We’re well into autumn here in the northern hemisphere, but it’s spring in Australia, the setting of Forza Horizon 3. So if you’ve got the cloudy weather blahs, why not take a day trip to a sunny destination?
While we don’t yet have the technology to recreate a full road trip experience – complete with overcrowded rest stops and questionable gas station coffee – you can recreate the kind of road trip shenanigans you see on Top Gear. Whether it’s a cross-country race in souped-up supercars or running a convoy full of sub-compact hatchbacks, the only limiting factor is your imagination.
The Forza Horizon series is supposedly about the Horizon Festival, but what it feels like is a grand road trip. And in Forza Horizon 3, you’re placed in charge of the festival. It’s a neat bit of character development, but according to Ralph Fulton, Creative Director at Playground Games, it’s also to emphasize the player’s role – more than ever, the Horizon Festival is about you, the player, and your choices.
The first hour or so that you spend in the game is about familiarizing yourself with the plethora of options available to you at any point in time. “That first chunk of gameplay is crucial, because we have [the player’s] undivided attention.” You can tackle every race on the map, you can scour the landscape for hidden items, or you can simply peruse the winding backroads – it's all there from the get-go.
The only thing you can't access in that first hour – until you unlock a second Festival location – is multiplayer. And it's a design decision that allows the developers to drive home the fact that Forza Horizon's scoring is based mainly on clean, stylish racing and stunts – you can finish third or fourth and actually do better in terms of winnings and experience points than the podium winner. And that means cash to buy cars, or points to invest in perks.
It's part of the series' more laid-back approach to the racing genre. In addition to going head-to-head with other players, you can also compare yourself to the community as a whole based on a variety of challenges and criteria, such as posting the fastest speed at a speed trap or having the most air time.
From the first time you’re given free rein in Byron Bay, you’ll find that you’re not alone on the roads. Sure, there are timid family wagons making their way around the city, but there are also cars piloted by Drivatars, which can be identified by the Gamertag badge over the roof. Drivatars are digital representations of other players, and unlike traditional AI, their behaviour is modelled after the player they represent. Follow a Drivatar around for a while and you’ll discover what their quirks are and how they get out of a messy situation – or if they’re the ones causing it.
Once you do take the plunge into online gameplay, you’re welcomed by a vibrant player pool with diverse tastes. If you’ve got a group you regularly play with, you can also create a party with up to three others. Once you’re linked up, you can race together or freely roam across Australian landscape, looking for secrets or tackling the storyline events and challenges scattered across the map.
While your Gamertag may be lost in a sea of other letters and numbers out on the road, your vehicle is uniquely yours, be it a rare car, a custom paint job or a vanity plate. You needn’t start from scratch, either: you can download designs, decals and wraps that others have created, or go deeper and borrow their tuning as well.
Of course, it’s not just what you drive, but how you drive as well. As mentioned earlier, the Drivatar system also studies your driving habits and creates an online persona based on your profile, whether that means playing it safe and clean or occasionally drifting into trees.
All of these elements seamlessly combine to create an experience that is fresh every time you play: Though the roads are familiar, the cars you see and people you meet can vary wildly in appearance and behaviour. They’re the Drivatars of other players around the world, cruising down the street or coming up behind you in a race, ultimately easing the transition online – you’re already playing with others, no?
The seemingly effortless ease with which the game blurs the line between single- and multi-player, offline and online, comes from extensive development and testing. In addition to overcoming technical hurdles, it also comes from a recognition that “multiplayer doesn’t need to be adversarial,” as Fulton explains.
That’s not saying the game isn’t without challenge. If you’re a fan of rowing your own gears, or want to disable all the electronic nannies, it’s just a quick dip into the settings menu to toggle things like automatic/manual shifting, traction control and computer AI skill level. Even if you find yourself without an internet connection, you can also seek out the Drivatars of high-ranked players and initiate an impromptu race.
Wood grain is only improved by dirt...
To me there’s nothing more satisfying than taking a wood-grain-wrapped Lamborghini Urus dune-hopping under the midday sun, cutting a wide swath of destruction with my ragtag convoy of trucks and wagons in tow. I’m sure your idea of the perfect drive will be quite different, but given the sheer variety of motor vehicles and motoring surfaces, it’s like standing at the counter of a fantasy car rental agency with an unimaginably forgiving damage waiver. And right outside? A giant playground, at times drenched in sun and demonstrating the excellent grip of your racing tires, at times overflowing with rainfall and testing the limits of the traction control system.
So, Forza Horizon 3: all of the driving, none of the spilled coffee or speeding tickets or impromptu airbag deployment. The only thing that’s better is the real thing. Except in the real world, there are bathroom breaks. And low fuel warning lights. And parking meters. And traffic jams. And…