Forza Horizon 3 Review: A Driving Masterpiece

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I'm bombing down a jungle dirt road in The Outback chasing a jeep suspended from a helicopter  while Cut Copy is blasting from the speakers. My heart is pumping and I couldn't be pressing down harder on the gas if I tried. And that's just in the first 5 minutes. But the fun doesn't stop there, because in Forza Horizon 3 ($60) you have more than 300 different cars to drive, myriad hidden collectibles and the vast open roads of the land Down Under to keep your adrenaline going.

This game is a love letter to gearheads everywhere, and for almost any racing fan, blowing off this engaging open-world racer would be a big mistake.

The Setup: Australia is your oyster

Each event gets a different marker, and when you complete the more that are currently availble, more pop up.

Each event gets a different marker, and when you complete the more that are currently availble, more pop up.

Past games had you taking part in the Horizon Festival as a racer. But you know what's better than being a participant? Running the show yourself, because not only are you the person in charge, you're also its biggest star. That means you can set up races the way you want, or take part in preset courses that have you driving through cities and blasting through off-road courses. You can also complete Bucket List challenges, which, like the name implies, are life-defining events that are impossible to resist, such as racing trains and jumping over rivers. 

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After every race or challenge, your feats will earn you cash (for buying new cars and parts), experience (for unlocking new skills and abilities) and the loving adoration of new fans. The better you drive, the more fans you get, and eventually, when you have enough, you'll be able to expand the Horizon Festival to additional venues. This lets you explore various regions across Australia, from the great Outback to the wine country of Yarra Valley to the coastal cities (such as Surfer's Paradise). And I can't stress this enough: every inch of it is beautiful.

Look and Sound: One of the prettiest games on the Xbox One

Even though FH3 is locked to 30 frames per second on consoles, it's rock-solid, so you never have to worry about lag making you miss the apex of a turn or low-res textures that don't do Australia justice. Even when you're between challenges driving from event to event, there's always something to look at, and the way landscapes shift from rural to urban while you're driving by at 200 mph is downright mesmerizing.

Simply gorgeous.

Simply gorgeous.

In addition to the stunning visuals, Horizon offers a wonderfully curated selection of radio stations , ranging from local Aussie bands to the classical works of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. I tend to favor the Horizon Pulse and Future Classic channels, as they bang out hits from electronic bands, including Justice, Digitalism and home country favorites like HWLS and Ladyhawke. However, if you're not a fan of the songs in the game, you can always use Microsoft's Groove Music service to create the playlist you really want. 

Your Crew: The best support a racer could ask for

Running the biggest racing celebration in the world isn't a walk in the park, so you'll get help from an essential trio in Keira, Warren and Anna. Keira is your guide across Australia. She will help you expand the festival to new locations and give you details on upcoming events. 

Silly crowdsourced skins like this show how Mario finally makes his way onto the Xbox.

Silly crowdsourced skins like this show how Mario finally makes his way onto the Xbox.

Warren is the man with the wrench who is charge of your garage and will recommend new cars to buy or help you tune up the ones you already have. He'll also help you out with Barn finds, which are lucrative cars hidden throughout the country. After you stumble onto them, Warren will fix them up good as new, so you can take them to the streets.

Finally, Anna is the automated Siri-like assistant that will help you plot courses from event to event, and let you know which ones you might like best. I love that Anna can differentiate between the various types of challenges (races, stunt locations, bucket lists, festival events), so that you’ll never feel pressured into doing challenges that don't suit your taste. 

Photo mode, drone mode, speed traps, there's so much to do.

Photo mode, drone mode, speed traps, there's so much to do.

And if you want to race with others, you can party up and do pretty much anything you can do with people on the net, or team up with some friends and take part in a co-op campaign, too.

Driving: Arcadey feel with some helpful creature comforts

While racing FH3 doesn't feel as tight or as controlled as simulation games such as Gran Turismo or Forza's mainline Motorsport series, each car still has a unique feel that lets you enjoy precise driving styles or play fast and loose as you drift in and out of bends. The game also provides you with a helpful racing line that adjusts automatically to how fast you're going. Although knowing when you should and shouldn't ignore the game's advice is the key to making sure you come in first.  

Who doesn't love a wood-grained Ferrari?

Who doesn't love a wood-grained Ferrari?

There's also an extremely helpful rewind mode that will shift time back a few seconds, so you can get a do-over after crashing into a wall or spinning off the course. You're not limited to a single rewind, either. If one time shift isn't enough, you can always go back further to give you enough time to adjust your ill-prepared racing tactics. 

However, there are times when I wished some of the cars had a little more grip, because even models like a 4-WD race-tuned Lamborghini Huracán, which sports a handling rating of 9/10, can feel a bit too slippery. A lot of cars easily spin out if you're not careful with the throttle, which can make for some serious oversteer.

Xbox Anywhere: Buy it once, play in two places

As one of Microsoft's first new games to fall under the Play Anywhere program, a single purchase of FH3 will let you play the game on either PC or the Xbox One. It'll even transfer saves automatically over the internet, so no matter what platform you're playing on, you can pick up right where you left off. 

The one requirement for PC owners is that their system must be running Windows 10 with Microsoft's recent anniversary update installed. The PC version of Forza Horizon 3 comes with a much deeper settings menu that lets you bump up the frame rate to 60 fps, and tweak settings such as anti-aliasing and textures to make an already beautiful game look even better.

In practice, the system worked pretty flawlessly, although one PC I installed FH3 on did run into issues where it would randomly crash back to the desktop. I didn't encounter any problems on two other systems I tried, so it may have been an isolated incident.

Because FH3's recommended and ideal specs are pretty high, and its optimization isn't the best, you're going to want a PC with recent CPU (Intel 4th Gen and up) and one of Nvidia's new Pascal graphics cards (such as a GTX 1060, 1070 or 1080 GPU) if you're looking to get anywhere close to 60 fps.

Bottom Line

Forza Horizon 3 is deep, beautiful and immensely satisfying. There's seemingly no shortage of things to do, places to visit and secrets to find, which results in a game that will keep your lead foot happy for 30 hours or more. Then add in an immense roster of cars, a fantastic soundtrack and the kind of spectacle gas-guzzling gamers crave, and you have one of the best and most well-rounded racing games in recent memory. If you care at all about cars and have a passion for driving, Forza Horizon 3 is a game that's hard not to love.

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).