Forza Horizon, Microsoft's arcade-style driving game, ought to be an underdog: it was originally a mere spin-off from Forza Motorsport, the company's high-tech, serious-minded racing simulator. But it instantly won a sizeable fan-base by taking a completely different approach from the game that spawned it.
While the original Forza titles were about pristine driving skills around perfectly upkept tracks, the Horizon series has a penchant for trading paint and isn't afraid to have you get down and dirty with off-road races from time to time.
The first two Horizon games were great-looking, arcade-style efforts shot through with a touch of anarchy and like those, Forza Horizon 3 is all about driving many of the world's most desirable cars, in as irresponsible a manner as you can muster, amid some stunningly gorgeous settings.
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Welcome to Horizon
As with its predecessors, Forza Horizon 3 uses the pretext of a fictional festival called Horizon, in which car enthusiasts get together to race and party, as an excuse for its gameplay.
This time around, the shenanigans take place in a fantastically rendered Australia – in a game-world twice as big as that of Forza Horizon 2 – so you will find yourself racing in deserts, rainforests, through cities and on beaches. It really is an amazing-looking game, and if you are lucky enough to own a TV which can display in high dynamic range (HDR), as well as one of the new Xbox One S consoles, you can make it look even more stunning.
Shaping the very game you are playing
Previously, the character you played in Forza Horizon games was a mere unknown, but this time around, you have been cast as the festival director, so it is up to you to make Horizon a success.
Luckily, in practice, that involves little beyond driving like a lunatic in order to win races or pull off outrageous publicity stunts: every spectacular feat you nail will draw in crowds, and when they hit certain thresholds, you must either build a new festival site or expand the existing one.
The festival director mechanic, in other words, is mainly a means of making you feel like you are shaping the very game you are playing, but it creates that illusion fairly successfully.
Putting on a show
Various diverse driving events form the essential core of Forza Horizon 3, the main ones being multi-lap races around delineated courses (if you miss checkpoints, in true arcade-racer style, you can rewind time), long, cross-country point-to-point races, PR stunts (which might involve activities like hitting 250mph on an airfield runway, or earning style points by drifting around a quarry) and Bucket List Challenges, in which you win impossibly exotic cars by jumping into them and performing diverse feats.
Some new activities have been added: most notably Showcase events, which are ridiculously over-the-top races that might pit you against a Jeep suspended from a helicopter (which cuts swathes through the environment) or a freight-train. Then there are Drift challenges, which are all about keeping your car as sideways as possible for as long as possible, and Convoys, in which you barrel around the previously pristine terrain with a bunch of like-minded hooligans.
Forza Horizon 3 is a proper open-world game, so a large part of its appeal lies in randomly speeding around its giant game-world and seeing what you can find. Most coveted are Barn Finds: every petrol-head's dream, in which ultra-rare classics are uncovered in remote barns. You hear rumors about potential ones in the game, and tracking them down exercises your detective instincts.
More prosaically, just about every driving manoeuvre that you pull off which would lead to police sanction in real life earns you rewards, whether you are deliberately blasting past speed cameras as quickly as possible, pulling off near-misses or demolishing fences. The experience points (XP) you earn can be cashed in for perks like extra money to buy cars or a drone which offers an alternative means of exploration.
The cars themselves have been impeccably selected – there isn't a mundane econo-box among them. Indeed, when the game starts, it puts you behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Centenario, surely the Italian manufacturer's most outrageous creation yet, which won't even go on sale until next year. And there are countless classic Italian exotics, rare muscle cars, proper rally cars, pumped-up 800bhp 4x4s and tuned-up all-terrain buggies. Forza Horizon 3 boasts 350 cars in its base state, and it's a safe bet that more will be added as downloadable content. And it's pretty generous at dishing out in-game currency when you win races and level up, plus it has several mechanisms, such as auctions, which let you acquire new machinery.
You can drive behind most of the cars you come across and challenge them to instant races, and any friends you have who play the game are constantly involved even when they aren't behind their Xbox One or PC: Forza Horizon 3 tries to ape their driving style by turning them into what it calls Drivatars. So you can hire your friends to race in your Horizon events, and fire them if they don't come up to scratch.
Soup-up then throw down
Forza Horizon games have always been big on customisability, but the third version takes that idea to a new level: as festival director, whenever you find a new race-route, you can define its parameters, such as the number of laps and the types of cars which are eligible for it.
As with previous Forza Horizon games, you can lose yourself for months in the finer points of designing liveries and customising just about any mechanical aspect of any of your cars.
Driving the world's most desirable cars in an irresponsible a manner
As is de rigueur in this day and age, Forza Horizon 3 has a highly developed online side. It's the first version of the game which lets up to four people play the story campaign co-operatively, and it is dead easy to find your mates, jump online and just cruise around. Indeed, thanks to the Drivatar system, it feels like an online game even when you're playing in single-player mode. But the ability to just cruise around the huge game-world (which, incidentally, has the most spectacular-looking sky of any game we have ever seen) with your mates, exploring and taking on automotive challenges, is the very essence of Forza Horizon 3.
Verdict: Play It Now
Forza Horizon 3 isn't about recreating the intricacies of track-racing as realistically as possible, but instead gives you a huge, stunning-looking real-world playground in which to pull off the sorts of feats and stunts that, in real life, would lead to death or imprisonment, behind the wheels of the world's most exotic cars.
In other words, it's a true petrol-head's fantasy.
Factor in the technical excellence that it has acquired from Forza Motorsport – it really is one of the finest-looking games on the Xbox One, and if you get it going on a high-end PC hooked up to a 4K TV, it looks mind-blowing – and you will find it near-impossible to resist.
Forza Horizon 3 was reviewed on Xbox One.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.