can go from a race confined to the paved streets of Surfers Paradise to a race leaping over hilltops and smashing through vineyards in the countryside or splashing up a stream through a canyon, and everything in between.  Further, however, and new to the series, are Blueprints which allow the player to fine-tune events and even whole championships to their liking.  The player can choose what types of vehicles participate, how many laps on a looped circuit, time of day, weather conditions, and whether the time and weather are fixed or changing, and with championships can choose which routes are included in a championship, up to ten routes per championship.  This really helps tailor the game to fit the player’s personal tastes and interests, as they can run in slower cars or faster ones, daily drivers or supercars, race cars or rally raid trucks, or buggies, and they can stick to fair weather or the dark of night and pouring rain, and focus more on races on roads and streets or more off-road adventures.

More events and locations open up as the player progresses, opening up and expanding Horizon festival locations as they attract more fans.  Fans are attracted by winning races, showing off in drift zones or ramping at danger signs, and by completing showcase events.  Showcase events have been the flashy something-special events dotted through progression in the game, where you race predetermined vehicles against something other than a car, like racing against a train, jet, or power boats.  Unfortunately, three games in, it’s evidently difficult coming up with interesting new showcases, so they pretty much end up with a been-there-done-that sort of feeling to them.  We already raced against trains and jets in Horizon 2 and now do so again in Horizon 3.  Sadly, the final showcase feels anti-climactic, as you run a Polaris Razor buggy against a blimp.  I previous purposely raced in the Razor and had fun doing so, and the blimp makes for a big, looming, different backdrop, but these things did not feel like they belonged in the final showcase event.  When you’ve completed the event and technically “beat” the game, the credits roll while you sit and stare at the Razor.  The original Horizon’s credits rolled over the camera exploring the landscape of Colorado with lots of pretty scenery but now we just sit and look at a buggy.

That’s really just nitpicking, though.  We’re talking about tiny slivers of the total game.  It’s a game that’s otherwise generally fantastic and has even been accused of being the best racing game ever.  I might almost have agreed with that had it not been for my one big gripe against the game - the AI.  Drivatars return, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on who you ask.  Drivatars are more dynamic AI that studies player behavior and attempts to replicate it, for better and for worse.  On the plus side, they’ve felt more like actual humans and not just robots, and have made races more interesting and unpredictable.  On the down side, they’ve been overly aggressive, ignorant, and disrespectful of other drivers on the track and sometimes do really stupid things like slowing down dramatically for Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps in Forza Motorsport 5 and 6; far more than is necessary.  The problem in Horizon 3 isn’t their behavior so much as the rubberbanding and shady performance of AI vehicles.  Players skilled enough to play on higher difficulty settings may not really see it, but typical players on a more average difficulty setting are plagued with AI that magically gain bursts of pace and post lap times significantly faster than most of the field.

A player can completely lose the AI early into a race, perhaps not even seeing them at all in their mirrors or on the mini-map at the corner of the screen, and then a while later magically those slower rivals are suddenly all over their rear end.  Drivatars that couldn’t keep up at all suddenly find a whole bunch of performance and fly up on top of you.  They may sail past and then steadily hold the lead for a bit, and then inexplicably drop off and fall behind you.  In Forza Motorsport, your competition had clear performance capabilities from their cars.  This one might be faster than you in a straight line but slower through corners, while that one might have superior cornering ability but lag on straights, but in Horizon 3 they appear to do whatever they please.  They can go from having Formula One cornering ability as though they’re slot car racers on rails to being dozens of miles per hour faster than you on straights, depending on what is convenient for the game at that time.  It demolishes any sense of believability or accomplishment because it doesn’t feel like you’re earning a lead by being better than them or failing to lead because you’re driving more poorly but rather are subject to the whims of the rubberbanding, like you’re ahead when the rubberbanding decides to let you up front or challenges you when it decides you’ve been up front for long enough.  Some players may actually appreciate this, as it does keep the sense of a racing challenge by having someone always threatening you, but it’s frustrating when they can fly up on you and by you no matter how well your car is setup and no matter how well you’re driving, and frankly it feels phony.

As a case in point, the longest circuit in the game is called Goliath.  It’s basically a giant loop around the entire map.  It’s mostly full-throttle with limited opportunity to really screw it up.  On my first race, a single lap, at the start I left the AI so far behind that they might as well not even bother finishing, and then a few minutes in I suddenly had my mirrors full of a Drivatar that inexplicably gained on me after previously being utterly incapable of keeping up with me.  He then remained all over my rear for the remainder of the race.  Out of curiosity, I waited after finishing to see what lap times the rest of the drivers set.  Second place, the one harassing me, was a few seconds behind me, and then third place was a full minute after him.  I then waited over five more minutes and nobody else finished at all.  At that point I gave up on waiting.  So, most AI were so far behind that the game evidently lost track of them, but yet that one guy magically caught up and stayed all over my tail.

There’s more than just inconsistent Drivatar (AI) car performance and pace, I’m sad to say.  With the game’s diversity of terrain, it’s essentially impossible to have a car build that is perfect for all situations, which is a problem for the player but not really for the computer.  If you take a supercar or race car off-roading, which is common in this game, you’re probably in for a world of hurt because your car is too low with rigid suspension, neither of which is good off-road.  This will prove catastrophic as your car catches on the ground and chaotically bounces around, but the AI won’t have any problem because their physics is whatever they want it to be.  Their Ford GT race cars and McLaren P1 supercars magically perform as though their suspension was a Transformer that morphed into that of a WRC rally car as soon as they hit the dirt.  They look like they’re still in high-end cars with low, stiff suspension, but they sure don’t drive like it.  They’re also apparently built out of solid granite, as it’s almost impossible to win a shoving match with them, let alone spin one out if he’s being a real pain.  I’m not encouraging players to go misbehaving and roughing up the computer, but should they start to annoy you and you decide to punish them for it, good luck to you because they weigh as much as a small moon, it would seem.  In Forza Motorsport, the AI can get shoved around or spun out, but in Horizon you pretty much have to T-bone them at 200+ MPH to do anything noteworthy to them.  Again, we’re talking about unsporting behavior, but it feels wrong knowing that they can be as rude as they please and you can’t do anything back because witchcraft.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the game and highly recommend it to race fans.  It’s generally fantastic and I might even agree to the notion that it’s the best racing game to date, regardless of it technically being a bit less realistic than what I generally favor.  It’s really just that one major, glaring gripe that’s a rotten apple in what is otherwise a barrel full of bright, shiny, delicious apples.  If you like racing games, you absolutely have to play this.  Just do so knowing that you may curse the computer a bit, depending on your skill level, as it won’t really be evident if you’re a virtual Ayrton Senna.


Anybody that remotely enjoys racing games owes it to themselves to play Forza Horizon 3, as it's an enjoyable blend of simulation and arcade racing with a lot of neat features that should be entertaining for all race fans.
Like Entertaining gameplay, satisfying controls, wealth of content with hundreds of cars on day one, gorgeous environment with phenomenal skybox and dynamic time and weather, variety of music, and customization of events.
Dislike An occasional bug, but the biggest problem is rubberbanding with some cars on lower AI difficulty being just as competitive as with much higher AI difficulty.