The Forza Horizon 3 review embargo has lifted. Unfortunately, PC code isn't yet available. Naturally, our review will have to wait until it is. For now, here are some early impressions based on around eight hours play from the Xbox One version.
Forza Horizon 3 is the less serious spin-off to Turn 10's sim racing series. It's billed as a festival, as racers take over the streets of an open-world environment for a series of ad-hoc events. It's all bright lights and loud noises, as the young, rich and handsome show off their garages—throwing expensive sports cars around the Australian Outback with all the care of someone who's only ever heard of the concept of real-life consequences.
And that's what it should be. Forza takes the format of an open-world racer and builds an aspirational fantasy out of it. And yet, I can't help but find it a bit hateful. Your reaction will vary, but here's a litmus test: imagine Top Gear, but hosted by the sort of YouTuber that specialises in vlogs and prank videos. Did you cringe a little? Yeah, Forza Horizon's tone will grate.
Here's the thing: it doesn't matter. Both Horizon and Horizon 2, despite being packed to the brim with irritants, were some of the finest racing games around. Horizon 3 is that, again. The open world isn't just a way to make you drive between the starting points of races. This is a world packed full of activities, all of them of varying lengths and commitments. There's always something to do, and always an incentive to keep playing. Whether it's a full championship, a standalone race, a challenge, a head-to-head battle, or just a big ramp to jump off of.
In its range of activities, styles and environments, Forza Horizon 3 is part Burnout: Paradise, part Need for Speed, part Dirt 3. It's all tied together with fantastic, scalable difficulty options that let you pick your place on the arcade-to-sim scale. You can choose full, realistic damage, or just bounce off walls with impunity. You can use or disable a selection of racing assists. You can choose the skill of your opponents. You can rewind time to correct a mistake, or disable the option to remove such temptation. As the difficulty rises, the potential rewards are increased. But Forza Horizon 3 never feels like it's looking down on you for sticking to your comfort zone. It's easy going, and that makes for a more pleasant experience.
As a simulator, it's no iRacing, even at its most punishing difficulties. But each car offers a different feel in line with its personality, from the powerful, almost uncontrollable muscle cars, to the blisteringly fast, hyper-responsive European hypercars. Add to that a range of surfaces. Races take place on sand, through mud, and across gravel and tarmac. Each surface changes the feel of a car's handling. Australia is an inspired setting, letting Playground Games push the environmental diversity further than either previous Horizon. There are jungles, beaches, deserts and cities—it's condensed and artificial, sure, but that makes for a more exciting world, and a vastly more vibrant and beautiful one too.
As the organiser, you're in charge of creating each Exhibition and Championship, based on the routes that are unlocked as you draw in more fans. This is the basic progression of Horizon. The more you do, the more you unlock. But you don't have to wait before creating the best and most ridiculous challenges. As soon as you earn enough cash to buy the fastest cars, you can create a race for them to star in. You can even set the weather and time of day. Just a few hours in, I was racing a Ferrari across the Outback in the rain.
Even if you can't yet afford the good cars, there's plenty of opportunity to explore outside your garage. 'Bucket List' challenges give you a car and an objective: reach a certain speed, get to a specific point in a certain time, do some big drifts, or something sillier still. Horizon 3 has plenty by default, but players can also create and upload custom challenges based on the current car they're using. You can easily find, browse and play a selection of these.
As in previous Horizon games, the real star is the skill system. It's this that links the open-world antics with the racing, ensuring that whatever you're doing, there's a constant, background test of skill and challenge. You build points for near misses, drifts, drafts and overtaking, but also for fun, silly things: knocking down signs, or tearing recklessly through crops. As you chain skills together, your combo builds. Crash, and you lose it all. Don't, and you bank the points, which you can then use to unlock specific skill perks. It's such a well tuned system, and makes every interaction both fun and rewarding. Just being in this world is a pleasure, whether you're part of a high-stakes championship, or simply doing donuts in a field.
Forza Horizon 3 is another great iteration of a fantastic series. Three games and many, many cumulative hours in, I'm yet to tire of the formula. I hope Playground gets the PC version right. If it does, this has a strong chance to be one of the best populist racing games available on PC.