Can a single racing game be all things to all people? All evidence suggests that it simply can't: over the years, different genres within "car" games have proven that point time and again. There are arcade racers targeting players who crave a high speed rivalries, open world street titles emphasizing customization and attitude, and simulation-heavy experiences meant to raise the pulse of the truly technical gearheads. And then there's Forza Horizon 3.
The bar was raised with Horizon 2, taking players into the coastal beauty of Europe and blending track racing with grand tour and offroad insanity. Yet with such a successful leap into a new direction comes a drawback: the path forward can be hard to define. As I'm flying twenty feet above the sand dunes of the Australian Outback in a 1988 Countach LP5000 to the sound of Run DMC's "It's Tricky", it isn't the developers' success that's on my mind: it's wondering how this genre can go anywhere else.
Those aren't the only kind of memorable moments that Horizon 3 offers, since the chance to race through city streets in tightly-packed groups of classic muscle cars, top end supercars or everyday drivers is as thrilling as ever. But Horizon 3 refines the argument made so well in its predecessor: that as fractured as the racing genre may have become since the first driving game, there is more that aligns them than separates.
And who would have guessed that packing them all into a version of Australia and giving players free rein was the final piece of the puzzle.
It should come as no surprise to see the game's success in so many sub-genres, since Playground Games is a veritable mosaic of them all. Built out of former employees of Need For Speed's Slightly Mad, Burnout's Criterion Games, Project Gotham's Bizarre Creations, and Offroad Fury's Black Rock, the technical needs for every brand of racing are met. But it's the shared attitude - that racing is about passion, freedom, and above all fun - that has made the difference.
That was the early goal of Forza Motorsport studio Turn 10, differentiating the Xbox exclusive racer from PlayStation's Grant Turismo - and with Horizon, that thinking has been amplified, and then some. With Horizon 3, the action moves to the ludicrously rendered continent of Australia, offering players the opportunity to take in a selection of environments tailor made for the game's many facets.
The player's wheels are free to kick up asphalt in Surfers Paradise, sand in the expansive Outback, water from the streams of the densely-packed rainforest, and soil from the countryside vineyards - if they please, in the exact same car... or truck, or SUV, or hypercar, or dune buggy, or track car (all customized, obviously).
The environment can't be understated, since it, perhaps more than any other aspect of the game, will have players wondering just what else they could hope for in an open world racer. The game is locked to 30 fps (and remains their consistently) as opposed to 60, but the sheer scope, variety and detail of the environments are so good, they may go largely unnoticed. That is: the transitions, reactivity, and custom lighting for each location are so completely in line with how players will naturally navigate the world, Horizon 3 appears to simply follow orders exactly as expected. There may be seams, but players will need to go searching to even spot them.
They'll likely have their hands full enough already, as Horizon 3 doesn't just put players into the shoes of a competitive driver (selected from a variety of male and female in-game avatars), but the all-important festival planner. The Horizon Festival won't invade and populate Oz without your efforts, which are simple enough to keep nearly every player interested. Acquiring fans lets you spread to new festival sites in the game's different regions, and expand to larger venues. Luckily, fans devote themselves to drivers who compete in races, drive memorably, take on strange publicity stunts, cross items off their Aussie bucket lists, and generally have as much fun as humanly possible.
Now for those who prefer driving in a race to planning one, there's Anna, your A.I. co-pilot keeping you up to date on new missions, hidden cars or game systems - now using one of a variety of pre-recorded names. As new routes are discovered while roaming the game's world, players have the opportunity to create new events. Will it be an Exhibition, a Rivals race against a fellow Drivatar, or one leg of a larger Championship? Players make that choice for themselves, selecting the defaults or creating their own (or one made by another driver available for download).
Prefer muscle cars for your offroad event? Done. Even if a Lamborghini-only event through the Outback sand dunes is something you come to regret, the choice is there. And while Horizon 3 may not have the depth or precision inputs of Forza Motorsport 6, Horizon 2 proved the team takes the feel of racing seriously. A power slide or bit of oversteer may not feel entirely accurate, but when your opponent is a jeep suspended from a helicopter overhead, you're likely to be satisfied anyway.
If not, then the hundreds of cars and constant prizes may make the difference in keeping players motivated. Add in the ability to switch to a four-player party of online friends, or flip to Drone Mode and leave your vehicle behind to explore or follow the world and those in it.
At last, we arrive at the dilemma. Once the checkered flags fly, and players decide to turn off the track for a relaxing drive, mile after mile of digital blacktop, rainforest, rolling hills or desert highway will slide by as smoothly as it would behind the wheel of an actual car. Day turns to night just as naturally, and even following a winding stream from its waterfall source to a lake on the horizon feels as valid a use of time as anything.
And it hits you sooner or later: Forza Horizon 3 may not be home to the most flawless simulation, or the most intense, pulse-pounding racing experience you've ever played. But it's almost certainly the most complete racing experience we have. We would ask what's next for the genre, or even what's next from the series, but it's clear Playground and Turn 10 will come up with an answer soon enough. Either way, we're too busy now to care.
Forza Horizon 3 is available for Xbox One and Windows PC.