While I love seeing developers tackle new ideas, there’s always something special about the allure of a sequel to a game I loved. It’s the promise of a solid foundation being built upon, and getting to see the next natural step in the evolution of a series. That’s exactly why I was so excited for Forza Horizon 3, the latest title in Playground Games’ open-world racing series.
The third entry in the Forza off-shoot takes the racing to the exciting locale of Australia. It’s a fantastic setting for the game as Australia has gorgeous forests, wide open plains, and huge cities to drive in. Variety is important, and Australia has that in spades. The only disappointing aspect is that the game teases Australian wildlife (such as kangaroos and dingos), but I never came across any while driving around in the world. I had my heart set on racing (and eventually hitting) a kangaroo, so I can’t even describe how disappointed I was when I never got to experience my non-PETA-approved fantasy.
Despite the new (and gorgeous) location, anyone who has played previous Forza Horizon games will be immediately familiar with the setup here. Players compete in different events (from hitting speed targets to circuit races) in order to gain fans. These fans are then used to upgrade the festival that is taking place during the game, which then unlocks even more events to do. It’s a constant circle of doing events to unlock more events, and it has become a tad bit tiring by now.
This isn’t to say that the actual racing is boring, as it’s just as satisfying as it was in past Forza Horizon games, but I really wish the events were more creatively done. I get that only so much can be done within the confines of a racing title, but Horizon 3 has all of Australia to work with, and yet I was often stuck racing around a city. It’s made all the more disappointing since the game opens with a thrilling sequence that had me driving through a deeply forested area, hitting huge jumps off cliffs, and racing a helicopter. It felt exhilarating, and for the rest of the game I was trying to catch that same high from the level design.
Despite the game’s best attempts of recreating that moment through what it calls Showcase Events, the opening is never really topped. Instead, I found myself racing against a bunch of boats, a train, and bafflingly enough, an airplane in a really terrible event. The Showcase Events are supposed to feel special, but instead they start to feel just as mundane as regular events, as they all focused around racing a vehicle that wasn’t yet another car.
When I wasn’t having my intelligence insulted by competing in rigged races against a jet, I was driving around the world and seemingly always accomplishing something. If there’s one thing that Forza Horizon does better than any other open-world racing game, it’s that there’s always something to do around every corner. I was constantly finding boards to smash that would raise my driver level, or driving on new roads so I could claim I drove on all 450+ of them (I’m missing about 5 of them at the moment, and it’s driving me absolutely crazy). It also surfaces the stats of your Xbox Live friends while you play, so I was constantly comparing myself with other reviewers.
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The big new feature for Horizon 3 is that players can customize events and create their own bucket list challenges. It’s a really cool feature in theory, as the game can now boast an unlimited amount of replay value and new content, but choosing to use affordable cars instead of off-road buggies on a circuit race didn’t exactly feel like the racing game had been changed. Ultimately, I don’t want to create my own events, I want to play fun ones made by the developers.
Another new feature is the ability to stream music via Microsoft’s Groove Music service. The game comes with a free trial for the music streaming app, so I got to try it out. I have to admit that it was pretty awesome driving through the forest while belting along the words to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” just like I do when I drive in real life. I can’t see myself subscribing to the service, though, and it mostly feels like a forced-in plug that’s also a great reminder that it’s no longer easy to playback your own music like it was on Xbox 360. (Update: A reader has informed us that players can stream their own music without a subscription through using Microsoft OneDrive and Groove Music)
What hurt more than the constant sense of déjà vu, was that I was constantly running into technical issues. I expected some pop-in from Forza Horizon 3, as I was driving at crazy fast speeds and Horizon 2 had issues with it, but it’s so much worse here. I was constantly seeing details in the environment appear as I got close to them, and it got distracting at a point. Horizon 3‘s art is top-notch, but its performance isn’t.
I also ran into some crazy issues with the shadowing system where the game’s shadows would constantly jump all over the screen despite my car not moving, and a few instances where the frame rate took a dip. I can’t speak to how the game runs on PC, but it certainly felt like I was playing a sub-par console port of a really pretty game — which is probably not the sort of thing Microsoft really wants to go for with its “Play Anywhere” campaign out in full force.
Forza Horizon 3 isn’t the fresh, inventive entry that I was looking for. Instead, it’s simply more of the same. Of course, while more Forza Horizon is still a lot of fun, it just starts to grow old after a while. I really hope the series manages to reinvent itself soon, since not even the Australian outback can make this feel like a new experience.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which we were provided with.
Forza Horizon 3 doesn't bring much new to the table, and it feels like I've now played the same game three times over. It's still good, and fun for newcomers, but it's definitely at the point of diminishing returns. Throw in a myriad of technical issues and it's ultimately a disappointing sequel.