Spin-off franchises - equivalent, say, to the way in which Cheers spawned Frasier - are very rare in the games industry, and for such a franchise to outshine its parent title is all but unprecedented. Yet that is exactly what Forza Horizon has done, and the third iteration of the arcade-style driving game, while eschewing any radical reinvention, builds impressively on the strengths of its predecessors.
The original Forza, as Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s Gran Turismo, has always felt like the most Microsoftish of games: the driving sim is technically excellent but somehow lacks passion and grit, instead feeling somewhat corporate and squeaky-clean.
However, the Forza Horizon series, crucially, inject an element of British anarchy and inventiveness into the mix (by drafting in British developer Playground Games), and thereby hit a nerve.
Forza Horizon 3 review: Familiar festivities
Forza Horizon 3 doesn’t do anything radically different to its predecessors: once again, it charts the development of a fictitious driving and music festival, which basically operates as a delicious excuse to drive around a vast, beautifully realised game-world like a total maniac, taking part in a plethora of events that would probably lead to public outcries and even imprisonment if they occurred in real life.
This time around the game’s playground is an astonishingly impressive-to-behold Australia, with environments that include deserts, beaches, rainforests and cities. The map is huge, too: twice the size of the one in Forza Horizon 2.
From the off, it becomes clear that the watchword with Forza Horizon 3 has been to make everything even bigger, brasher and more spectacular than before. So the game begins with a blast behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Centenario - perhaps the most outrageous car even Lamborghini has yet made, which won’t go on sale until next year.
Forza Horizon 3 review: Showcasing craziness
Your next task is a so-called Showcase event, in which you race cross-country against a Jeep suspended from a helicopter (causing considerable destruction of the virtual environment along the way).
If you believe that one of the prime functions of videogames is to provide thrills and spills that simply aren’t available in real life, then Forza Horizon 3’s Showcases are manna from heaven. Later on, you’ll find even more outrageous Showcases - one even pits you against a freight-train.
The general premise has been tweaked slightly this time around: instead of being a mere participant, you’re cast as the Horizon festival director. Luckily, that doesn’t actually mean you don’t really have to do any work beyond driving like a hooligan: the more outrageous stunts you pull off behind the wheel, or the more races you win, the more fans you recruit. And as you generate a following, the festival must expand, taking in new sites, which you get to choose; festival expansions, naturally, bring perks and rewards.
Forza Horizon 3 review: Custom jobs
The level of customisation has also been increased, leaving you feeling that, to an extent, you are designing the game itself. For example, when you discover new routes which are ideal for races and the like, you can create your own rules governing number of laps, the types of cars that are allowed to participate and so on, and you’re rewarded with extra XP, plus the kudos of others who play the game experiencing your efforts, if you do so.
As with Forza Horizon 2, most aspects of the game are customisable: you can spend days designing custom paint-jobs and so on, and GT-style customisation of just about every mechanical aspect of your cars is present and correct. Which should really strike a chord with those weaned on the likes of Minecraft, looking for something which is actually exciting to play.
All the activities from previous Forza Horizon games make a welcome return, so you can participate in point-to-points and multi-lap races, set in just about every imaginable environment; Bucket List challenges which win you exotic machinery; and PR stunts, such as hitting 250mph at the end of a long runway.
Barn Finds are back, too, which gently test your detective skills and, as in previous iterations, you constantly win XP for blasting past speed-cameras at outrageous speeds, smashing XP or fast-travel signs, or pulling off jumps, drifts, near-misses and the like; that XP can be converted into useful perks.
Naturally, there are new events, which should be popular: Drift Zones, in which it’s all about getting as sideways as possible; Danger Sign Jumps, in which, naturally, where you have to generate as much speed as possible and smash through them; and Convoys.
Small tweaks include the ability to give your cars vanity number-plates, the ability to free-roam the landscape at the controls of a drone and eight excellent radio stations. Although the game, egregiously, tries to get you to sign-up to Microsoft’s Groove Music service.
Forza Horizon 3 review: Social experience
Online, Forza Horizon 3 offers a deeply social experience: it’s the first game in the franchise to boast the chance to play a full campaign co-operatively with up to three of your mates, and you can join clubs, or just go online in free-roaming mode, entering any competitions you come across or simply driving up behind cars and challenging them to impromptu races.
The seamless way in which the game blurs the boundaries between online and offline play has always been one of its features - even offline, you race against “Drivatars”, which are approximations of the real-life people with whom you play the game, and are supposed to have similar driving characteristics. All of which creates the illusion that you aren’t driving against AI-controlled bots, even when you are.
In technical terms, Forza Horizon 3 is exemplary. It looks absolutely stunning - to such an extent that it’s difficult to resist the temptation to pick an out-of-car driving view, since the cars look so good. It’s coming in HDR (high dynamic range) too, so those with the most capable of tellies can benefit.
The handling, as ever, is very arcadey: there’s no damage, and you’re awarded XP for mowing down signs, lamp-posts and the like. But nevertheless, it still feels authentic: rally cars drift beautifully, buggies virtually beg you to get them airborne and you really feel the difference in grip between, say, a dirt-track and tarmac, and must carefully take into account sloping terrain.
Overall, Forza Horizon 3 doesn’t feel radically different to its predecessors, but it does feel bigger and better in just about every aspect.
The new activities are great fun, and the Showcases deliciously over-the-top. There’s something oddly restful - even cathartic - about how the entire game is geared towards fulfilling petrol-heads’ biggest fantasies: driving 350 of the world’s most exotic cars in a gloriously irresponsible manner without having to think about even the merest consequence.
Forza Horizon 3 is a poster-boy for the sort of games which aim to eliminate the practical, life-threatening consequences of what would be extreme behaviour in real life.
So if you’re fed up with the proliferation of average speed cameras and local councils using traffic violations as a means of funding themselves, Horizon 3 offers the perfect means of blowing off that pent-up frustration. It’s perhaps the most fun you can have on four wheels without risking death or imprisonment.