The Fiat Dino coupé was produced for a couple of years in the late 1960s and early 70s. It wasn’t particularly fast, didn’t star in virtually any cool movies, and didn’t have a motorsport career. Classic car enthusiasts remember it now because of its crisp and elegant Bertone body, and the actual fact that it had a Ferrari-made engine, the same V6 within its more famous and voluptuous namesake, the Ferrari Dino. This is a lovely car – an individual favourite of mine, because of a youth misspent reading classic car magazines – but there is absolutely no reason behind it to maintain a video game.
And yet here it really is in Forza Horizon 3. Why? I assume to delight persons like me, who happen across it unexpectedly in an automobile list filled with esoterica, from dune buggies to wood-panelled station wagons to the three-wheeled Reliant van out of Only Fools and Horses. And for the reason that developers at Playground Games really find out about and love cars, this means knowing about and loving cars that are slow or forgotten or weird, together with cars that are fast and glamorous and marketable.
But which makes Forza Horizon 3 appear to be a casino game for anoraks – the type of eccentric hobbyist’s scrapbook that the latter Gran Turismos, much as I really like them for it, have grown to be. It’s miles from it. It’s a racing game for everybody. You don’t have to love cars to take pleasure from this game, and you don’t have to be in to the current racing game scene either, which appears squarely centered on serving hardcore genre fans’ craving for authenticity. The cars in Forza Horizon 3 look and sound authentic, or more to a spot they feel genuine to operate a vehicle too, nevertheless they will all drift elegantly, they’ll all plough across fields and ford rivers without bogging down, and they’ll all survive jumping off cliffs with aplomb. Because those ideas are fun, and fun is more important.
I believe the Fiat Dino is in this game because just looking at it certainly makes you smile, and enables you to think how fun it might be to drive a fairly car like this through coastal scenery at sunset. That’s one among many fantasies this game will fulfil for you personally. It really is pure escapism of the type video games master, and that anyone can react to. It’s an adventure, a lark, any occasion that lasts forever. It’s competitive if you wish it to be, and social if you are into that, but in addition to that it is just inherently joyful, such as a 16-bit platformer or an over-the-top arcade cabinet or a rambunctious open-world action game. It’s here to cause you to smile.
You will not want to admit just how much you love gazing at your cars in Fozavista mode, opening the doors, studying the interiors and peeking beneath the hood.
One thing about Forza Horizon 3 which will cause you to smile is its map. Like its two predecessors, that is an open-world racing game occur a fictionalised version of a glamorous real-word location; we have been to Colorado and the Côte d’Azur, and today we’re off to Australia. Playground’s artists took even greater liberties this time around, condensing half this giant landmass right into a map that’s only twelve miles from corner to corner. (It feels plenty big enough.) Diversity and epic scenery were their goals, and they’ve delivered. You’ll drive over ochre sand dunes in the Outback, along brilliant white beaches, up thickly jungled hillsides, through rolling vineyard country and right into a glittering modern city. It’s a vivid landscape under huge skies, and it’s really quite breathtaking to check out. My colleague Ian put it best when he said that just watching footage of the overall game made him want to be on holiday. When you’re from it, you wish to go back.
The road network is mainly made up of dirt tracks and curving ribbons of two-lane blacktop, with a solitary ramrod-straight freeway running east to west. It’s a complete joy to explore, and as much fun to go completely off road in to the dramatic ‘playground’ areas, just like the building sites near to the city or the rusting shipwrecks scattered across a sandy bay. The game’s signature moment is your vehicle splashing through water – be it an inlet on the beach or a rivulet pouring down a hillside in a rainstorm – to the accompaniment of a cooling roar, a shiver of feedback from the controller and a tug back on your own speed. This moment is repeated over and over in Forza Horizon 3, and it never gets old.
As within the last few Forzas, AI drivers are ‘drivatars’ of other players – and you could now recruit friends’ drivatars to your festival, which benefits both of you.
The automobile handling in Horizon has always positioned itself carefully between physical heft, accessibility and excitement. If anything, Horizon 3 gets the courage to lean just a little further from its sim underpinnings and towards the arcade. Steering is pinpoint-sharp and there’s an eager encouragement towards drifting and tail-wagging powerslides, even in the most unlikely vehicles, although cars still have a solid sense of weight and personality. Sim fanatics may not like it, however the entertainment value is off the charts. I’ve said it before, but comparisons to Bizarre Creations’ mighty Project Gotham Racing series are both apt and deserved.
Once more, the game’s conceit is you are getting involved in the Horizon festival of racing and music, and the airwaves are thick with shimmery electro pop, frantic drum’n’bass and crunchy alt-rock, everything effervescent and upbeat. The structure has been tweaked, but continues to be driven as much by exploring the landscape as competing in races, or completing the most notable Gear-style PR stunts. This time around, you’re nominally the boss of the festival, and the overall game is paced out by opening and expanding four hubs over the map, unlocking new race routes and events as you go. To get started with this makes the map feel smaller and less populated than Horizon 2’s (it isn’t), but in the long term it’s more logical than that game’s endless cycling in one hub to another, and endows a larger sense of progression.
The racing itself is free-form, largely defined where car you are feeling like driving that day. Exhibition races set themselves up according to your present set of wheels, and you could tweak the parameters (however, not some of the race routes) further by entering blueprint mode, and uploading your event for other players to try. This feature feels just a little half-baked for race events, but I loved the blueprint Bucket Lists, which let you set cars, routes and rules for one-off challenges; the city has already develop some very nice designs that are really worth exploring. (I particularly enjoyed ‘RAC Breakdown Simulator’, which asked me to operate a vehicle an appropriately liveried orange Transit van clear over the map in the torrential rain without damaging it.)
If you fancy something more curated, the state Horizon championship series were created with imagination and a mischievous sense of fun, with events for cars weighing over two tons, or costing under 15,000 credits, or celebrating great automotive rivalries like this between Aussie carmakers Ford and Holden. There is, apparently, an endpoint to all or any this, but after a large number of hours’ play it’s still a far cry for me personally – and anyway, the overall game is very obviously made to be played forever according to your whims instead of the designers’.
Car nerds will like the brand new ‘upgrade presets’ that let you fit certain cars with custom bodykits, transform them into 1000HP hot rods, or convert them to rally or racing spec.
For the very first time, that can be done everything in the game’s festival campaign in four-player co-op. That is an extremely nice feature to have and will be great fun, especially with friends. It has been sensibly designed, too, with map progress linked with the session leader’s game, but carrying back again to your own, and event scoring adjusted to market team effort instead of competition. (You’re ranked in a race according to just how many AI ‘drivatars’ you beat, and with time trials you need to beat a combined time.) You may still find some wrinkles to be ironed out of the mode, though. Cut-scenes and progression milestones for the first choice interrupt the flow of everybody else’s game in a clumsy way, and the matchmaking and networking seem to be finicky; if you ask me, it’s more speedily to find competitive than co-op games, and they are much more reliable.
The competitive mode, Online Adventure, is quite similar to Horizon 2’s Online Road Trip, and quite right too, because that was a knockabout triumph. The only changes made are welcome ones, grouping events into themed playlists (asphalt only, playground games only, etc) and letting you vote on these and also filter according to your requirements.
The other major novelty in what’s, in all honesty, an extremely iterative sequel, may be the advent of a Windows PC version under Microsoft’s new Xbox Play Anywhere initiative. Although we usually review games about the same format, I was curious to test Microsoft’s vision of a cross-platform future – and in addition aware that Horizon 3 will be a thrilling prospect for the PC community, who are well served with driving simulators but haven’t had a decent populist racing game because the last Criterion-developed Dependence on Speed. The news headlines is mixed, as it’s likely you have gathered from Rich’s report at the weekend. Downloading the overall game from the Windows Store is an agonizing experience, and it needs a beast of a PC to beat the visuals or performance of the superbly optimised Xbox One version. There are a few reports of instability, too, although I’ve had no trouble with it. However, wider tyre support compared to the console game is welcome, the overall game is solidly engineered and looks beautiful, and Microsoft’s cross-platform tech is seriously impressive. Your game save seamlessly transfers in one version to the other, and there is no segregation of the game’s community at all, which means you need not worry about which version friends are playing. This is one way it should be.