Sometimes, the best route in life is the road less travelled. That philosophy is true in Forza Horizon 3, a game that marries a variety of terrains and environments with high-performance sports cars to deliver unbelievable fun. The game doesn’t bring much innovation to the racing genre, but that doesn’t make the experience any less of a thrill.
Developed by Playground Games, the latest Forza instalment takes the series to the land Down Under, which allows players to explore a wide range of settings within an Australian sandbox. As an ignorant foreigner, I have to take the studio’s word for it when it says that the details are true to life. However, the environments match the tourist brochures for the country. There are a few sections of the map that feel flavourless, but most of the landscape is beautiful and seems to represent an idealized Australian motherland.
While the open world concept is now common practice in the racing genre, the rich Australian landscape still makes the game feel unique. Players are able to zoom through corn fields in farm country, take late-night strolls on sandy beaches, and race through city streets. Thanks to the terrain, the drive between races can be both arousing and exhausting. It’s great fun to discover a shortcut when you take a McLaren F1 off a hill at top speed, but it also results in some wonky crashes and unneeded stoppage time. It’s not the result of poor environment design or physics – it’s probably a rather realistic look at how that absurd situation would actually play out – but it’s still an unwelcome interruption during gameplay.
As for the cars, each one handles differently, with different cars being better suited to different kinds of on and off road terrain. While there is a learning curve, it never feels like a chore to master any of the vehicle’s controls. In fact, there’s enjoyment to be had if you like to experiment with ridiculous car and terrain combinations.
With that said, the costly fast travel system is sometimes the best option if progression is desired. Festivals are glorified garages that act as warp points, and also serve a few other functions. They provide a central hub for car modifications, a shopping list of trendy vehicles, and a creative photo mode, all with an intuitive user interface. It’s a convenient space for anyone who wants to craft the perfect ride (and snap a pic to be uploaded later).
Festivals also act as the best way to purchase any of the game’s 350 cars. Most of the high-end vehicles are available right off the bat, but you need to use the credits earned from the races in campaign mode to unlock them. The grind is far from mind-numbing, and edging towards first place typically offers a healthy challenge and greater reward. Other drivers pose competition, but the changing landscape is the toughest hurdle to overcome. Some races with differing terrains will take multiple attempts to complete, especially for those unfamiliar with modern driving mechanics. Thankfully, the championship trophies are never unattainable.
While competing in race after race is addicting, it means you will have to endure the cringe-worthy story in order to do so. Though Forza Horizon 3 initially gives the impression that a significant narrative will unfold, it is soon proven to be trickery. Your preassembled avatar (there are roughly a dozen different designs, with equal numbers of male and female female character models) gets dropped into awkward cut scenes that typically involve a forgettable NPC telling you how difficult a race will be, or how the races are building towards an ultimate music festival.
The confidence boost is welcome, but the lack of narrative fails to take the game to a new level. It’s impossible not to disparage the cut scenes when the majority of the dialogue is delivered with the characters’ backs turned to the camera, and the decision to remove any sense of relatable humanity is a head-scratcher. It’s like when the poor performing DeLorean was first brought to the market; the well-rendered character models look pretty, but they’re essentially empty shells. Kiera, the faceless narrator, is the only somewhat memorable personality. Her companionship makes the experience feel a little less vacant, and although she spouts random banter that rarely holds any significance, her over-the-shoulder perspective lets you know that someone exists in this virtual world.
The lack of notable individuals makes the Australian environment the most crucial character in the story. It doesn’t speak with words, but the rolling hills, detailed cities, and textured terrains say volumes. The dialogue-based scenes feel like distractions that take you away from the exploration of the country.
Of course, the narrative issues that plague Forza Horizon 3 are the same that afflicted the previous instalments. The development team evidently disregarded fan outcry for a greater story, which is a shame when the other elements of the game are of such high calibre. The poor story does not diminish the impact of the game’s better aspects. But when everything else is so well done, you’d have to think that the game could have excelled in all respects, which makes the story feel a bit like a missed opportunity.
The game does try try to mix up the progression with its new four-player co-op mode, but it doesn’t take the genre to uncharted territory. Though friends can now combine their talents to advance in the campaign, the mode doesn’t allow for free exploration. The attempt is half-baked, but does offer friends an opportunity to experience the colourful Aussie backdrop together in some capacity.
As unfortunate as it is, the best course of action with Forza Horizon 3 is to disregard the idea that there’s a story, and accept the game for what it is: a well-crafted, pedal-to-the-metal racing romp. It’s brainless fun, a palette cleanser in an industry that often takes itself too seriously.
Regardless of its impassive narrative and lack of new features, Forza Horizon 3 is still the pinnacle of the series, and quite possibly, the entire franchise. It speaks to the power of the combination of sports cars and beautiful backdrops. Give someone a car, and they can get around; give someone a car and freedom, and they will drive forever.