In many ways, the Forza Horizon series is the realization of an ideal originally outlined by Out Run 30 years—almost to the day—before this latest installment’s release. Prior to that Sega classic’s development, Yu Suzuki obsessed over two issues in particular: Discovering the most suitably picturesque real-world locations to model the game’s stages after, even going on a European “research adventure” to do so, and finding the most irrepressibly desirable vehicle to feature as its four-wheeled protagonist. This subtle shift of priorities, from challenging your pure driving efficiency to status-laden high-speed virtual tourism, is the hallmark of this sub-genre that might be described as the “lifestyle racer.”
Adopting an identical set of priorities explains why Forza Horizon 3 is the rare case of a driving simulator best played from a third-person perspective. This is not to imply that its car handling, borrowed from sibling series Forza Motorsport, is ever anything other than realistic—assuming the appropriate difficulty options have been selected and a number of driver assists turned off—and undeserving of the first-person view genre enthusiasts tend to use. It’s just that, like Out Run, the game prefers to focus on sights better appreciated from outside your windshield, chiefly the gorgeous sun-drenched scenery of Eastern Australia and the contours of whichever luxury vehicle you happen to be driving at the moment.
While the Australian countryside doesn’t feature something as immediately dramatic as the precipice-clinging Mediterranean villages of the previous game, it ensures a much greater variety of terrain. Forza Horizon 3 is understandably eager to demonstrate its range from the get-go. Five minutes in, the road has already taken you through lush rain forests where the asphalt gives way to wooden bridges, inside claustrophobic cave complexes whose roofs are heavy with stalactites that nearly scrape your own, and over the glistening sands of sprawling beaches flecked by ancient rock formations. There are lazy coastal suburbs to cruise by, majestic waterfalls necessitating a quick stop, and, perhaps most striking of all, the vast red and yellow playground of the Outback.
The visual spectacle offered by these environments is complemented by spectacle of a different type: the vehicles. While egalitarian enough to include more conventional brands, the stars of the game are clearly those marvels of technology and design, the Lamborghinis and the Koenigseggs, that, for most mere mortals, will remain unattainable outside the borders of digital fantasy land. Cars in Forza Horizon 3 have been created to provide not just avatars for in-game action but also beautiful baubles to be ogled. There are options to visit your cars in the garage so you can view them from every conceivable angle, fool around with doors and hoods to arrange each model in various vehicular poses, and to photograph them, filters and all, to earn minor rewards.
The dazzling presentation makes it easy to be drawn in, but there’s also something obnoxious about the way Forza Horizon 3, like some sort of semiotic Midas, tends to fetishize everything it comes in contact with, endowing it with a glossy veneer of dubious desirability. It’s not just cars and the idea of driving, nor places and the idea of traveling. It’s also the way music is now something players don’t simply listen to but “acquire” by signing new radio stations as the Horizon driving festival expands across the continent (including the requisite push for Microsoft’s streaming service, Groove Music). It’s the way the entire population of the game, while adhering to typical diversity standards, still manages to consist—in a very specific and instantly recognizable way—of nothing but well-groomed, good-looking twentysomethings. Every aspect is geared toward reinforcing a single message: This is the life you’d rather be living and, since you can’t, here’s a digital simulacrum available for $60.
Luckily, the game is fun enough that its borderline offensive presumptions may be forgotten by the time the next eye-catching vista rolls into view. Spectacle in Forza Horizon 3 is not there to enhance the game; spectacle is the game, and all the driving bits in between exist so you can earn more of it. There’s still the primeval urge to win, goaded by the little notification that pops up at the bottom of the screen and compares your latest performances to those of your online buddies, but it feels slightly subdued, as if superseded by more pressing, more utilitarian concerns. Races and challenges reward you with credits to purchase new toys or upgrade your existing ones, as well as fans that, in your new role as the Horizon festival’s director, allow expansion into new locations and the acquisition of additional radio stations. First place may be great, but second place is still good enough if it comes with a brand new Aston Martin.
Forza Horizon 3 can afford to shift away from its curating duties to focus on virtual sightseeing because its core driving experience is so solid. The physics are convincing enough, whether you’re spinning helplessly on a patch of loose gravel or struggling to retain grip on a sharp turn, and the AI has noticeably improved. Your opponents aggressively overtake you and are willing to trade paint to protect their position. There is a wide, if not especially imaginative, variety of event types, from traditional races to various stunt challenges and the new convoy feature that allows players to make their own events at anytime, anyplace.
Most importantly, through its tendency to reward practically everything you do, Forza Horizon 3 turns every moment of driving into an exciting game with constantly increasing stakes. Linking together stunts, like drifting and narrowly missing oncoming traffic, builds up both a score meter and a multiplier that may either reward you in a big way if kept up long enough or instantly expire if interrupted by crashing. It’s among the game’s most enjoyable free-roam activities, though the effect is somewhat diminished by the eventual discovery of dense, hazard-free plantations where chains can be kept ad nauseam.
There’s a downside to having all these options available at any given moment. As the festival expands into new locations and as new racing opportunities appear, it becomes difficult not to feel a little lost. The majority of the brief events the game throws at you are enjoyable enough, but nothing is quite as compelling as the sights provided by casually driving from one point to another. Forza Horizon 3 has opted for the freedom of discovery over the thrill of competition, and the price for this choice is a creeping sense of aimlessness that, rather than being appeased by the increasing numbers of icons cluttering up the map, is made worse by the game’s overall lack of structure.
Forza Horizon 3 can still be a delight, as long as you’re prepared to actively curate your own experience and minimize the effect of unnecessary distractions. Playground Games has created a beautiful open world filled with awe-inspiring sights and a driving game based on finely tuned systems. But sometimes when I’m cruising within splashing distance of Byron Bay’s emerald waters and an assistant’s voice blares over the radio to remind me of an abandoned Bugatti inside a nearby barn or to pester me about a championship still left unfinished, I can’t help but ask: Is a little peace to enjoy the view too much to ask?