Review: Forza Horizon 3 for Xbox One

Can this one win over a non-driving sim player?

If you’d asked me a year ago whether I’d be reviewing Forza Horizon 3, I probably would have responded somewhere along the lines of “pfft, no.” As it is, I’ve never been a big fan of sim-driving games, and trying out Microsoft Studios’ answer to Gran Turismo in a demo for Forza Motorsport 6 seemed to further reinforce what I’d long thought to be true: It was neat, but it just wasn’t clicking and probably wasn’t for me.

But man, was it pretty.

Prettier still was the premiere trailer for Forza Horizon 3 at E3 this year — enough that I named it one of my Top 5 Moments from Microsoft’s E3 2016 Briefing on PoisonMushroom.Org, snug at number three. And it was pretty enough to continue piquing my curiosity when I saw something new about it. After reading up on it a bit more and playing the demo, I knew I had to go all in.

Like I said, I’ve never been a sim-driving kind of guy. Arcade racing is more my thing, whether it be Mario Kart, OutRun, Rad Racer, Daytona USA, or BurnoutBurnout 3: Takedown, specifically. As such, I’m coming at this review as something of an outsider; a newbie, a rookie. And if you’ve kept away from games such as Gran Turismo and Forza as I have for the same reasons, I encourage you to read on.

You might just be surprised by what you learn about Forza Horizon 3, and even want to give it a shot yourself.

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Interestingly enough, the game starts out almost exactly the same as the aforementioned demo. I think there are a few small changes here and there, such as dialogue and just generally positioning it to better set up the rest of the game, but if you like what you read from my X16 report and want to try that out for yourself, you’re in luck. Incidentally, there’s a free demo available now on the Xbox Store as well, but I’m not sure it contains this part (though it seems to have a whole lot more).

After partaking of the vehicular sampler, you’re brought to the site of the Horizon Festival, this time being held in Australia. And you’re in charge of the proceedings! That ends up putting a lot of power (read: choices and options) in your hands, and it can be a little much to take in at first, but the game gives you plenty of time to get a feel for things, introducing new elements gradually.

As “the boss,” you’ve got all sorts of things to do, from setting up races and events to picking music stations to attracting new fans to deciding where to open up additional branches of the festival. Oh, and you get to drive around and race, too, of course!

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Even if you don’t decide to buy anything, you’re given a choice of vehicles at the outset, and you’re rewarded with more as you go along. These cover a wide range of years, brands, models — you name it. I’m not a huge “car person,” so I don’t even know what most of these are specifically — tell me I’ve got a Ferrari or a Camaro and I’m pretty good to go. That said, I was pleased that a Jeep Cherokee was among the options. It’s a 2014 Grand Cherokee SRT, which is a good few years newer than the one I used to own and love, but it provided a nice, familiar place to get my bearings.

That brings me to one thing I really love about this game: Once you get a few of the opening things out of the way, you’re pretty much free to drive as much as you like across a beautiful open world, with no real penalty whatsoever. No fuel to worry about, damage is cosmetic (though I think there’s an option to tweak that. Note, there are many options in this game!), and the sky is the limit. One time, I spotted this neat almost pillar-like mountain off on the horizon, and just decided to drive there — just like that.

The feel of it all is kind of realistic, but not so realistic that it turns me off. Each vehicle has its own unique feel, I believe based on their real-life attributes, but it’s still fairly easy to get a handle on as you race along and rack up all sorts of bonuses that remind me of playing Burnout, including destroying all sorts of property and narrowly avoiding other traffic. (No takedowns, though, I’m sorry to say.)

I really miss being able to drive in real life, and this game manages to simultaneously make me miss it more while also filling a bit of that void.

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It’s all quite relaxing when you want it to be, and in a way, reminds me a lot of Pilotwings Resort for Nintendo 3DS in that regard. Of course, instead of aircraft, you’re using cars and trucks, and instead of cartoon-ish Wuhu Island, you’re setting off across a vast chunk of Australia.

Also like Pilotwings Resort, there are numerous objectives you can choose to take on at most any time as you’re either driving along or when you reach certain destinations. You’ll find certain signs that need to be destroyed for extra XP, discover new roads, and on occasion, even be led to old barns where busted-up vehicles from years past are waiting to be claimed and restored by you — or rather, by your garage mechanic, Warren. Finding many of these goals is easy enough as you come across them, though you can also set your Automated Natural Navigation Assistant (ANNA, for short) to help you plot a course for certain spots on the map. Along the way, you may spot other players’ “Drivatars” you can honk at and get to join your convoy — and they may even challenge you to a race right then and there!

Certain locales will allow you to partake in a race, or even design your own “Blueprint” for a race, from type of car to time of day and weather to a name for the event, which can then be shared online. You’ll also find certain street race events, and even “Bucket List Challenges” which place you behind the wheel of a specific vehicle and have you try to perform tricks for a certain number of points within the time limit. Personally, I found even the “easy” ones challenging to complete, though more on that in a bit.

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Not everything is perfect, though, as I do have a few minor grievances. One is that outside of setting up events, I haven’t seen a way to set the time of day. You just start during daylight hours, and either by time passing or through entering certain events, it changes to night (or vice-versa, if you choose certain ones when it’s night). I love dusk and night driving, so not being able to just immediately jump into that is a bit of a bummer.

Another problem I have is that for a newcomer to the series, some things can be kind of obtuse — frustratingly so. One of the Bucket List Challenges involves using skills to tear up stuff on a construction site, but I had no idea what to do. I did perform different skills, and sometimes I would get points, but more often not, leaving me shy of the score needed to win. Similarly, there was an early one for performing about 25 drifts in an enclosed parking lot within a time limit, and I’ve gotten just over 20. I’d have had more, but for some reason, some drifts weren’t counted, and I again had no idea why some worked and others didn’t.

Then there’s the small issue of the radio stations. Your first selection consists allows two of four options, then your next selection gives you a choice of everything else — except the touted Groove radio station, which streams your own music from OneDrive or the Groove app. That one’s last, and the wait for that is a bit longer than I’d like — I want to be blasting across streets and open fields to “Dare” by Stan Bush, dangit, and any wait for that is just too long.

Finally, while online functionality seemed to work just fine for me, I could not find any way to turn it off. Also, as I currently lack a Kinect (soon to be remedied for streaming, I hope), I wasn’t able to test out ANNA’s use of it. And while I’m adding random thoughts here, I previously stated that using a driving wheel controller with the game didn’t work for me at the preview event, but I think that was down to the type of vehicle I was using — I ran into the same trouble with a regular controller when using that type of vehicle here.

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There’s just so much to say here, and I could probably go on and on and still miss some things — maybe even a lot of things. But the big takeaway is that I have really been enjoying my time with this game, far more than I had ever at first imagined that I would. I should say that while I am a good driver (in real life, at least), I’m admittedly not a very good racer. Even so, I found myself having a blast with lots to do and see here (and there are numerous difficulty levels to adjust for my level of skill — or lack thereof).

So if you’re like me, an arcade driving/racing fan who has been casting a wary eye at Forza Horizon for the past few years, then put aside any worries you may have: It’s good, very good, and you don’t need to be a driving sim fan to enjoy it. Give it a shot (remember, a free demo), and I think you will be pleased with what you find.

Now if you’ll excuse me, writing this has made me want to play a bit more before I head off to bed (yes, it’s almost 9am as I publish this. Don’t judge me).

Forza-Horizon-3_BoxForza Horizon 3 will be released for the Xbox One and Windows 10 on Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 at a price of $79.99 for the Standard Edition, $99.99 for the Deluxe Edition, and $129.99 for the Ultimate Edition.

A review code was provided by Xbox Canada.

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.